Sunday, October 4, 2015 10:26 am
By Hashim Abubakar/Freetown
It was on a Friday, at noon, I was scheduled to meet His Excellency, Dr Ernest Bai Koroma, at State House in Central Freetown. I arrived 30 minutes earlier. The programme was suddenly shifted to 1pm due to unforeseen events. I was ushered into President Koroma’s office by his Communications Manager, Jara Kawusu- Konte.
I met President Koroma standing in front of his table. He offered me a seat, pointing his hand onto the centre wine-coloured, leather-covered chair.
He spoke eloquently on the Ebola crisis, his Post-Ebola Recovery Plan, his relationship with Nigeria and other current issues.
Q: We will like to commend your efforts in reducing the Ebola crisis in the country. What were the steps taken in achieving this success?
A: When the Ebola crisis broke out last year, we were least prepared for it. We quickly worked with our partners, WHO and the rest of the international community, to provide us with the required support in terms of infrastructure and personnel. From that, we set up the local structures that were charged with the responsibility of coordinating the fight to ensure that Ebola is brought under control. Unfortunately, at the initial stages, there was lack of understanding, misinformation, a lot of denials. So we had an initial spread. It started in one district in the eastern region in the country that affected almost all the other districts. But we quickly developed the techniques. We quickly embarked on social mobilisation because we discovered that with all the equipment and personnel, if there was no effective community ownership to ensure that measures put by officials of the Health Ministry and Development partners, it will be difficult for us to end the fight.
The Social Mobilisation was an effort I personally led myself. We traversed the entire country. With the support we got from our bilateral friends, the UN the EU and the rest, we were able to put the disease under control.
We are not yet out of it. The numbers have improved, the results are looking good for this week, and we have registered zero cases. These are all indications that we are on the right track. Our health workers, who are the front- line soldiers in the battle field and also the resilience of the people should be commended. It has been a difficult moment, we had gone through a difficult path. Presently, there are restrictions on the movement of people to ensure success in fighting this disease. The disease is now under control as we are now moving along the zero path.
Q: You recently launched the Post- Ebola Recovery Priorities. What are the cardinal points of this program?
A: Ebola brought with it difficulties, that affected the economy and the society. The Ebola Recovery Program is a six to nine months programme that is expected to get us on our feet again, to continue the programme we had initiated before Ebola.
In this programme, we had prioritised the Health sector to give it the required logistical support, both in terms of equipment and personnel.
The second is to get our kids back to school, to ensure that schools are safe as we closed down the schools for almost a year. The schools are now re-opened. We have about 8,000 schools. Tertiary institutions have also been re-opened. We had included in that educational package the provisions of free education for at least two years for all our school- going children who attend government- assisted schools. Ebola has affected the income of parents. That is why we have taken up these short term measures to beef up the income profile of parents, in terms of provision of school fees, textbooks and school feeding programs. These are for the educational sector.
Then, there is the Social Protection Sector. Those that are affected by the Ebola – we have orphans, widows and the likes. The side effects of Ebola, those are made completely vulnerable. These vulnerable groups should be re-integrated into society within this six to nine months recovery program.
The last aspect of the recovery program is to ensure we reactivate the economy. Basic economic activities should be given economic support. The major aspect of it is the agricultural sector. Farmers abandoned their farms during the Ebola, a good majority have not returned to their farms which are the major sources of income. We need to provide them with initial capital to kick- start their faming businesses for those in the buying and selling business; we have given support to small businesses through the financial houses in the country. The Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) form the bulk of our entrepreneurs. So we are giving them maximum support. It is geared to enable us to restart our activities in all of these sectors. Beyond the nine months period of this program, we hope to reposition our economy back to the Agenda for Prosperity we had been implementing before the outbreak of the Ebola.
Q: The relationship between Sierra Leone and Nigeria spans up to 200 years. There are similarity of names and cultures. Could you comment on this relationship ?
A: Well, I must say, we had enjoyed an excellent relationship with Nigeria. Both ways, we had benefited. Sierra Leone, during the colonial period, was the country where people came for education at the Fourah Bay College. Administrators and Civil Servants from Nigeria were trained at this college. This cemented the family ties between the two countries.
I must specifically emphasize the role Nigeria played when we had our difficulties. When the war started in this country, it was Nigeria and Guinea that came in, especially Nigeria, in a robust manner, to provide us with support even before the UN and others came in to support us. If it were not for that initial intervention, we will have been overrun by the rebels. Thank God, Nigeria came in and stood by us. They were here throughout the war.
Beyond that, at the bilateral level, it has been very strong and cordial. We had worked in other multilateral settings like the ECOWAS, AU and the UN. I must single out situations that have put the relationships to the tests with flying colours.
I must specifically emphasize the role Nigeria played when we had our difficulties. When the war started in this country, it was Nigeria and Guinea that came in, especially Nigeria, in a robust manner, to provide us with support even before the UN and others came in to support us. If it were not for that initial intervention, we will have been overrun by the rebels. Thank God, Nigeria came in and stood by us. They were here throughout the war. They later transformed into a UN-like military set up. When we had another setback, Nigeria came in to restore democracy and even support us in building up our institutions. They are still providing us support.
During the outbreak of Ebola, Nigeria was visibly present, providing us with support. Nigeria’s medical and other officers were here, some are still here. We are enjoying the technical support from Nigeria in various spheres of our society. When we had our elections, they provided us with support, not only to the electoral commission, but to all the political parties, to ensure the political field is levelled and to provide equal political opportunities to all the political parties. These support show a true brotherhood. That is why as we are transforming the country, we invite lots of Nigerian participation in our economic transformation. As it is now, we have good number of Nigerian banks; about 10 Nigerian banks are operating in the country. In other private sector operations, we have the Dangote, Tony Elumelu group, not only in the banking sector but also providing support through their foundation. So there is this closeness. I consider it a very unique relationship we have built and we will continue to build. We are one and the same people.
Nigeria is the “Big Brother” in the region. We always wish the very best happens in Nigeria.
Q: There is a new government in Nigeria led by President Muhammadu Buhari. What is the present relationship with the new government?
A: Well, I mean it’s good. At the end of the elections, I personally sent a letter of congratulations to the President. I was there for the inauguration. We had bilateral meetings with him. We expressed desire to build on these cordial relationships that have been growing with strength over the period. We are all committed to strengthening the relationship. I look forward to have a visit when he is fully settled down, to ensure support of each other and to further strengthen our cordial relationships.
We will give him the support Nigeria requires in the Sub-Region. We will work with President Buhari. Mind you, Nigeria is the “Big Brother” in the region. We always wish the very best happens in Nigeria. That is why we are concerned with the issue of the “Boko Haram” and other related issues. We hope the new policies and strategies put in place by the new government will see an end to it very soon. We pray Nigeria will continue to play the leading role in the region.
Q:How do you see the immediate future for the two countries?
A:I see a bright future. The governments are working closely. The private sectors are collaborating and the people are also getting closer and closer. There were few Nigerians who were here during the war. At the end of their term here, they returned as civilians, engaged in trading businesses one way or the other. A lot of marriages have happened over the period. So I see a great future because both countries have huge potentials if we work together, it will impact on the rest of the region