Monday Philips Ekpe pays tribute to Ernest Koroma, former President of Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone is one of those countries that evoke negative thoughts, despite admirable endowments and notable or competitive achievements, because of their traumatic past experiences. Such places are often victims of prejudice and excessive media focus on the misfortunes or calamities that befall them. In that situation, even when such nations register great accomplishments, they are either under-reported or ignored altogether. It is a case of “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”

So it was that earlier this month, in the scenic city of Freetown, national power was officially transferred from the government of Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma to that of Brigadier Julius Maada Bio (rtd.), the former having finished his second tenure as president. For people who live in societies where functional democracy is a given, that baton change might not be so significant. In many places in Africa and other under-developed or developing nations, however, where faith in the ballot is largely shallow, that cordial transition in Sierra Leone must not be trivialised. West Africa ranks among the regions on earth that have registered the largest number of coups, thereby making any peaceful democratic shift remarkable.

Something else makes the May 12 inauguration unique. It is former President Koroma’s sportsmanship. His All People’s Congress (APC)’s candidate, Dr. Samura Kamara, only lost narrowly to his Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) rival, President Bio, at the run-off election. A desperate or over-ambitious incumbent, under the circumstance, could have used the machinery of state to thwart the will of his people. He chose, instead, to take the path that would deepen democracy and stabilise a country with a chequered history. That is one legacy that should not be taken for granted. It takes a true statesman to put public interest above his, especially at critical points.

How will posterity judge the man who inherited the leadership of a war-ravaged Sierra Leone in 2007? At the time, in addition to the prevailing despondency of the country, corruption in high places was well known. Koroma had his job cut out for him and he understood it. On the eve of his first presidential election victory, he declared to Financial Times: “I have campaigned on the platform of putting up a very robust fight against corruption. We believe that has been a key problem of the past administration. I am going to immediately do a few things that will help in our fight against corruption. In the first place I will ensure that the ACC, the Anti-Corruption Commission, is revitalised and strengthened.

“I am going to ensure that we pass a legislation that will give an amendment to the act that establishes the Anti-Corruption Commission, and specifically the authority that is given to the attorney-general to determine who should be prosecuted after the investigations have been done by the ACC…That authority will be removed and will be restored to the ACC, so that the ACC will have the power to investigate and at the same time prosecute…This will give them independence. When that power is vested in the attorney-general, who is the minister of justice, he is a key political figure, and very close to the heart of government; normally he will be influenced. African politics, knowing what it is,he will be influenced to maybe protect certain people against the others…. There will be no sacred cow.”

As expected in politics, the critics and opponents of Koroma have accused him many times of failing to deliver that self-apportioned goal. Many country watchers disagree, however. Luckily, he was honest in telling Sierra Leoneans in his handover note that he did not run a perfect government. No matter the side one identifies with, some things cannot be taken away from his administration. Sierra Leone’s profile has changed substantially compared with what it was a decade ago. Basic amenities like airport, roads, electricity, agricultural facilities, housing, hotels, educational and health institutions have gone through varying degrees of transformation.

Under Koroma, the country witnessed economic expansion, attracted chummy foreign investment and was once described by relevant global organisations as one the world’s fastest growing economies. But then the dreaded Ebola disease soon showed up, took the centre-stage between 2014 and 2016 and brought the land fondly called “Salone” by its citizens to its knees. Of the three most affected countries – Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone – the later was the worst hit economically. Human lives apart, the total impact of the monster in the sub-region amounted to $2.8 billion. Sierra Leone alone accounted for nearly two billion.

The fear of travelling to the country and receiving travellers and goods from there was palpable across the world. That meant a huge minus for export trade, drastic drop in local revenue collection, fiscal dilemma, threatened social infrastructure and a psychologically and emotionally fragile populace. (The resurgence of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo now recalls the travails and triumphs of Sierra Leone during Koroma’s period in office). Last year’s mudslides in the Freetown suburbs that claimed hundreds of lives and homes were indeed a dark icing on an already depressing situation. Yet, Sierra Leone did not only stay afloat, its challenges notwithstanding, it continued to march towards a more prosperous future, albeit painfully.

The former president owes the world materials that show how he successfully steered the ship of state in those trying times that contested viciously for the very soul of his beloved country. He appears to fit into the requirements for the prestigious Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership: “… democratically elected presidents; served their constitutionally mandated term; demonstrated exceptional leadership; developed their countries; lifted people out of poverty and paved the way for sustainable and equitable prosperity….”