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Things are very bad in Sierra Leone - Kandeh Yumkella

Former United Nations Undersecretary General and presidential candidate for the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), says Sierra Leoneans are suffering and “things are very bad in this nation”.

Speaking to Politico, Dr Kandeh Yumkella said most of the major investments in the country had collapsed.

“The mining sector is in the doldrums, two of our big investments - one in diamonds, the other in bioenergy - all in trouble” he said, adding: “there are many things wrong here about wealth creation and jobs that he should be focusing on” instead of the “More Time”.

Full interview:

Politico - Dr Kandeh Yumkella speaks on his chances and MORE TIME 

Former UN undersecretary general, Dr Kandeh Yumkella has thrown his hat into the ring and declared his intentions to run for President of Sierra Leone. He is one of an increasing number of people gunning to lead the main opposition SLPP party. Until recently his very membership of that party was in question. He however insists that he has always been a member of the party. In this interview with POLITICO, Dr Yumkella addresses that membership and talks about what value he adds to the country’s body politic.

Politico: Why are you running for the leadership of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP)?

Yumkella: I am running for the leadership of the SLPP because I believe there has been a leadership vacuum. The SLPP has not performed as a credible opposition for some time and indeed for a well-functioning democracy, you need an opposition party that can provide some checks and balances.

Politico - And some people are even questioning your membership of that party.

Yumkella: Yes they use to but not anymore

Politico: That was until recently when you regularised your membership. Is that what happened?

Yumkella: I suppose until recently when the Secretary General clarified that I am a bonafide member, that I am registered in many chapters. But in addition, more recently over the last three weeks, when the secretariat agreed to do what I requested on the 24th of August last year, meaning to upgrade myself to the status of a Distinguished Grand Chief Patron.

Politico: The version that the party is putting out is that you were never a member, you only joined the party late last year, in December in fact in your home district of Kambia

Yumkella: As you know, the party is full of factions. So whatever you do, there is a faction that is opposed to what you do. So whatever version they give, that is their version. The version that is relevant here is the views of the Secretary General who is the Chief Administrative officer of the party. But the fact is, as we speak, I am a Distinguished Grand Chief Patron of the SLPP and there are only a few of us who hold that level of membership in the party.

Politico: I understand your Grand Chief Patron membership which only came into force a few weeks ago. The controversy has been over your general membership of the party. Do you not think that the fact that it keeps being questioned by some of your members, kind of like raises integrity issues?

Yumkella: Not at all! I believe it simply raises factional issues. For the past two and a half years, there has not been a stronger counter leadership, counter viewpoint in that party until one has arrived on the scene. And of course with anything new, any innovation, there is always resistance for adoption and so on. But I think it's part of the rite of passage within that party.

Politico: What are your chances? And I ask this question because one of the people you are contesting against, Brigadier Julius Maada Bio seems to be a very popular candidate within the party.

Yumkella: Everybody has their degree of popularity within the party and nationally. What I know today is that I am very popular across the nation and that's what is new about my own involvement now in national politics. My support base cuts across the country. The views I express are different from what others express. So everybody has their own constituency as it were.

Politico: And what do you think is new? What new thing do you think you are bringing into the Sierra Leone body politic?

Yumkella: I think I bring new thinking. I am pushing for unity within the party. I am talking about the history of the party that people don't want to talk about. And that history is important because it begins to put forward the value systems that my father and other founding members of this party had when they created the party in the first place. Some within the party want us to believe that the party started in 2005. No, since 1951. So going back to core values. Core values of inclusiveness, core values of providing for this country the whole ethos of self-reliance. Remember we pushed for independence. This is the party that pushed for independence. But also, this is the party that unified this country after the civil war and started re-building the nation again - under the SLPP. So to go back to some of those core values. Second, to be a party that begins to challenge issues that the ruling party is putting forward. For example, I have been the only one opposition person in this country that has done four, five radio programmes opposing the ‘More Time’ proposal. I have also been talking about the census.

Politico: [By MORE TIME you mean] the proposal which some believe is coming from the people of Sierra Leone, calling for President Koroma to continue staying in office.

Yumkella: People of Sierra Leone are not asking President Koroma to stay in office. A handful of people are giving people T-shirts to dance around the country saying they want more time. But we saw that playbook in the 70s and the 80s when I was a student here. The Head of State then would say or announce that OH I’M TIRED I WANT TO RETIRE. And then they would put people together from across the country coming to him, on TV saying, PLEASE STAY. What happened? That party ended up staying for 25 years and then we had civil war. So we don't want a repeat of that play book of the 70s. This is like back to the future. We don't want that.

What we are looking for now is respect for term limits. And as an opposition party, I said that today at the party office, we will start organising our own discussions and position on More Time. If the ruling party is dressing people up in T-shirts to dance around this city and other parts of the country calling for More Time, we will begin to dance around and demand respect for constitutionality. Term limit is term limit. So as a Distinguished Grand Chief Patron of the SLPP, I will be ready to lead some of those marches here because it is our right. Once we begin to encourage manipulation of constitution, and you know what is bad about it? People want to use Ebola as the excuse. Come on! That means you are victimising people twice. This is wrong. It is morally wrong and it is constitutionally bad. We must respect term limits - it's good for accountability, it is good for the democracy of this country. You perform, you do your best, when time is over you leave. We must not go back to this African cultism, where we make leaders feel that they area God. They have to live there forever. OH IF IT NOT THEM NOTHING WOULD HAPPEN! This is wrong. It's wrong for Africa and it is wrong for Sierra Leone too.

Politico: Now back to your SLPP party, in the event you don't get to lead your party at the polls in 2018 as expected, would you set up an alternative party?

Yumkella: We'll cross that bridge when we get there. For now, I am focused on plan A. And Plan A is very clear. I'm gaining ground. I even feel today if I'm not frontrunner, I'm close to being the front runner. All within a short while. But I am very pleased that our party is getting stronger with my involvement and of course the involvement of other aspirants. As you know there are many of us - professionals, colleagues coming in from overseas from Qatar, there's Andrew Keilie, there's Ernest Ndomahina a businessman, there are other folks coming in. I think that you begin to see a party where the professional cadre are coming forward to say they want reform and transformation and I am working very closely with them.

We have done a number of representations now with the police for unfair treatment. We’ve gone to the PPRC - which regulates political parties - and made our positions clear. So we are really jelling now as a group of professionals who indeed were competing for leadership. But we are not enemies. And that's the new orientation - I call it the new SLPP. And now we want to move in 2016 into looking at issues, major issues that are facing the country. For example, we should be having a debate about the toxic waste dump. Calling it a triple whammy - first we get Ebola - it's not managed entirely properly, now we use Ebola to ask for More Time, and then thirdly we see people even making deals to even dump more chemical waste here. All of these things are fundamentally what makes some of us get into the political game. That we must avoid these things and some of us must be ready, in the interest of the next generation, to speak up. And of course they are intimidating many people now - almost telling people now OH YOU SHOULDN’T BE TALKING ABOUT THESE THINGS. But under the last regime you know during President [Ahmad Tejan] Kabbah when this same party was in opposition they talked about everything. That regime allowed musicians to criticise the government. The media, today it's almost as if there is a gag order here - people are threatened, they are scared. Another  colleague who came in from the United States, went to court and just texted something that was happening in the court, he was held for contempt of court. You know there are things happening here that worry some of us and this was exactly how human rights were abused back in the ‘70s and ‘80s and we ended up in civil war. We don't want that. And we want to help our president. We want to help him by making sure that he hears the other side, the other voice of this nation and encourage by saying, “Mr. president don't listen to all of this people saying More Time, listen to your children who are saying your real legacy is to have a good census for future planning purposes in our country, to ensure that in fact elections are held on time - that's important for your democratic legacy. And thirdly, to make sure that he begins to look at how to re-structure this economy over the next two years.

Things are very bad in this nation. Most of the major investments have collapsed - the mining sector is in the doldrums, two of our big investments - one in diamonds, the other in bioenergy - all in trouble. So there are many things wrong here about wealth creation and jobs that he should be focusing on for the next two years to ensure that we are back on a trajectory of growth and do the post-Ebola recovery properly. “More Time” is really a distraction for me and I think this is the time he gets a good dialogue with his citizens to say what do we do the next two years to really wrap up to ensure democracy is really institutionalised and the he says bye-bye, we sing Kum Ba Ya for him - give him a wonderful retirement.

Politico: When you say you will cross that bridge when you get to it in terms of setting up a new political party - is that a YES or a NO?

Yumkella: I am saying that I am fully focused on winning. And I think that I am making very good grounds...

Politico: In case you don't win.

Yumkella: Remember the elections are in 2018. So coming back early for me meant that I go around the country, take my message as I have started doing...visit every community - and that's the freedom that we want everybody to enjoy.

Politico: And should you not win.

Yumkella: O I'm here to stay. There are many things I can do in this nation.  So I am here to help rebuild my nation.

Politico: No third party?

Yumkella: Let’s wait. Let's wait and see. What I say for the SLPP - let us have transparency. For example some people forced us now, within one week, violating what the Supreme Court requested of us, to say you should have an independent electoral board to conduct all lower level elections and elections going forward within the party, that you should publish the list of delegates 21 days and give time. And the PPRC act which says that any rule change or new rules formulated within the party for elections should be gazetted for 21 days, giving people opportunity to comment on it. People forced us now - announced an election and within one week they forced us to go to an election this weekend. Fortunately, we are very grateful to the PPRC. The Commission stepped in to say - wait a minute, you are violating the PPRC act which put a halt to that. So within my party itself, I am saying to them and I have been very consistent since August - we want transparent processes, respect of the constitution, otherwise there will be consequences within the party. So if we want to unify - a level playing field for all, free access to the political party offices by all - no intimidation. Let us compete in the market place of ideas.

Politico - Thank you very much sir.

Yumkella: Thank you

(C) Politico 26/01/16