Interview: Dr Kadi Sesay Storms Texas!
Dr Kadi Sesay, whom many within the political gamut of Sierra Leone, consider to be one of the most influential women in contemporary Sierra Leone, was given a warm welcome in Dallas, Texas over the weekend by the SLPP Dallas Chapter, befitting of a stateswoman. She finds herself perfectly poised in what is turning out to be an epic battle to win SLPP’s nomination for the 2012 presidential election when she took a giant leap forward in meeting her party’s first installment requirement of 10 million Leones for a shot at the presidency. Now that she has crossed that hurdle and proved beyond all reasonable doubt what a potent force she can be in her resolve to lead the SLPP back to the pinnacle of government, she’s got her eyes set on one important decision to be made by the SLPP delegates – winning the nomination. (Photo: Dr Kadi Sesay is greeted by the crowd in Dallas, Texas)
With the SLPP nomination in the balance, she remains focused, energized and anything but pessimistic. I sat down with Dr Sesay for a wide-ranging conversation in a private office in the home of the SLPP Chairman in Dallas. It was accentuated with an Elizabethan style. The vast screens between the sides of the room or walls themselves were filled with flourishes of a carved tracery and the result, exceedingly stately. There are few grander effects in interior decoration than the intersecting curves and angles of a lofty old Elizabethan house. And to hear that smooth and well-refreshed voice interjected with wisdom and experience made a 45-minute interview feel like a one-minute act.
As Dr Sesay got comfortable in one of the adorned chairs highlighting the room, the interview began. I first ask this proud mum and party presidential candidate about her daughter’s success at CNN:
Christian Sesay: How proud are you for your daughter, Isha Sesay?
Dr. Kadi Sesay: I feel very proud. I think she has stood out to be a very professional journalist. As a mother, I feel very proud for what she has done for herself. I hope she has made Sierra Leoneans proud all over the world.
How often do you get to see her?
Not too often but I do speak to her on the phone almost every day.
I believe she is just as proud of you as you are of her?
I definitely believe so.
About a few weeks ago, there was some allegation pertaining to a poll which came out showing you in a commanding lead. However, it turned out to be a hoax. How did you handle that?
Well, it doesn’t really have anything to do with me personally. I read it when it was published in one or two of the newspapers in Sierra Leone. But my campaign does not believe in such opinion polls. We believe in going around the country campaigning and doing our own self assessment. So we did not pay attention to it. It really did not matter to us as we are doing our own assessment and we are satisfied with the progress we have made this far. There are many Sierra Leoneans who believe in real changes.
Some people have labeled you as the only one they see fit in taking on the present government come 2012. Assuming you win the SLPP nomination, do you think you have what it takes to unseat the present government?
I have no doubt that I am the candidate to win in 2012 for SLPP. If I have any doubt, I would not have got into this race. I came in because I thought about the circumstances really well. I analyzed my possibilities of winning. I have gone around the country meeting delegates from nearly all the districts in the country holding one on one meetings with them. My message is being received with an open hand and I think the people of Sierra Leone want something that will give them hope, that will inspire them. They want somebody who has a big heart to transform the nation and make them feel that there is a better tomorrow. After 49 years of male dominated rule since independence, and listening to the aspirations of Sierra Leoneans and not just women, I believe that the time is ripe for female presidency. And, I think only a woman stands the chance when put side by side with Ernest Koroma.
This is hypothetical again. Assuming you win the SLPP nomination, do you plan on having as your running mate, a very strong male candidate like, Mr. Abdulai Timbo or a very fierce lady like your adopted niece, Dr. Sylvia Blyden?
That’s a good question! If I win…Hmmm! I don’t like to say “if”. When I win the SLPP nomination and because I am from the north, it will mean that automatically, the choice of running mate would be from the southeast or western area but more so from the south east because often the north and western area are usually seen as the north-western area. But there is no doubt that I will choose a popular and strong vice-presidential candidate who will help me win votes right across the country. I cannot now say the candidate is going to come from the western area or even go into naming names. I can’t allow myself to fall into a similar trap as the party did the last time where there was a lot of confusion of the running mate. I want to concentrate on my race and goal – the goal of winning the nomination. I will extensively consult others to make sure that whosoever gets that position will bring something into the table and will assist in selling the vision of the SLPP to other places and not just in the north.
Critics of the current president say that he is not doing enough. What are some of the lapses of President Bai Koroma’s government that you would like to address assuming you take on the mantle of leadership first at the party level but most importantly at the national level?
Well the presidency of Ernest Koroma has lasted for three years. There are lots of concerns. Personally, I have noticed a significant polarization of the country. I have seen factions and marginalization of a lot of people perceived to be SLPP. I have seen a lot of professionals that have lost their jobs because they are perceived to be members of the SLPP party. I believe strongly that our country cannot expect to develop and move forward if we continue to alienate others. We should listen to others and make decisions for the betterment of our country. This is one area were I did not agree with the current president.
When I win the nomination and eventually defeat Ernest Koroma in 2012, I will pay close attention in creating unity and mend the cracks that exist right now. Secondly, I also believe that the current government’s handling of the economy is not very successful. I know that there is a current global phenomenon hurting countries, but I also believe that every government should ensure that the economy does better than it is doing now. The inflation rate is going up to about 17 percent as compared to the 6 percent we left. We are seeing the depreciation of the Leone. The prices of commodities, especially staple food is soaring. A bag of rice when I was a minister was Le65,000 and now it is about Le130,000.
There is no serious effort in job creation for the youths. The youths of our country participated in no small measure in the war that just ended. The right thing for this government to do is to make sure that jobs are created to keep these youths busy and out of mischief’s way. Since The APC took over, no serious effort has been made for the youths to be gainfully employed. I see this as a serious problem, especially as we are getting closer to elections. We do not want these youths to be used by wicked politicians for their gains and create destruction or mayhem. The issue of the economy, marginalization, polarization, youths and job creation are areas that I will pay serious attention to win when I take over the mantle of leadership.
Dr Sesay, I think it is fair to say that President Koroma has made some gains since his inception into office. How much of these, is open to a political debate that needs some quantitative and comparative analyses. What do you think some of his achievements are?
Definitely, he has been there for three years and may have picked up on some good things here and there. However, the programs that are being implemented are programs that were initiated by the SLPP government. President Koroma is trying to push infrastructural development which is good because in any post conflict country there is a need for reconstruction, but the projects that we are looking at today are projects that we started. The monies we are talking about here are monies that we secured. I am not criticizing the APC on that because government should be one of continuity in terms of progress. The SLPP government secured most of these projects and contracts. We were on the verge of signing most of the contracts before the APC took over and now they make it look like they secured these projects without telling the people the truth. They make it look like what they met was a clean slate. They made it looked like they worked for everything which is very unfair. Some of these contracts were given out by the SLPP government. Take a look at the Bo-Mashiaka road which was commissioned recently. After several attempts to get that road project, look at Bumbuna! They are taking credit for it but the fact is there was only 5 percent work left when they took over. They could have sat down and not done anything, so I want to applaud them for that, but credit has to be given the SLPP government for most of those projects. I don’t want to come out as someone who criticizes them for everything but for him to do what he did in three years has been done on the foundation that we laid. It is not possible for him to secure all these projects, findings in just three years. But come 2012, the people will be faced with the realities. It will be based on bread and butter issues.
One issue that has polarized the nation of Sierra Leone today is the clarion call made for an inquest into the killings of Bambay Kamara and others. Whose side are you on in this issue?
The issue of the killing of Bambay Kamara and others which the current government says will lead to an inquest; we are not sure of what their final decision will be on that as yet. But, as a party I will stick with the party’s arguments that a lot of killings have taken place in Sierra Leone. I think that it will be unfair to target one set of killings and leave the others. There is no doubt that there have been gross injustices in Sierra Leone but to open up every one of the “wrongful” killings that has taken place in Sierra Leone, we will be on it for many years to come. We went to Lome, we agreed on peace. We agreed that the RUF and AFRC did some wrongs and we decided to move on. We did not want to be a nation that was grounded in a war and reversal of war again. We want to forgive and move forward. This inquest has the potentials of derailing the peace and stability that we have had. I personally sympathize with the families that have lost their loved ones. However, we don’t want to open up other things that will destroy the country again. The SLPP has decided that it will not cooperate if called to participate in the inquest. As the Deputy Chairlady of the SLPP, I stand strongly by that position.
On the economy, having served as a Minister of Trade at one time and also, Minister of Development and Economic Planning, do you think the new taxes (GST) on goods are working?
No I don’t think it is working. We have asked questions about the revenue and the cost of the GST. Recently, we read in a paper about the huge cost of printing GST receipts. A lot of people believe that it is not a cost benefit. I think that the way it is been implemented, I must stress on the implementation here, makes a difference in terms of revenues. It is true that in our time we initiated a discussion on VAT or GST but at the time, we suspended it because we thought that it needed more time, more preparation. That is, we wanted the implementation to be done carefully to make sure that the mechanisms set up to collect revenue are working correctly. To me honestly, the GST has made no difference.
You were a very vital figure in the Tejan-Kabba government, are there any regrets on what could have or should have been done?
When you are an insider, you are aware of the arguments for and against the implementation of certain ideas. In a post war country like Sierra Leone, there are so many competing priorities with little resources and it makes it even more difficult to choose between priorities. As a result, over 50% of our resources came from International agencies and when most of these resources come in, they are usually allocated to a prescribed area which the government has no control over. I as the former Minister of Trade have always felt the need for a solid investment in the private sector so as to keep the economy vibrant in the creation of new jobs for our young men and women and the population in general. If I had my way, I would have loved for the government to have spent more on economic development programs. After the war, a lot of the help we received went to education, health and other social programs as were directed by the donor agencies.
Compared to this government, how did the Tejan Kabba government fair when put against the Koroma’s government?
I think we achieved a lot more but unfortunately for us, most of what we achieved was through chaos, and there were very high expectations. We did the reconstruction and brought back life to normalcy. It is very easy for people to forget were the country was during the war. Construction of any country after a war, takes a lot of money and other resources. I think we did very well to ensure that kids go back to school; clinics and other health centers were opened and available for the sick. The economy started to move and we really did well. The rate of inflation went down to a single digit. We did well; it is just that we did not have all the resources needed to implement all our programs. It is because we did well that made expectations soar. I also think that Tejan Kabba did a good job in selecting a team with fantastic human resource credentials. We had a lot of very strong professionals who were running ministries and running them well. He was not a coward not to look outside of his party to get personnel who could help run the country. You will see that within 5 years without a war and projects that we have already secured, the APC government wouldn’t have much to show.
How would the economy be different under you? What would you do differently?
I think one of my main priorities is job creation. Also, I will make sure that big companies working on our natural resources give back to the people of Sierra Leone that which it deserves. One of the reasons for poverty in Sierra Leone, even with all its natural resources is that we do not get back adequately that which we have supplied. I will ensure that the people benefit back from their natural resources.
Corruption, Dr Sesay is the area that is hurting Sierra Leoneans. The current president ran a campaign to fight corruption. On a scale of 1-10 what will be his grade?
I will give him a two. I will give him a two because if you look at the number of cases and people that have been taken to court for corruption, you can tell that the country is still infested with corruption. Some people will say that at least he is sacking them, but on the flip side, it tells you about his sense of judgment in appointing those people in the first place. Appointing the right people to strategic positions is all part of leadership. I think everybody will agree that there is more corruption in Sierra Leone now than it was before.
But how much did the Tejan Kabba government achieve in the eradication of corruption?
Oh yeah! He did achieve a lot. It was under the Tejan Kabba government that the ACC was born. That tells you how much interest the SLPP government had in stamping out corruption. A lot of people were also caught during the SLPP government. But what I am saying here is if you compare the two governments, there is more corruption now than before. Little wonder why the ACC is facing so many difficulties now compared to the past to the point that chairman Tejan-Cole had to leave.
I have to confess to you that I was one of those who passionately believed in the ability and work of our former ACC boss, Mr. Abdul Tejan-Cole. As a patriotic Sierra Leonean, I always wanted someone who will bulldoze all the corrupt elements in the society and by some of his actions, I sincerely believed that he was determined to do just that. What did you think?
I have known Tejan-Cole for a very long time. I know that he is a strong man and he has the will to do what is right. Unfortunately, we still don’t know the reason why he left but I have a lot of respect for him.
Honestly, do you think he did a good job?
I think he worked hard as the Anti-Corruption Commissioner.
If you are elected, will you try to woo him back to take that seat? (Laughs)
I don’t want to go there (laughs). When I am elected, I will think very seriously of the person that will be put there. I will definitely want a strong person who is very level headed. And, as a president, I will ensure the independence of that commission. I personally try hard in everything that I do to demonstrate integrity and I will make sure that whoever I choose as the ACC boss will be independent and be given the freedom to carry out the responsibilities of the job.
How much confidence do you have in the present ACC boss, Joseph Kamara?
I don’t know him very well since he has just been appointed; I want to give him a chance to see what he can do. I don’t want to insinuate that he is going to be an automatic failure. I hope he is not and will work in the right way to ensure that the fight against corruption gets stronger for the good of Sierra Leone. Whatever his relationship has been with the current government, when he took that job, he is working for the good of Sierra Leone and prosperity will job him. If he fails, then it is because he made that choice but as for now I will give him a chance and not try to be critical.
One complaint that you hear in the street is that the president is not doing enough to get help from members of the Diaspora to work and build Sierra Leone. There are so many untapped brains laying idle here in the U.S. as well as in other developed countries – Britain, Germany, and France to name a few. What will you do to lure some of them back to Sierra Leone were they can be of tremendous help to the nation?
Well, the president started the Diaspora office by sending the wrong message of what he is trying to do. The location of the Diaspora office in my mind should not be a partisan office. It should have been located far away from State House. This becomes political to a very large extent. My view is that the office is interested in dealing with people who are APC members and not all Sierra Leoneans.
But Dr Sesay, is it fair again to say that another school of thought would suggest that the reason for the Diaspora office to be located at State House is because of the president’s genuine interest in ensuring a very functional office?
I have not heard of anyone in the Diaspora office that is not APC. When you pigeonhole it that way then where is the fairness? When I was a minister for Economic Planning, we developed programs in concert with the UNDP which attempted to do similar things as the Diaspora is now doing, but we looked out for Sierra Leoneans’ expertise all over the world. We encouraged them to come over. Some came for 3 months, 6 months or a year depending on the nature of the assignment. Never for once did we think of the professionals political affiliations. When I am elected, tapping the resources we have overseas will be one of the priorities of my government. I will first establish a database to know how many we have out there and what are their capabilities. It is very important that we make use of the professionals that we have out there to help develop the nation.
As a final parting shot, do you have any particular message for Sierra Leoneans in Dallas and all over the world?
This is my first visit to Texas. I have been impressed by the friendship amongst Sierra Leoneans. I also see cohesion among Sierra Leoneans. Even when the SLPP called their meeting, there were APC, SLPP and PMDC members who were all asking solid questions politely. You don’t have that kind of cohesiveness in other parts of the United States. There seems to be many Sierra Leoneans who have accomplished great things in life. We can only say that Sierra Leoneans living here and other parts of the world that Sierra Leone belongs to us. We want to make it possible for Sierra Leoneans in the Diaspora who are willing to go back home and assist to be able to do so. I am looking forward to coming here when I win the nomination. I know the next time I come here, the reception will be exceptionally good.
Once again Dr Sesay, I wish you well in your political aspirations and your intention to do good for the people of Sierra Leone. I pray that you enjoy your remaining days in the United States and may God grant you a safe return to our mother land.
Christian Sesay, Correspondent in Texas
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