Q: There are concerns, most notably expressed in the UN Security Council on 22 March, about the importation of millions of dollars worth of arms for Sierra Leone’s already notorious paramilitary force, the Operational Services Division (OSD). How do you respond to these concerns?
A: First of all, you have to ask, “who raised the concern?” Clearly, it was not the UN Security Council as some people would want it to be seen. The so-called concern was raised by the out-going Representative of the UN Secretary-General who apparently has a bone to pick with this government without any concrete progressive reason. But to answer your question, the importation of arms for the security forces is a normal, routine affair that should not raise any eyebrows or be misconstrued. We are a sovereign state, and we have the responsibility to safeguard lives and property from threats or potential threats to peace. A state cannot be taken seriously if it cannot provide sufficient security for its people, and that is what we are doing.
We have built or are building the capacity of the security forces, and we also need to equip them. You have to remember two things here: firstly, the security forces, after the departure of the UN peacekeepers, have not been adequately armed to face the challenges of armed robbery, political violence, border insecurity, and so on and so forth.
Secondly, the procurement of these arms was completed about four years ago; it is just that they have been delivered at this time, and you can bet that this government will not use them unless it is absolutely necessary. We are not going to give a gun to every security officer. We will be very judicious, conscientious, and cautious in the use of these weapons.
Also, I would not subscribe to the view that the OSD is notorious. There could be one or two personality problems with some personnel, like in any force in the world, but the Sierra Leonean security forces are more professional today than ever before. The weapons we purchased are certainly needed to give the security forces the facelift they deserve and the confidence they desire.
Q: There are talks here and abroad that you are not on speaking terms with the main opposition candidate, Julius Maada Bio. Why is that so?
A: I cannot understand where people get their information from. It is not true that I am not on speaking terms with Maada Bio. I am a very open person, very accommodating to all and sundry, including the opposition.
The moment I was elected president of this country, one of the first people I travelled with, out of this country, was Maada Bio.
I can’t be speaking to him every day or every week or every month; I don’t need to. I don’t think there is a personal problem between us. We belong to different political parties, we have different platforms; so we don’t need to create a false picture of camaraderie, but we are all Sierra Leoneans and I respect the views of the opposition.
Q: Many people blame your internal affairs minister, Musa Tarawallie, for masterminding violent attacks against opposition supporters? Is that true?
A: The issue of Musa Tarawallie has been recurring, and my response to the concerns of the public are embedded in the White Paper the government has issued about him. For the record, we have stated that we are considering the recommendations of the Shears-Moses report. As a government, we do not make knee-jerk responses but thoroughly study the situation and then take the appropriate action. As I have always said, there is no sacred cow in this government.
Q: Will you ensure free and fair conduct of the November elections? And are you prepared to accept the results even if you do not win?
A: It is a foregone conclusion that this government is committed to democratic tenets. Look at the way we have conducted our affairs thus far, we have not held any political prisoners, and we have not imposed our will on the people.
Since our assumption of office, we have conducted several by-elections. In some cases, we have won; in other instances, the opposition has won. But the fact of the matter is that we have accepted and respected the outcome.
We have provided the necessary resources to all the major stakeholders, including the electoral body and the law-enforcement agencies, to ensure free and fair elections. We are determined to continue to nurture the nascent democratic culture of this country.
Q: Some of your critics complain that while your infrastructural development efforts are commendable, you have tended to ignore the real concerns of ordinary people. Inflation is high, partly because of uncontrolled spending.
A: Our efforts at changing the face of this country are based on the fact that we want a durable, visible transformation. We are laying a solid foundation on which to build all other achievements.
The inflation is as a result of the global phenomenon of an increase in food and fuel prices; but we are fighting it hard, we have put in place measures that have absolved us from experiencing demonstrations or strikes as has happened in neighbouring countries.
We also responded to the wishes of the people by continuing to heavily subsidise petroleum products and also removing the 10% import tax on rice. Furthermore, we have stabilised the Leone [the national currency] against the shock of the global financial crisis. We are laying the foundations for sustainable growth.
We are providing necessary incentives to our farmers, who form the majority of the population of this country, through the smallholders commercialisation programme; we are opening up a business climate, even as we are attracting large-scale investments.
So the issue of inflation will consequently be addressed by economic forces. Our economy is already projected to grow by 32.5% this year. So we are optimistic, and our “Agenda for Change” is on course.
Q: Other critics say that you are too friendly to mining corporations, and that this has meant that you have tended to compromise the interests of ordinary citizens affected by the operations of these foreign multinationals. How do you respond to this?
A: Critics say many things, but it is not true that I am too friendly to mining companies. Of course, we are trying to encourage the private sector to invest in our country which is facing post-conflict challenges. In recent times, Sierra Leone's story has been that of war, war, war, and foreign investors have been very reluctant to place their resources here.
But we have done some re-branding of the country’s image; and with that we are providing incentives to investors, including those in the mining sector; but that is not to say we are too friendly. We are only doing this in the best interest of the ordinary man. Because of the mining companies, there has been an increase in employment and the flow of income in the country.
Q: What was responsible for the breach in relationship between you and the former head of UNIPSIL, Michael von der Schulenburg?
A: If there was a breach in relationship, it did not come from me. I received Schulenburg in good faith, and I have welcomed his departure in good faith. There is no malice on my part. He was brought here by the UN and he has been relocated by the UN. We worked and got on well; and he has never told me otherwise.
Q: Your critics say that you surround yourself with a narrow group of advisers whom you have known since your youth, and that this has meant that your government is ethnically skewed. How do you respond to this?
A: That is absolutely false. Our government is all-embracing; and it is ethnically balanced. In cabinet there is an equal representation of the two largest ethnic groups in the country, the Temne and Mende, which are dominant in the northwest and southeast respectively. However, all other groupings are represented in my cabinet. Virtually every district in Sierra Leone has representation in this cabinet.
Furthermore, the fact is that, when we are rolling out our development programmes, no one can accuse us of favouring one region against the other. The infrastructure is being seen everywhere, the free health care services are being provided in every nook and cranny of this country, the electricity is for everybody, the markets, the schools, the hospitals, the roads are all being constructed in every district.
But apart from that, if you look at the civil service structure, especially the top cadre – and don’t forget that these are the people that effectively run the day-to-day affairs of the government – it is predominantly manned by southeasterners; and we have not radically changed the status quo. Therefore, any talk of an ethnically-skewed government is certainly politically-motivated and unfounded.
Q: Why do you think you deserve a second term as president?
A: I am going for a second inning in order to complete the laying of a solid foundation for Sierra Leone’s progress. I am certainly not in this for personal reasons. I want to see a new Sierra Leone, I want to continue in the fight against corruption in which we have scored so many goals, and we need to overhaul the educational system in order to give coming generations the best legacy. I have done something in my first term; I therefore need a second term to do more. I think the people of this country will give it to me.
Q: What new policies do you plan to pursue if re-elected?
A: As I have hinted, we shall pursue the policies of good governance and development that we have already started rolling out. We will work towards more decentralisation and greater national cohesion. We are now busy putting together the “Agenda for Prosperity”, which will succeed the “Agenda for Change”. In this new Agenda, we shall look at how to roll out programmes that will benefit Sierra Leoneans more, how to create more opportunities for our citizens, how Sierra Leoneans will get better training, better education, better facilities, and better employment opportunities.
We will concentrate on building the solid foundation we are now laying – how to make things better for the ordinary Sierra Leonean. I believe we are on the right track; and the people, I am sure, do appreciate this.