Verdict 2018 Pen Portrait – John Bonoh Sisay: The CEO gunning to be next President
One night in mid-September, President Ernest Bai Koroma, now in the twilight of his presidency, invited his key lieutenants to State Lodge. Among them were some who had declared their intention to succeed him. Others, nursing the ambition to run but who will not openly say so, were also there. Social media quickly went overdrive. They called Koroma’ s gathering of the APC contenders for President the ‘Last Supper,’ much like how Jesus met with his twelve disciples before he was betrayed.
John Bonoh Sisay (in photo), the onetime CEO of Sierra Leone’s prestigious Sierra Rutile company, the one the London-based Independent newspaper described as “the South Londoner who could become Sierra Leone’s next President,” and now running to succeed his first cousin from State House, was also at that ‘Last Supper.’
He said the gathering was not a ‘Last Supper’ and jokingly added that even if it was, he did not spot any Judas. According to him, it was a long, cordial and productive meeting, and that from time-to-time the President will continue to bring this group together.
JBS, as he his fondly called, had hardly slept after State House when I met him at his residence. He had been meeting with other people before I came. It was our very first time. He wore what seems to me his trademark (when he is not in a suit and tie) navy blue khaki pants and a somewhat sky-blue linen shirt. I have seen several pictures of him on the campaign trail. I once saw him at Kotoka Airport in Accra, Ghana, dressed in similar fashion.
I wanted to talk to him about his stewardship at Sierra Rutile, his vision, recent reports in both local and international media about corruption, whether being the first cousin to the President would give him undue advantage against the other contenders, his experience for the soon-to-be-vacated post, what would his first 100 days in office be like should he ultimately become President.
However, JBS was also equally fixated on the news that his younger brother, Sampha Sisay, a soul singer-producer, had just won the 2017 Hyundai Mercury Music Prize for his “critically acclaimed debut album, Process.” The award is one of UK’s most prestigious music prizes. He was one of five South London artists nominated and he beat singers like Ed Sheeran, Kate Tempest and Stormzy to win the 25,000 British pounds prize for a song on the grief he felt when his mother, Binta, died of cancer, according to the BBC. “This feeling was best exemplified by the ballad, (No one knows me) like the piano,” which mama Binta had taught him how to play.
I congratulated JBS and wanted his reaction. As an elder brother, he said he was deeply emotional and very proud of his 28-year-old brother whom he claimed always does his best in whatever he is passionate about. He adds that he has been in touch with him. “He feels like he is in a dream. It has not sunk in yet,” Sisay said and added that he himself learnt a lot from his mother, Binta. “If you fail, she embraces you, if you succeed, she embraces you as well.” For JBS, the married man with four daughters, mama Binta was simply the best.
The Independent newspaper’s banner headline, “The South Londoner who could become Sierra Leone’s next President” did not appear to faze John. For starters, he claimed, “I don’t see myself as a South Londoner. South London was a place I stayed when I was in the UK, but I am a typical Sierra Leonean first – have always been and will always be.”
JBS described himself as a Pan-Africanist, believing that Africa’s best days are still ahead. The paradigm is shifting and he wanted to be a participant and not as a spectator; he cannot expect someone else to develop his country. He has worked in different places, garnering a wealth of experience, and he wants to be a part of the next phase of development.
JBS is driven by a desire to create opportunities for the youth, to help change the “obsessively negative perceptions of ourselves,” adding that Sierra Leone was not created to be a curse but a blessing. “I go into politics with a very positive optimism,” says the 48-year old Economist, Administrator and Minerals Expert. He is a Christian who was born in Freetown to a mum from Kambia and a dad from Kamabai, northern Sierra Leone. Both parents are Limbas.
How would he react to people who say he is too young to be president? What is the life expectancy in Sierra Leone? He asks, and answers: “between 49 and 51.” He has an open mind, he says, insisting that he is old enough to have gained a lot of experience. In fact, by his estimation, he is at the ideal age to rule this country. He reminded me that Emmanuel Macron of France is 39; Justin Trudeau of Canada was 43 when he became Prime Minister and David Cameron was also 43 when he became Prime Minister of Britain.
Under the umbrella of the ‘Join 4 Betteh Sierra Leone,’ a political movement to actualise his presidential ambition, JBS has crisis-crossed the country dishing out donations to the needy and also talking with the young as well as the old. The people he met and spoke with want opportunities. “Their hope and faith are in their children,” he adds. In a pensive mood, he said this is the 21st century- Sierra Leoneans should not be dying to basic diseases and nature should not be killing us anymore!
He says his vision is in line with that of the APC. “When Sierra Leone does well, we all do well.” He would like to continue with President Koroma’s Agenda for Prosperity, but he will add a real drive to it. He will focus on good health care, good education, real access to finance and job opportunities to create a middle class economy.
Asked whether being the first cousin to Koroma is a baggage or an advantage, JBS, who once practiced as a Pentecostal preacher after college, looked straight into my eyes and said, “It is what it is,” and then quipped: “My relationship with him should not give me an advantage or a disadvantage.”
JBS is working on a detailed first 100 days in office agenda. Priorities include women’s rights, education, health and the economy, in addition to putting the right team in place.
It was a great pleasure for him to work with Sierra Rutile for 18 years. He said he took over a company that was destroyed and he rebuilt and made it the largest producers of rutile in the world. He learnt a lot about himself at Sierra Rutile.
On being accused of corruption by some in the media, he says, “That is the nature of the political terrain where some would try and throw dirt. I have not been investigated. If I am, I have not been told and I take it as part of the journey.” Having worked for 18 years at Sierra Rutile, he claims “he invested some of his savings and as a result, questions about his wealth do not pass a reasonable man’s test.”
There was time for one more question and it was: Who is John Bonoh Sisay? He described himself as a blessed young man who was inspired by his father.
Throughout the interview, he sounded articulate and well-intentioned. The real test will come later in the year, at the party’s convention in October. In Makeni town in the Northern Province, his billboards compete for space with those of two other contenders. If JBS manages to win his party’s nomination for president, it would be a major political statement by this savvy CEO, a political neophyte until recently, but whose appeal is anchored on a can-do personality. The story could then be that Sierra Leoneans wanted to break away from career politicians. For the moment, the headwinds are still strong.
By Osman Benk Sankoh
Disclaimer: Osman Benk Sankoh, a former editor of Concord Times, now works with the United Nations. Sentiments expressed in this piece are his and do not reflect those of his organization.
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