Ernest Bai Koroma: Sierra Leone’s Clark Kent???

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There are many people who look at the presidency and think of the glamour and grandeur of what it means to be the elected leader of a sovereign state. As Sierra Leoneans what we understand the role of a president to be is limited and overshadowed by the concept of absolute power which includes access to the national coffer. Either because of the past abuses of previous presidencies or a misunderstanding of the role of the president, the average person stands convinced that the president is all powerful. Last week I had the unique opportunity of accompanying President Earnest Bai Koroma to the Annual African Heads of States Meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. As we left Freetown on a chattered flight to Addis I had little idea of what to expect although my goal was to understand why so many had placed their aspirations and hopes in this man. Like many I am cynical of politicians, the things they say, do and want us to believe. And in a country where you must pay for media coverage, the truth is usually miles away from the press, one has to constantly scrutinize the news whether positive or negative.
I spent much of the time on the flight asleep while in the background Ernest Bai Koroma and his ministers traded stories of turbulent flights. It took a little over 9 hours before we reached Ethiopia. The conference had been in session for several days but the Heads of States were to meet the next day in the conference facilities of the UN Economic Commission for Africa.  The theme for this year’s conference was ICTs and their role in fostering development in Africa. There were over 500 delegates in attendance from every corner of the continent, ranging from media and ICT Professionals to parliamentarians and business people. When we entered the hall several Heads of States were already seated while many more trickled in surrounded by security personnel. President Koroma dressed in a dark blue suit and a red tie was flanked by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and the Deputy Minister for Information. The Minister of Education was also present as the President was to put forward a special proposal to encourage other leaders to endorse OneGoal: Education for All. OneGoal is an international campaign that seeks to use the 2010 World Cup in South Africa to promote and encourage support for the Millennium Development Education for All Goal before the UN General Assembly in New York this September.
The morning sessions opened with recognition of the undeniable connection of Haiti and the African continent, a moment of silent tribute to the Haitians lost in the tragedy brought the entire hall on its feet. In the week leading up to the conference President Koroma himself had done his part to support Haiti as he donated $100,000 to the reconstruction efforts. When all were seated I walked down to the desk designated for Sierra Leone, stood in front of President Koroma and took his photograph as he smiled. Over the course of the 10 hour day when exhaustion had taken the better part of my attitude, Ernest Bai Koroma was still smiling even as he chaired a sticky situation with the UN Committee of Ten Heads of States that included the always boisterous Muamar Ghadafi, Kenya’s Kibaki, President Wade and six other Presidents. Ghadafi wanted to know what countries would represent Africa if indeed the UN were to grant the continent permanent seats on the Security Council. As the other Heads of States became increasingly weary of Ghadafi’s rhetoric Earnest Bai skillfully navigated between allowing “the brother leader” to express his views while making sure to keep the discussion on target and moving things along. When the meeting came to a close he seemed quite pleased with himself and was all smiles as he left the hall.
We closed the day and retired to our respective hotels while the President continued working well in to the late hours of the morning discussing with his ministers and Ambassadors presenting at the next day’s closed sessions. The following morning we arrived at the Hilton hotel waiting to join the presidential convoy to the AU meetings. We went upstairs to the executive suite to greet the President. He was up, dressed and seemed to have recovered from the effects of Ethiopia’s high altitudes that sometimes make it difficult for one to breath. When we arrived President Koroma was busy making edits to the day’s speeches. He was stern on the changes he wanted to have made and spent much of the morning on his feet talking to aides and making decisions.  I found him in really good spirits having a laugh ever so often about events of the previous day or teasing staff about something he had heard. The room slowly cleared out and I found myself sitting in the same room with the President and the Sierra Leonean Ambassador to the AU.
Aljeezera flashed in the background and I read out loud a news headline criticizing Barrack Obama. We talked about the difficulties of Obama’s presidency and the heavy task of trying to manage politics and change in a period of economic downturn. We spoke about everything from Haiti, to Obama, my childhood in Ethiopia and finally rested on Sierra Leoneans in the Diaspora. We joked about the stereotypical JC (short for Johnny Just Come, JJC) handkerchief, and water bottle behavior and he gave a hearty laugh when I told him about those who would max out their credit cards to come to Sierra Leone over Christmas with new clothes. I shared with him the struggles of many in the Diaspora who after decades in the States lived precarious lives without legal residency. Shaking his head in amazement, with compassion in his voice he said “if they do not have a stay they should all come home”. As I excused myself to head downstairs in preparation for our departure President Koroma jokingly said “Bangali you know say dis pekin climb palm tree” in reference to the last episode of a TV show where I climbed a palm tree. He continued to relay the story as I left the room and like everyone else I smiled realizing that I too had been a victim of Ernest Bai’s wit.
On the eve of our departure a small dinner was organized at the Ambassador’s residence that brought together all the Sierra Leoneans in Addis Ababa. I was deeply touched by the significance Ernest Bai Koroma attributed to a meeting with individuals who were so small in number and far from home. It seemed to me that after such a long day with sessions at the AU ending just before midnight that the president should have retreated to his suites for some rest and relaxation. Instead he spoke to the group of about twenty individuals present with the candor and passion reserved for the most important of his constituency. He shared his desires to change the country and the different activities that his government would embark on in 2010 to jump start economic and infrastructural development. He highlighted plans for free healthcare for women and children starting April this year, plans to subsidize local farmers, the commissioning of several crucial road construction projects, mineral and oil exploration, energy and power, and good governance. By the end of the night the entire room was filled with reverie and everyone was eager to wish the president well. I seized up an opportunity to speak with him as everyone proceeded to the dinner table and I asked “Mr. President aren’t you tired?” “Ah I’m okay but I cant believe that you have not taken us around and shown us the sights…you noh try at all”. I smiled as I tried to make a dozen excuses explaining that there was no time in his airtight schedule.  He teased me a bit more about Ethiopia being my country and how I had disappeared the night before. I didn’t realize that the president had noticed or even been aware of my absence at the end of the previous day’s session and now here we were and I had been caught. I left his side as his food and glass of red wine were presented to him. After dinner he made sure that all those present had an opportunity to shake his hand and group photographs were taken. By the time he bade the group farewell, it was almost 2:00 a.m in the morning. The rest of us totally knackered made our way into the awaiting Embassy cars desperate to reach our hotel rooms.
We spent the better part of the following day in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel awaiting confirmation for us to head to the airport. At about 2:00 p.m. in the afternoon the speakers in the entrance echoed “Sierra Leone”. I got my bags and walked towards the cars lined up waiting for President Ernest Bai Koroma to descend. The national colors stood on the hood of a vintage dark brown stretch Rolls Royce. When the President finally walked the red carpet to the car, he wore a dark grey suit, and an air of certitude. He looked around as if to make sure everyone was ready to leave, flashed a smile at the porter who held his door and disappeared into the car. A second later the convoy was on the move and we headed for Bole International Airport.
Our 13 Seater Private jet landed well after midnight but even then and after a 12hour flight President Ernest Bai still made time to meet with his supporters in Lungi before boarding the helicopter for Freetown. I couldn’t understand where or how he got the temperament or energy to keep going. When I arrived at my house it was well into the early parts of morning, and I was grateful that my journey with President Ernest Bai Koroma was at an end. In just 4 hours while I would be catching up on sleep the President and his staff would be headed east to Kailahun to commission the construction of one of the countries most unforgiving rugged roads. I couldn’t help thinking that maybe being President does make you all powerful, allowing for Clark Kent to Superman transformations, that while the rest of us only have to deal with our own problems, the president has to look over all of us with very little time to focus on himself and his own needs. President Ernest Bai Koroma spent more than a decade in waiting before he was elected in 2007. He fully understands the dire circumstances under which he assumed power and he knows that unlike past presidencies he does not have the luxury of blaming our under development on the war. Perhaps what motivates him is the colossal task of creating opportunities for Sierra Leoneans, a desire to leave a legacy of accomplishments for the people. Whatever it might be, it is clear that whether you support him or not it will be nearly impossible to unseat him come the 2012 elections. A friend on a recent trip back from Bo, was amazed at the ease and quickness that he reached Sierra Leone’s second city, a journey that used to take anywhere from 6-8 hours, he made in 3 hours. As he reminisced on how awful the road was he alleged that “If Earnest Bai continues like this, he is really going to give them [the opposition] a run for it in the next elections.”
(Disclaimer: The Vickie Remoe Show was offered an opportunity to interview President Koroma, the shows title is “100Questions for EBK”. As a result i got invited to cover his trip to the AU. I wrote the article when i returned back from Ethiopia to make sense of the whole experience. There is a line in this article about Ghadaffi that i was advised to remove but…the story would have been lost without it. After all i am just a foolish girl with a blog…no one should take me too seriously. I express and represent only my views, opinions, and feelings…photos coming soon)

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