Verdict 2018: Pen Portrait: Will JOB get the big job?
I don’t quite remember the first day I met the fair-complexioned John Oponjo Benjamin (JOB) but it must have been during my days as a Mass Communications student at Fourah Bay College. That was many years ago.
My first love was sports, but when I met Sulaiman Momodu who was also studying Mass Communications at the time and had been in hot waters for his reporting of the war on a number of times, he encouraged me to cover everything under the sun, especially politics.
The Sierra Leone People’s Party was in power by then. The guns had been silenced and people were hopeful that things would change. As young journalists with a vision to see a country that works for all, the word fear was not in our dictionary. Against this backdrop, we were naturally inclined to talk to the brave. While we spoke to the ordinary people to sound their views on issues, we would also call up government officials to hear “official lies or half-truths,” and then balance our story by calling JOB. He was fantastically critical, and he was our man.
JOB was as fearless as the word itself and would soon become a regular feature on the front pages of Concord Times. He was a one-man opposition leader. Soon, the international media would call him up. You can be sure of JOB’s stance on issues; the SLPP must have been feeling the heat. With an enviable charisma, JOB was later to respond to the call by his people to serve the country. He was appointed Minister of Finance.
Like the proverbial cat with nine lives, JOB, born on 29 November 1952 in Segbwema, Kailahun district, is a survivor. Politically, like the great wrestler, Amalinze the Cat in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, JOB has survived many battles. Loathe him or love him, he has been a successful businessman, Chair of a District Council, Head of a Political Party and a Minister of Finance among others.
Recently, he confirmed that he was contesting for the flagbearer of the SLPP.I wanted to know from JOB who taught at Model Secondary School upon graduation from Fourah Bay College with a BSc in Mathematics and Physics, what his assessment was of the economy under the APC. What would a President Benjamin offer this country? What are his chances of defeating Brig (Rtd) Bio and what are his views on the recent SLPP defections and many more. Questions begged for answers.
JOB’s forays into national political started in 1992 when the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) junta overthrew the APC. His younger brother, Lt. Prince Ben-Hirsh, who was said to be one of the key coup plotters, was killed while fighting the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels, although JOB suspects foul play in his death. In return, said the story goes, JOB was made Secretary of State, Chairman’s Office and later, Chief Secretary of State and Secretary-General of the NPRC. During that period, JOB considered himself one who “played the critical role of Chief-Administrator, a shrewd political figure and popular personality among his peers and countrymen, serving as one of the brains behind the revolution, and helped midwife the transition from military to civilian democratic rule in 1996.”
JOB is the first of six children by his parents. While Ben-Hirsch died in battle, he claims that his younger sister died because of the poor maternal facilities in the country. He credited his humble beginnings to his mum who took up the role of the head of the family after his dad passed. She was a petty trader and a ‘cookery seller.’
His dream as a child was to become a medical doctor. “Politics never featured in my early plans as a youth. It was at FBC that I first became interested in politics: first as a member of the Students Representative Council (SRC), then President of Bai Bureh Hall and Chairman of the Rag Committee.” He revealed that being a member of the Editorial Board of Aureol Times Press nearly led to his rustication from FBC because of an article they published.
Having served as Minister of Finance under the SLPP, I sought his views on the economy. He said the depreciation of currency, Leone, cannot be blamed on global financial problems alone. “To my mind, it is largely as a result of gross mismanagement by the APC.” He added that the SLPP was more prudent than the APC in managing the country’s finances.
On his chances of defeating Bio in the convention for flag bearer, JOB said, “Bio’s chances are good because this current government is very unpopular but my chances are better or even best when you factor in the other aspirants.” He said party members are not easily bamboozled, despite the low literacy rate in our country.
“Fancy words and empty promises do not fool voters these days. My track record is beyond reproach. I weathered all that the APC threw at us when I was Chairman and Leader and I steered the Party to an election that we dubiously lost in 2012.” In a volley of questions, the racquet sportsman who plays table tennis and badminton asks: “Where was Maada after the 2012 Elections? Why was our petition thrown out of court? Who has used more of his personal resources for the betterment of the party? Who is the APC most terrified of contesting against?”
Though he acknowledges that business and politics have deprived him of the opportunity to enjoy reading all the novels in the Peace Corp Library in Sebgwema, he is currently reading a book by Brian Tracy on Leadership. “This bodes well for my current ambition to lead this country.”
JOB, who listens avidly to all genres of music on his I-pod and smartphone, says he has a lot more to offer than what President Koroma and the others before him have offered this country. He wants the next government to change from regionalism to meritocracy. “My administration will embrace all Sierra Leoneans who are suitably qualified to hold positions of trust. If an aspiring candidate for any job in my administration has a past that cannot stand probity, bye -bye!”
He will implement real transparency and clear audits, he says. In relation to the Ebola relief funds, he the government is resolutely shielding miscreants and thieves who continue to plunder our resources. “If my brother were to be offered a job, I will sack and bring him to book if accused and proven to have engaged in any wrongdoing.” He accuses President Koroma of protecting people like Kemoh Sesay, Balogun Koroma and Afsatu Kabba who were accused of corruption. JOB hopes to combat corruption with vigour, rebuild the economy, restore trust in politicians, raise the standard of life, train our youth for tomorrow and tackle our energy challenges.
On his relationship with his key challenger, Julius Maada Bio, whom he worked with in 1992 in the NPRC administration, JOB insists they have been friends since Bio was based in Segbwema fighting the RUF. “We were friends and we are still friends today. Both of us are vying for the flag and a lot has been made of the breakdown of our friendship.”
JOB says he bears no grudge against Bio and he hopes Bio bears none against him. “I expect him to support me when I am chosen to contest for our party. In the same vein, I will support him in the unlikely event he defeats me at our primaries. After all, I supported him in 2012 when as Chairman of the SLPP, we chose him as our standard bearer.”
It is no secret that JOB is friends with President Koroma and for the. He said he first met the President at FBC. In 2002, they thought of forming a political alliance but soon realized how difficult it would be, “because the SLPP is ideologically as far away from the APC as the proverbial Heaven is from earth.” He said Koroma paid him a visit when he lost his mother and prior to that, he stood by him when he was wrongfully arrested and detained for complicity in a treasonable offence.
“We will still be friends after I become president but if any evidence were to come to light for any wrongdoing during his stewardship, I will not judge him until he has had his day in court.”
For the married man who has raised six kids, five of whom he fathered, Segbwema is the place of his birth, and the town occupies a special place in his heart. Even as president, “I will frequently retire there to recharge my batteries and forget about the hurly-burly of public life.”
JOB, the married man with six children including the daughter of his late brother is an experienced politician, but the real test of his experience will be in March 2018 when elections will hold. But he must do the job of grabbing the flag bearer of the SLPP. But can he?
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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