PONDER MY THOUGHTS
THE TRANSITION: EXCUSABLE EUPHORIA AND BLUES
I can assure my readers that the prolonged absence of this column has neither been due to a case of writer’s block nor to the absence of anything to report on during the immediate post-election period. As for the election period, that is quite another story that warrants perhaps a better reportage at a future opportune time. I did however enjoy some of the idiosyncrasies of our countryfolk during the campaign period. I guess you did not know that the Lord’s prayer has a shorter version! I recall holding a campaign meeting in the town hall at Buedu.
When it was the turn of a certain women’s leader to say Christian prayers, she chose to recite the Lord’s prayer-“Our father, whut art in heaven, hallow be thy name, forgive of our trespasses, for evil for evil, amen”. Thereupon a disabled man who was obviously not her fan shouted: “Na lie you lie”. Then ensued an argument as to who was right. I was asked to adjudicate on this disagreement. “Well it is normally longer than that, but if you want to shorten it you may, as it is still a prayer-even though the Lord would have preferred the longer version”, I replied. Both sides were pleased with my Solomonic wisdom and we moved on.
Anyway back to politics. What else to discuss at the moment but politics? I should first of all, whilst congratulating President Bio and the SLPP say from the onset that a transition in governance is difficult to handle under any circumstances and it is doubly difficult in Sierra Leone for various reasons. This piece would therefore be one that congratulates and exhorts the new government rather than become unduly critical. Besides on many fronts, despite the occasional faux pas by some exuberant supporters who could perhaps be excused for having a “Mateus moment” or naivety, the government has got off to a good start to assure us that the house is not on fire.
As regards the elections themselves, I will be guided by the Mende proverb- “Numu bey ndapi hunge” meaning “one does not go about explaining the details of a fight”. President Bio and his SLPP government have won the election, have formed the legitimate government and we have to move on. Congratulations President Bio. Paopa Salone go bete!
In the case of the Sierra Leone transition, the President literally takes over as soon as the results are announced. Those he works with initially are people from the old administration and he has to be mindful about how he slowly or hurriedly ushers in his own team. The old government may have its own baggage with many players having skeletons in their cupboard or perceived negatively by the incoming team. Others holding apolitical positions may have got too political for comfort and clashed with the incoming government team during campaigning. Those that had been sidelined for years-in this case up to 10 years for some- legitimately or not may smell blood.
Before I dilate on this further let me tell you my personal experience of what I went through after the 2007 elections. I recall two methods were used to sack me as Chairman of the Nassit Board. I was initially given a sack letter and a few days later my name was announced on the radio amongst other Board members of Agencies and Parastatals sacked. The announcement warned the institutions not to have anything to do with us especially on “matters of a financial nature”. I recall meeting staff on the street who would pretend they had not seen their “sacked Chairman”. In my neighbourhood, some sympathetic neighbour told me: “Osh ya, nor to the end of the world”. I had a small boy in the area tell his mum: “Mummy look Pa Keili, Den sack am”.
I had spent three years at Nassit and was almost coming to the end of my term. I would have welcomed the opportunity of handing over to my successor Jacob Kanu, a friend but was not given the opportunity. I was also a member of the National Policy Advisory Committee (NPAC) to President Kabbah-a job which involved reviewing cabinet papers and proffering policy advice to the President-a job I had done for the previous three years with other eminent members. Our Chairman, Professor John Kamara, a quintessential gentleman led us to meet the President. We appraised him of our work and told him we expected to be relieved of our duty as soon as he had his own advisory team in place. He asked us to stay on in the meantime. “In the meantime” became one whole year during which we were still reviewing cabinet papers (when they were sent to us) and proffering advice but waiting to be relieved. Meanwhile in the small office in the single storey building at the front end of State house we were using as an office, I would occasionally hear a particular menacingly-looking OSD tell his colleagues: “Nar dem SLPP man den day ya”. Despite our unease Prof Kamara still entreated us to stay on. Then came the day when, again through a discourteous letter we were finally sacked! I do not regret when in our final meeting with the President I had the fortitude to tell him a piece of my mind about how such unnecessary actions were keeping good people away from Government service. Did he reply?-I know you are itching to ask me. No! My guess is he probably did not even know that we had been sacked via a nasty letter that had words like “vacate”.
My personal story is easier to tell and thankfully I did not have to depend on those jobs which were largely in my view for National service. Others suffered a worse fate.
The transition team has got off to a commendable start. We have witnessed a flurry of activities in the last four weeks. Executive orders, vehicle seizures, unprecedented happenings in Parliament threatening our democracy and requiring external arbiters, election appeals and court injunctions, overseas visits by the President, cabinet appointments, termination of appointments, parliamentary hearings for new appointees, appointments of top civil service officials have all happened within these short four weeks-whoops! Thankfully the dust seems to have settled in Parliament and our coffers have been temporarily buoyed by Presidential decrees related to expenditure and revenue control measures. An initial tenuous security situation has abated somehow and the government is slowly consolidating its grip on governance.
Supporters have been understandably buoyant and hopeful but some critics would prefer to adopt a “wait and see attitude”. The obvious comparison has been drawn between the current government and the past one, especially on matters of fiscal profligacy and social media has gone into overdrive, leaving the poor unsuspecting reader to decide between correct and fake news.
It is obvious even at this initial stage that there are some stark differences in the way the new Government is structuring its architecture. The creation of two education Ministries-one for primary and secondary education and the other for tertiary and vocational as expected as per the party’s manifesto. Development and economic planning is now a new Ministry set apart from the Finance Ministry to accentuate the positive effect of proper development planning. These changes and the new Chief Minister position have obviously increased the size of the cabinet but SLPP has arguably said these changes will improve upon government efficiency. I would not argue with that and would say the truism of this will very much depend on how the job holders will perform.
I would particularly like to weigh in on the position of Chief Minister. I will, unlike others not argue from the standpoint of what the constitution says. I would leave that kind of argument to our lawyers in Sierra Leone (both official and the arm chair ones)-I don’t know which are worse! One might as well settle such issues with a throw of the dice rather than ask them! My comments will be purely from the point of view of one who has to depend on analysing sectoral policies and regulations and who gets frustrated when MDAs have so many disparate viewpoints on the same issues. President Koroma’s appointment of a Chief of Staff initially worked well with the appointees having a fairly good shot at coordinating the work of various Ministries until successive appointees were either undermined or became actively enmeshed in being too interventionist-with a twinge of suspicion that some may have had ulterior motives with their interventions. I do know that allied MDAs badly need coordination for various reasons- Ministers or heads on agencies may want to keep to their turf, laws and regulations governing various sectors may often conflict with each other and inefficient MDAs may drag others down the efficiency ladder. I have had so many clearly irksome experiences in this area that I would like to save this for another day.
The Chief Minister will provide competent leadership for the day-to-day operational co-ordination, oversight, monitoring and evaluation of government business and serve as the central hub responsible for the overall co-ordination and facilitates the implementation of the Government’s Strategic Priorities. His status seems to be higher that the Chief of staff and certainly his remit is wider. The oft repeated concerns raised by some related to the unyielding bureaucracy that may be created with three strategic directorates and the concern that a super Ministry may be treading on the Vice President’s turf may be valid to make. Dispelling these will however depend on how well Dr. David Francis performs in this role and how well he is supported in this role of “enforcer” by the President, managing possible “renegades” within the cabinet and the President’s rapport with his Vice President, who could give the President support in so many other areas.
The next set of appointments may be Deputy Ministers and Ambassadors. This will probably be followed by appointments to various Board positions as the new government deems fit – One does not know how the Board issue will be addressed -whether by a one-off dissolution of all Boards or a stepwise change. Undoubtedly some MDA heads may have to face the hammer-the Government will be the best judge on how it goes about this and what criteria it will use for changes in particular MDAs, if any. Local governance structures will start to function with new political heads who may or may not be of the same political stripe as the Government. The obvious question to ask is how much autonomy will they have as prescribed by law and what will be the tenor of cohabitation with central government. Learning from the chaotic handling of such situations in the past, following due process, fairness and objectivity in assessments and the avoidance of any witch hunt situation will go a long way in bring stability to a particular MDA.
There have undoubtedly been problems but overall the Government has embarked on a commendable job of "building a government." The few wrong steps may perhaps have been caused by overexuberant people but it is equally commendable that condemnation even within SLPP ranks has often been swift and the usual major watchdog civil society in particular have been ringing soft alarm bells for now.
Here is to hoping that the transition of government will be efficient, organized, bipartisan and open and transparent. I still think it will be if the President stamps his authority and thinks “national” as he has been espousing in his rhetoric.
The government for now has a lot on its plate. Expectations are high from many but must be tempered by several doses of reality. The government may be on a good initial footing but we must realistically not expect to be out of the woods immediately. Hence the needed support from even those of us who were naysayers. We must at least allow them to go through their honeymoon period on an unsteady ship until the captain sets it on the right trajectory. For now its congratulations and conviviality until…….
Ponder the transition.
Ponder my thoughts.