AYV: Can we start with your name and designation?
PROF. SANKOH aka MALLAM ‘O’: I am Professor Osman Alimamy Sankoh commonly known in my country as Mallam ‘O’. I am the Statistician General and the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Statistics Sierra Leone (Stats SL).
AYV: Can you please tell us when you took up office?
MALLAM ‘O’: It was in April 2018. That was the time I was appointed to office and I came back as I was actually in Ghana where I was heading an international organization in which I was the Chief Executive. It is a global organization comprising countries across Africa, Asia and the Pacific.
AYV: Could you please give us a brief background of Statistics Sierra Leone?
MALLAM ‘O’: Statistics Sierra Leone (Stats SL) is the national institution that is responsible for collection of data, dissemination of data, analysis of data, accreditation of official statistics and really everything that you would want to know about the country that deals with data and must be credible. And this is an institution that was created by an Act of Parliament in 2002. Of course from the Central Statistics and in 2002, it became Statistics Sierra Leone (Stats SL) and now we rebranded to Stats SL. This is the institution that everyone in this country needs and everyone in this country should support. This is the institution that provides the statistical evidence that the government needs to prepare to plan for the people and if you do not have data, if you do not have the information to plan, then you are planning in the dark. So imagine if you are given an amount of money and you are asked to plan for the people in Kono District or the people in Port Loko District, or the people in Kambia District and other districts, and you have no idea about the dynamics of the population in those districts, then you’ll be planning in the dark. So this is the institution that government relies on; and the people of this country rely on for planning purposes.
AYV: The current state of Stats SL with regard human resource capacity building or strength, taking into account the fact that, Stats SL recently had a massive overhaul or retrenchment of staff; what can you say about that?
MALLAM ‘O’: I’m sure you’ve heard recently that we are in the process of restructuring. But like I said earlier on, I came to this institution in April 2018; so one year ago nothing was heard. But of course, as a new CEO, you will not come and start acting immediately; you would need to understand the institution, the holistic aspect of it including the human resource and this is a technical institution. And as I told you already, we generate the evidence that the government and the country needs for planning purposes and so you would need to have a technical team to do this for you. But of course, the technical team requires support functions; and there are other people who would need to help you to move on. So along this line my business as the CEO is to understand the institution, understand the human resource capacity and then report to the Council. So the Council was constituted, the President appointed the Chairman – Mr. Moses Williams and other representatives. We also had representatives from key institutions like the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Planning and Economic Development, the Bank of Sierra Leone, the Ministry of Labour, Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture and the University – all of these form the Council. When the Council had their inception meeting, as a new CEO, I had to present to them everything about the institution and I was actually running the institution with the Chairman who had been appointed. Based on the presentation, the number of staff was 321. Many people would say: What’s happening there?! How many people do you need to run that institution? I presented this information to the Council and Council did a functional review to look at which staff member was or is occupying which position and how this contributes to the overall productivity of the institution. But they did not only do that, they also looked at how this staff or how this member came into the institution. That is in fact the most important criteria which the Council collectively took – to say: If you have a technical institution, there must be a process for the staff to come here; there must have been an advert (like we have just done); there must have been application letters, and an interview and then you give positions to the staff. But really, majority of the staff who were here did not go through that process. They were recruited as short-term staff – we have short term surveys like three months and we recruit staff for three months to do field work. Currently we have Sierra Leonean staffs in the field that were recruited to do the Demographic Health Survey (DHS) for us. So what happens after three months? They wait and wait and wait …and then you decide to take these people over to become regular staff. But that’s not the process – that’s not the way it’s supposed to be. So then Council felt that across the board (and I want to say this) – there was no selective decision made here: to say, this individual has come from this part of the country or comes from this part or is from whatever affiliation – No! Across the board, across parties, across regions, across ethnic groups, the decision that this Council has taken affects everyone who did not come to Stat SL through the right process. And the Council also did not rule out some of these people coming back because some of them had been trained. Government had spent money on them to undergo different types of training; while some of them have trained themselves in the process and so if they reapply, and are assessed to be of high quality; those who would help the productivity of this institution, they would be given positions. And so, what we did as Council was to quickly advertise for many positions so that those who have the opportunity to come back would not have wasted two, or three months. So this is the situation. I know that usually it becomes unpopular if you are to restructure; but then you are not doing the right thing and we want to stand firm on the footing of doing the right thing and for me as the CEO of this institution, I applaud the Council that also wants to do the right thing. I tell you sir, if I am not convinced that this Council is doing the right thing, I would advise. But collectively, this decision that was taken was to do the right thing and I believe if the process goes as we are doing now, this is an institution that would regain its credibility.
AYV: Who funds Statistics Sierra Leone and who are your partners?
MALLAM ‘O’: This is a very good question. Number one is the Government of Sierra Leone. The government pays all our salaries. That is not insignificant. And this is the reason why we would want to ensure that staffs who work here, merit to be here – they earn it; they are quality staff, committed staff because their salaries are paid for by government. That is the basis. And government also gives us a subvention and so probably in July this year we would have to go again and defend our subvention…we always defend to government. So if no one else gives us money. And I tell you, the political will we have this time is superb. We have a Ministry of Planning and Economic Development that has oversight functions for Stat SL. We have the support from the former minister Madam Nabeela Tunis who was there through and through as well as the Deputy Minister of Development Dr. Robert Chakanda (he is also a researcher and knows and understands the value of statistics) and so we have the support from there. And then the Ministry of Finance; we know things are not too rosy but even in the midst of the difficulty, we got for the first quarter about 2.7 billion Leones paid by the Ministry of Finance. But what we do here is to ensure that we judiciously use those resources until it is possible for the government to give us our next tranche but we keep pushing. In addition to government, what we do is we write proposals. As head of this institution now, I say to my colleagues that we must not depend on government support alone, we have to fund raise and fund raising is you develop your proposals. These are public resources available out there, but if you do not write for them, you do not get them. And we have tried and have just demonstrated that when you write a proposal – you may write ten and you get one. So now we are going to get funding from the World Bank for example. Although it is a regional project and may take probably another six months before it matures but we’ve just been informed that an $18 million project which we and the World Bank were developing has gone through its first stage of approval. That is good news for this country! I am an optimist. I know we will get that funding despite any hurdles that might be across the road. But when we get that, it will transform the statistical landscape of this country. We will have resources together with government resources and together with other partners like UNFPA, UNICEF, DfID, WFP, UN Women – this would make this institution stand out. My vision as the CEO is that we want to be a winner in national statistics in Africa. I’m telling you it is possible, Sierra Leoneans are capable; we can do this once we are committed it is possible for us to be the winner in statistics in Africa.
AYV: What other activities is Statistics Sierra Leone engaged in apart from census and what do you have lined up for the rest of 2019?
MALLAM ‘O’: You see, most times people would just say about Statistics Sierra Leone that what comes to mind is just census. This is an institution that does more than that. We have lots of routine activities. We are responsible for the Consumer Price Index. We generate the information for inflation in the country and this goes on every month. We also do the Producer Price Index; we want to know what is happening with the producers; what is happening with the producers in this country and we are responsible for generating data for the GDP. We go and collect information and we work with almost all the MDAs in this direction. We calculate this and present it to the Bank of Sierra Leone and Ministry of Finance and so they depend on us. And this is why I always say when I meet my colleagues: ‘please, when you mention or talk about data, mention Stat SL as the institution that generated the data you are using.’ That is important because people hardly know. Even with the DHS that we are now conducting, we have a consultant that is helping us to do this. But eventually when they go to the US and they put this data on their website it is as if they have done it. No Sir! We have done this.
AYV: If you were given one minute to advise President Julius Maada Bio on statistics matters in Sierra Leone, what would you tell him?
MALLAM ‘O’: That it is important for Mr. President to continue to support Stat SL because we are determined as the president is determined for government decisions to be driven by credible data. It is a data-driven government that I see. To even have a Directorate for Science, Technology and Innovation which is a directorate that anchors its work on Stat SL is an indication that the president believes in credible data. And so I would just want to encourage the president that spending money on Stat SL is spending money in the right way. Because when you have, and when you know the numbers, when you have the credible data, then you are not going to waste resources. You will plan as is necessary; you will allocate resources wisely because you have the credible data and so the stronger Stat SL is; the stronger Stat SL becomes, the more credible the decisions that the government will be taking will be. This is why I will like to applaud the President and the Government for naming Stat SL in some of their presentations.