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Information Minister Gives Exclusive Interview in Saudi Arabia from personal, Gov’t’s achievements, austerity measures, ‘misuse’ of social media to politics

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Information Minister Gives Exclusive Interview in Saudi Arabia from personal, Gov’t’s achievements, austerity measures, ‘misuse’ of social media to politics

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Information Ministers who attended the Conference gave the Sierra Leone Minister of Information and Communication a standing ovation following his positive contributions during the deliberations. Mr. Mohamed Bangura used the well- attended conference not only to market his country, but he also highlighted government policies, achievements and challenges in a bid to encourage the Islamic world to strengthen their bilateral relations with Sierra Leone.
 

The Information Minister thrilled the conference through his articulation, astuteness and positive contributions during the deliberation which his 55 colleague OIC Information Ministers highly appreciated and commended him for making a better representation of his government and country.

The Minister appealed to the Islamic world to come to the aid of Sierra Leone in whichever way they could and assured that nobody or country on earth would never regret being a friend of Sierra Leone, given its potential, wealth and the investment opportunities it has; its panoramic views and natural habitats; its friendly and beautiful people; its friendly business environment, among many other attributes.

After the conference, the Minister, however, took time off his busy schedule to grant me an interview on diverse issues ranging from personal to governance. Below is an excerpt of the interview in Question and Answer form:

M.B. Jalloh (Information Attaché): Welcome to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Mr. Minister and congratulations on your appointment as Minister of Information and Communication. 

Mohamed Bangura (Information Minister): Thank you very much indeed, Mr. Jalloh.

Info. Attaché: Your appointment as Minister of Information a couple of months ago was received with mixed feelings. Some say the President appointed the right man in the right place. Others, however, held contrary views. What do you make of their views?

Info Minister: First, His Excellency, the President, Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma has always been meticulous in his nomination of Cabinet Ministers, because he doesn’t want to fail his people and country. The President knows my background as a very good communicator with professional finesse. Besides, I have proved my mettles in many public debates which have earned me recognition in both political and professional circles. Taking all of this into account coupled with my patriotic stance on national issues, the President thought it prudent and expedient to nominate me to head the Information Ministry and Parliament willingly approved my nomination because the lawmakers knew what I was capable of performing as a Minister, particularly in that Ministry which squarely falls under my professional purview. So, those who believe that it was no mistake on the part of the President to nominate me for the office of Minister of Information and Communication have proved him right. And I think the President made the right choice.

Info. Attaché: How do you feel attending the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Information Ministers Conference for the first time?

Info Minister: I always feel proud representing my country at international level because it gives me the opportunity to present Government policies, our achievements, and challenges to the outside world. And this is what I did exactly at the 11th Session of the OIC information Ministers Conference attended by over 50 countries.

Although it was my first time to attend such a high-profile Islamic conference, I felt very proud about the attention I received from my colleagues after my salient contributions during the deliberations that lasted for four consecutive days. I don’t want to say much on the conference which you covered extensively, Mr. Jalloh, but the truth is that, it was unbelievable when my colleague Information Ministers gave me a standing ovation after my positive contributions that gave a clear picture of the reality in Sierra Leone and the caliber of officials President Koroma oftentimes selects to represent him locally and in international arenas such as the just-concluded OIC Conference of Information Ministers. 

On the whole, I had a very good experience attending the conference together with Mr. Agibu Tejan -Jalloh, the National Publicity and Outreach Coordinator in the office of the Government Spokesman who has also been performing extremely well in not only explaining Government policies to the public, but also reacting to misinformation often disseminated by detractors. I promise that when we return home, we’ll share the knowledge and experience gained at the conference with the people.
Info. Attaché: Mr. Minister, is Government still embarking on development programmes after Ebola? Some Sierra Leonenans in the Diaspora are not convinced that the Government has made some landmark achievements in infrastructural development, the energy sector in the capital, Freetown and the provinces, as well as other important sectors such as agriculture, education and health. Are they right or wrong?
 
Info. Minister: As a development-oriented political party, the All People’s Congress (APC) Party has development running through its vein whenever it is in governance. Don’t forget that most of the landmark development projects in Sierra Leone were implemented under the regime of the Founding Father of the APC, the late President Siaka Probyn Stevens such as the The National Stadium, Youyi Building, Construction of the Freetown-Kenema Highway and countless projects were implemented under the Siaka Stevens’s APC regime, whilst Joseph Saidu Momoh built the Military Headquarters, 7th Battalion and many other structures that stand the test of time. I think it’s better for those in the Diaspora who are not convinced to go and see for themselves. The government of President Koroma has made several landmark achievements since 2007. But let me start with the energy sector which our indefatigable and progressive minded leader prioritized immediately he assumed office. I believe that every well-meaning Sierra Leonean must highly commend our government for taking the country’s energy sector from the moribund state it was in 2007 to where it is today.
As a development-oriented leader, President Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma is extremely eager to transform the country’s economy and that is why he is very conscious of the pivotal role a reliable and affordable supply of electricity in both the urban and rural areas can play in the economic transformation of the country.

Under the Agenda for Change and Prosperity – the national development blueprint – the President made increased provision of electricity in the country topmost development priority. From a low national generation of less than 10 megawatts in 2007, today the country can boast of over 100 megawatts of generation capacity with Port Loko, Bo, Kenema, Makeni, and Pujehun, which are now enjoying reliable and affordable electricity supply. Also to the credit of government, consumers in the entire Western Area are pleased that they now seldom experience blackout; a condition which was typical of the capital and the provinces prior to President Koroma’s ascendance to the highest office in the land.

 

Before President took office, Freetown was described by many as the darkest capital in the world. All these developments are happening because the Ministry of Energy together with the Electricity Distribution and Supply Authority (EDSA) and Energy Generation and Transformation Company (EGTC) has diligently worked, and is still purposefully working to realize the President’s vision for the energy sector. I can, therefore, assure that the provision of energy remains a priority of President, Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma’s Government in its efforts to transform the country’s economy, as electricity is a cornerstone for development in all spheres of life today.

Also, it is the ambition of our government to increase energy supply to over 1,000 megawatts in the immediate coming years. To achieve that, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Partnership with the Sierra Leone Environment Protection Agency (EPA) recently held a two-day workshop in Freetown on renewable energy with the theme ‘Promoting renewable energy for inclusive and sustainable development.’ UNIDO was happy with the implementation of energy projects in the country. The organization also observed that we are very rich in terms of energy potential and urged our government to take advantage of the numerous energy resources. But as you know, we have already done a lot in this direction with the completion of the Bangasoka hydro-electric plants for Port Loko, while the Bikongor and Kaiyamba hydro-electric plants have almost been completed in Kono and Moyamba. Besides, work on the Charlotte hydro-electric plant is in its advance stage to serve the Mountain Rural villages of Grafton, Jui and Hastings.
Road infrastructure still remains our government’s priority in promoting transportation, economic growth and development. The infrastructure projects we have implemented across the country are unprecedented, and we are determined to do more as a government. In his recent thank you visit to the People’s Republic of China, His Excellency, the President, Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma, had in his delegation the Minister of Finance and Economic Development, who signed a 20 Million RMB interest free loan for the construction of a road from Hill Station to Jui highway.
Also, the Mammamah International Airport project is in the pipeline and Chinese President Xi has just restated his country’s commitment to give us support. Our government is still in discussion with the Chinese Government and very soon we’ll be through with those discussions for the project to sign off and commence once and for all.
Our vision as a government is to put the appropriate infrastructure in place so that our country will be sure of becoming a great destination for tourists, investors and other categories of people whose visits will impact positively on our economy.

Although our government has invested heavily in the agricultural sector, I must say that the sector is facing many challenges which we are determined to overcome in order to ensure that we as a country become self-sufficient. We have many agricultural institutions and projects aimed at making us self-sufficient as a nation. It is no secret that the challenges related to agricultural and rural development agenda are global, but we are tackling them with the support from our development partners. You already know that our country’s weak health system that we inherited from our predecessors was amongst the main causes of lack of quick response to the Ebola Outbreak in May 2014. But the People’s Republic of China, which responded quickly when we appealed for assistance during the fight against Ebola, has promised to capacitate the country’s health sector. China will also cooperate with Sierra Leone in public health, building of hospitals and medical staff training, as well as continue to send medical staff to our country. During the President’s recent visit to China, the Chinese Government signed a 30 Million RMB Agreement with the Government of Sierra Leone to build a West Africa Disease Research and Training Centre in our country.

Besides, the Government and its development partners are still funding the Free Healthcare Initiative, the President’s flagging project to help pregnant women, lactating mothers and children below five. Public hospitals now have ambulances and some medical equipment that was not available before. 

We have made several achievements in the other sectors such as education, mining, fisheries, tourism etc.; but because I don’t have enough time to explain other issues to you, I think we’ll spend the rest of the interview highlighting some of the achievements we have made as a government, as they are countless.

 Info. Attaché: What is the effect of the Ebola outbreak on the country’s economy and some of the challenges faced by government?

Info. Minister: The outbreak of Ebola had a devastating effect on the country’s economy. During the President’s Agenda for Change between 2007 and 2012, the country was doing extremely well to the point of becoming one of the fastest growing economies in the world. The government was about to consolidate those gains made when the Ebola Virus Disease struck and reversed all those gains at the expense of the country and the people.
Although we have defeated the deadly virus collectively as a country, the effects left by the virus are still being felt in the country, and that is why we as a government deemed it necessary to introduce post-Ebola recovery measures aimed at addressing health, education, social protection, energy water and economic recovery. With our commitment, the country will continue to undergo transformation.

But despite all those challenges, the World Bank and IMF have recently expressed satisfaction with the economic performance of the country, whilst they also predicted encouraging growth rate for the country, which is good news for every Sierra Leonean.

 

Info. Attaché: How is your relationship with the media back home?        

Info Minister: As Government Official Spokesman and member of the Fourth Estate, my relationship with colleague journalists in both the print and the electronic media has been cordial, and I’ll continue to maintain that cordiality as long as I remain the Information Minister of our government. I often tell my colleagues during our weekly press briefings or whenever I engage them that, they are partners in development and that they should have to disseminate information on government’s activities instead of dwelling on negative things that would only help undermine the credibility of the government and country.

Again, when I took office, every Jack and Jill used to attend the government weekly press briefing with most of them not reporting on pertinent issues explained by government officials. Consequently, not enough government information was sipping down to the public. But when I took over the Ministry, we had to make sure we made the weekly press briefing more effective than it was before by ensuring that only accredited journalists attached to media institutions were allowed to attend the press briefing.
I see it as an achievement because various media houses give prominence to stories relating to the weekly press briefing which is usually held on Thursdays. Also, my Ministry has created a very cordial working relationship with the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) and its general membership because I’m also a professional journalist. This has made coverage on government activities very massive.
Since I took up appointment, the media has been very supportive in getting my views on issues clearly heard in the four corners of the country and even beyond. Journalists have been very cooperative and helpful to my duty, which I very much appreciate as colleagues.
Nonetheless, we still have a crop of journalists in the country who behave unprofessionally because they allow themselves to be used by detractors going all out to paint our government black.

Despite all the tremendous efforts we are making as a government to take development to a new level, all they do is to write negative things about us. But the good thing is that, whenever they misinform the public about our government, I’ll act proactively in putting the records straight. For instance, when the media started publishing a piece of information quoting Mohamed Kamarainba Mansaray last year that the President went with over forty-five delegates to New York to attend the UN General Assembly, I reacted to that misinformation the very night I arrived in Freetown. The Following day, I called an emergency news conference to put the record straight because you know that most of our people are gullible and can accept misinformation hook, line and sinker, particularly when they have different political views. That was why I advised journalists to always cross-check their facts before they go to press in order to avoid having problems with the Independent Media Commission (IMC) or the court. I also challenged Mohamed Kamarainba Mansaray to prove his allegations about the New York trip, but he never came up with any statement or to organize another press conference to substantiate the veracity of the statement. So, at the end of the day, I was on top of the situation.

Info Attaché: Mr. Minister, what about the social media? To what extent is it promoting government activities?

Info Minister: This is a very interesting question because the social media is, in some areas, doing more harm than good to the country. I want to state here that detractors are using the social media to destroy the image of government and our country, because they are yearning for political power at all cost. Unpatriotic people are using the social media to say very negative things about their government, leaders and the country. This is not helping the situation at all and that is why as a government, we are putting monitoring mechanism in place to track down unpatriotic Sierra Leoneans posting misinformation and provocative caricature of their leaders on the social media. But mind you, we are not in any way, I repeat, we are not in anyway, trying to muzzle people’s freedom of expression but to ensure that they behave responsibly by disseminating the right information in the social media.

Info Attaché: That reminds me of what was posted on the social media following the introduction of the austerity measures and the removal of subsidy on petroleum products. How did you react to that as a government?

Info Minister: Unfortunately, detractors used the situation as an opportunity to lash out at our government for the two important decisions we took to save our economy from collapsing. We told the people that we were going to minimize public expenditure so that government would not only reverse the ailing economic trend, but to also continue with priority projects that would alleviate poverty among Sierra Leoneans. We also told our people that we were going to remove subsidy on petroleum products based on the advice of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as a way of reducing public expenditure. But despite all the constraints we had to clearly explain our position on that development as a government, detractors had to misinform the public through the social media about the economic ramifications of those decisions we took. Some came up with incredible economic theories about what we should have done instead of what we did as a government.

Some politicians and their proxies used the social media to even incite the public to demonstrate against the removal of subsidy on fuel products, but we were very proactive and robust enough to nip their planned dastardly act in the bud. A female student from Fourah Bay College (FBC) was even arrested and charged to court in accordance with the laws of the country for inciting the public against the government; though she was later released on bail.
Info Attaché: Mr. Minister, let’s talk about politics. In your meeting with Sierra Leonenans here in Saudi Arabia last night, you talked about how committed is government to conduct the next national elections. What plans has the government put in place for that?
Info Minister: Yes, I did mention that. Well, the Population and Housing Census (PHS) that was conducted by Sierra Leone Statistics (SLS) to know the population of the country for several reasons, including constituency delimitation, the announcement of the election year by the National Electoral Commission (NEC); and the creation of the Constitutional Review Committee (CRC) and the work they have done are all clear indications of government’s commitment to the democratization process. And I can assure every Sierra Leonean and the international community of world leaders that President Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma’s government is fully committed to conduct the next national election on time with the creation of a level playing field for all political parties to participate in the democratization process.

Info Attaché: Ahead of elections, what advice do you have for politicians in Sierra Leone?

Info. Minister: In the first place, I want to allay their fears by assuring them of the fact that our commitment to conduct the next national elections on time is genuine. We did it in 2012 and we are going to do it again with the support of our development partners and friends of Sierra Leone.

However, I’ll advise politicians to shrug aside politicking for now and help the President in his transformation drive. We need to put hands on deck, irrespective of political affiliation, regional or ethnic background to develop the country before the elections.

Info Attaché: How cordial is your relationship with all officials in your Ministry?

Info. Minister: Frankly speaking, I have a very cordial working relationship with my Deputy Minister, the Permanent Secretary, the Directors and all other staff members. We are working as a family.
As a political head of that Ministry, I don’t see myself as the high and mighty but to ensure that government policy on information and communication is not only implemented but also strictly adhered to. That is why I believe I should work hand-in-gloves with all of them. All of them are contributing in diverse ways to the success of our day-to-day administration. I think to succeed as a Ministry, it requires cordial working relationship and that is what I’m doing and I’ll not let down His Excellency the President because of the confidence he has reposed in me to serve my country in the capacity of a Minister.

Info Attaché: Finally, what message do you have for Sierra Leoneans at home and abroad?

Info Minister: It is my fervent belief that, irrespective of political affiliations, I always see Sierra Leoneans as one people and that is my motivation for patriotism. As Sierra Leoneans, we should all come on board to develop Sierra Leone, which is the only country we have on earth. Let us all forget about vindictive politics, tribalism and regionalism and give all our support for the development of ‘Mama Salone’. If we all work together, it will be easier for the country to develop than when we undermine ourselves for political gains. Such mentality will take us nowhere until the cows come home.

Info Attaché: I thank you very much, Mr. Minister for granting me this interview and I wish you success in all your official endeavours and happy New Year.

Info Minister: You are always welcome, my Information Attaché, and I wish you a happy new year, too.

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