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Sierra Leone Interview: An Hour with John Benjamin in Dallas
By Chris Sesay
Jun 26, 2009, 19:00
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On Friday June 19th, 2009, several of the executive members of both the SLPP North America and its Dallas branch stormed Dallas Fort Worth International Airport to grace the arrival of the National Chairman of the Sierra Leones People Party, John Oponjo Benjamin as he disembarked from Delta airline from Atlanta.

 

At his Holiday Inn hotel where he resided, diehard supporters from all walks of life in Dallas and the metropolitan surroundings flooded the reception event held on his behalf. Shortly upon his arrival, Mr. Benjamin proceeded with handling the business at hand An inspirational talk with the SLPP base.

 

In his two years as the main opposition political figure head in the theatre of politics in Sierra Leone, John Oponjo Benjamin has been active -- even hyperactive -- on matters of demoracy, national unity and political tolerance.

 

But it hasn't been all hugs and kisses between John Benjamin and his critics. Some wrinkle their noses at the chairmans overarching emphasis on bipartisan unity, insisting that real change won't happen without tough partisan battles against entrenched interests. Some have also knocked John Benjamin for his years with the NPRC  and SLPP regimes, both of which did little if anything to reduce poverty in Sierra Leone.

 

Are the criticisms justified? Does this political bulldog have what it takes to tackle the economic crises and lead Sierra Leone to a cleaner, brighter economic future? To find some answers, the smooth and eloquent John Benjamin was more than willing to share some of his experiences with me. And so,  I engaged him in a one-and-one conversation in the private office of Mrs. Suad Pieh, the warm and elegant first lady of the Chairman of the Dallas chapter, Mr Solomon Pieh in Dallas.

 

John Benjamin in a relaxed mood with Journalist Chris Sesay

 

Christian : I want to take this opportunity to congratulate you on the occasion of your daughters graduation in the medical field.

 JOB: You are welcome.

 

Christian: What does her accomplishment means to you?

 JOB:   I am a proud dad of course but also look at it from this perspective that as a young Sierra Leonean she was able to accomplish the thing that brought her here in the first place. She did not allow her familys effort to go in vain.  Also, look at it in terms of the benefit for not just the family but a small country like Sierra Leone. As she becomes gainfully engaged the country will benefit from her efforts in time to come. My heart goes out to her and I wish her all the best that she wishes for herself.

 

 Christian: I am impressed Mr. Chairman. That is quite an accomplishment. Do you have any particular message for young Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora.?

  JOB: Well, I want to say that the  harder you work at anything, the better you will become. My daughter moved out of the country at a time when the country was going through its own ups and downs. But, she did not lose her focus and so if she can do it in a foreign environment all the younger Sierra Leoneans out here can also do something.

 

Christian: I understand that you are quite a busy man. How does your daily life looks?

JOB: It is not easy but I still have to devote my attention and time to party affairs. I do have a very supportive family. They understand the essence of serving your nation and the sacrifices it comes with.

 

Christian: Mr Chairman, you were the Chief Secretary of State during the NPRC regime and the Minister of Finance under the Tejan Kabba SLPP government. Now that you are the chief political opposition leader, how do you reconcile those roles?

JOB: Basically, you find yourself serving in various forms. My services to Sierra Leone in the different capacities highlighted have their own challenges. As a chief secretary of State, the nation had a war to grapple with. We had a war in our hand and the challenge was how do we return the nation back to nomalcy. We restored democracy and few things were put in place. Looking back to my two years as Finance minister with the SLPP government, I came in at a time when the basics needed to run the ministry was non-existent.Everything you do in life, you always want to make a difference and as a result, within few months, most of the problems were solved. Salaries were now paid on time. The teachers wouldnt have to wait months unend without getting paid and all these made a huge difference in their lives and those of their families. We were also able to enaged the international community with regards to the nations debt. We resolved our budget issues. We hired solid and creditable accountants to streamline our budgets and accounts. When we left, We had a healthy account. We had a very good foreign reserves that was good enough to take us through for sometime. We left billions in the central bank account even though they deny it from time to time. Unfortunately, this is been reversed again. We put the necessary procurement systems in place. Essentially, the ministry of Finance started kicking the way it should. Now , my role as an opposition leader is very crucial as it is necessary to serve as a check against any waste or excesses. We intend for the nation to move forward and not backward. As an opposition leader, my role is to make sure the nation keeps the progress it made under the SLPP government which includes the establishment of peace and democracy.

 

Christian: Talking about relationships, what is your relationship like with former President Tejan Kabbah as chairman of the SLPP?

JOB: Oh! He is not only an elderly stateman of Sierra Leone but also one of the respected leaders in the SLPP party. I see and consult him from time to time over party issues. As you can see, his wife is the head of our womens wing and whenever there is a fund raising event of any sort, President Kabbah is always of assistance. Iintend to keep that relationship and also, that of the former vice president, Solomon Berewa.

 

Christian: During the last APC convention in Makeni, your presence stole this landmark event. Every well meaning Sierra Leonean at home and abroad was pleased by that single act of political tolerance. Mr. Chairman, what inspired you to take that bold step?

JOB: The interst of our people supercedes our individual interest. I looked at it as a way out for our people and country. I saw it as a challenge to attend so that we can stir our nation to development. I believe in the engagement of a national dialogue for all Sierra Leoneans where the government in power should prepare a platform to accommodate all views irrespective of their political affiliation. We want to engage them in a constructive dialogue that will translate into a secured democracy for our country.

 

Christian: Did you ever think of inviting President Ernest Bai Koroma to one of the SLPP conventions in the future as a way of returning the gesture?

JOB: If we maintain the cordial relationship that was the centerpiece of the joint communique that we signed, then, by all means we will surely extend an invitation to the president. But it is a question of continuous communication and trust.

 

Christian: I want to go back to the issue of trust vis-a-vis the joint peace communique that was signed by you and President Koroma. In light of the recent immigration saga that you encountered at the Dulles International airport in Virginia, many supporters of the SLPP pointed fingers at some APC operatives as culprits responsible for stage-managing the embarassment. How will that event affect the joint peace communique?

JOB: Well, this brought mistrust in our minds and also the manner with which they have gone about the selection of members from SLPP to represent the party at International forums as agreed by the Peace communique is  completely out of place. These are some of the things we should put behind us and work together in the interest of our people. When we agreed on the way forward, there is no reason why we shouldnt keep to our agreements. We need to move forward as a country and do this for our country.

 

Christian: Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora love their nation very much. The Diaspora office was established with the blessings of the president. However, so many diasporans are disgruntled about the lack of the basic structure to lure them into going back.. Mr. Chairman, should you become the next President of the Republic of Sierra Leone, how differently would you run this office?

JOB: Basically, the foundation of this office was first laid by the SLPP government.so that Sierra Loeneans in and out of the country can be gainfully engaged in the development of the country. Indeed the diaspora office that has been established is a very good thing. But what we will like to see is that the good work ethics that brothers and sisters out here have developed over the years is utilized for the betterment of the nation. We want them to go back there and use some of their talents and not for them to enrich themselves. In terms of quality work, high performance, adherance to rules and regulations, members of the diaspora community, if given the opportunity will play an enviable role in the development of Sierra Leone. That doesnt  mean we have to place a square peg in a round hole just because we want to make accomodation for everyone. It wont do the nation any good if we waste the nations resources on ill-qualified diasporan .What we are see happening now is that qualified individuals are kicked out from office and are been replaced by incompetent individuals. This brings more chaos into the system just because you want to create space for some individuals. This does not serve the interest of the individual nor the state.

 

Christian: The SLPP was voted out of office during the last general election which means that the people of Sierra Leone were dissatisfied with the party. What do you plan on doing this time around not to commit the same mistakes.

JOB: Well, you see the elections are over and the leaders before us had conceded defeat. What we doing now as a party, is to move forward.Experience is what you get when you dont get what you want. We do not want to get into issues such as election irregularities in the interest of peace and tranquility. We have accepted the result and need to move on for the sake of the country.  What we are now saying is that as a party we will organize ourselves better so that in the next election, all the votes will be counted. If we have to win, let it be because all the votes were counted. Let it be that it was free and fair. We will ensure that the process itself is transparent and violent free.

 

Christian: If you were to become the next President, you will be going into that office with lots of political experiences. How has your experience with the NPRC regime and the Kabbah government have prepared you to run a government?

JOB: Let me make one point clear to you now. What I am fighting for now is the reorganization of our party-the SLPP party so that we can position ourselves better to win the next election. I am not thinking of my role as a president but as one of the so many leaders the party has that are ready to see us win. Whatever role that I will play I will tell you. The past experiences that I have got is that I have amassed lots of skills which I will put at the disposals of our party to ensure that we are the next government. What I am doing now is not based on myself but as

 

Christian: On the economic front, certainly President Koroma is making his own efforts in his own ways, what would you do differently to take Sierra Leone out of the bottom-pit position that it currently occupies?

JOB: The effort he has been making has not shown any signs of progress. It is almost two years now and the government doesnt have anything to show for it. The economy is not moving forward. I mean, it is good to talk about mineral contracts arranged here and there but it takes time for it to be beneficiary to the economy. Lets see how he fixes this issue. We still have other problems in the economy like the manufacturing and agricultual sectors. These are areas that he hasnt yet address and these are quite challenges. The economy has been stagnant for some time now. A lot of the things that we are talking about now are not tangible. For example, the declaration of assets. Will that bring food to the tables of the Sierra Leonean who is sleeping hungry? When our party assumes the mantle of leadership we already have the necessary skills and experience to make a better decision on some of these fronts. We will use all the resources at our disposals, I mean all the things that have been tested and proven to be effective will be put into good use for Sierra Leone. We will ensure that the service will be for the good of the people and that productivity all across the sector will be visible. Given contracts to ministers is a good idea put what practical results has it generated for the good of the nation? I see none. What the people of Sierra Leone wants now is practical results.

 

 

Christian: During your reigns with the NPRC regime, what was your greatest moments ?

JOB: We started putting our country back on the track to return to democracy. We restored some form of sanity. The businesss community was in shambles. When we took over power, we cued for everything: rice, fuel, money in the bank etc. which really should not have happened in the first place. The whole government was in chaos and something needed to be done. Also, be mindful of the fact that the NPRC regime returned the government to a democratically elected government.

 

Christian: Do you have any moment of regret?

Oh yes. We did not finish the war. We had the opportunity to end it or put it behind us but we failed. If we had finished the war, it could have been a great thing for the NPRC regime.

 

Christian: Does it ever bother you when you see something on the paper that is inaccurate?

Definitely yes. But what can you do? You keep hoping and trying that one day they will see the truth and write the truth the way it is

 

 

What role would you like to see journalist play in the politics of Sierra Leone

JOB: We would want members of the fourth estate to help ensure that democracy is not destroyed. Some how the peace and stability needs to be maintained. We are coming out from an 11 year war and they help to keep the spirit of the country up so that it doesnt break apart. They shouldnt allow their dislikes for individual people to lead them into disliking the interest of their country. We would want all of us to contribute towards the collective progress of the country and not our individual purposes.

 

Christian: On that note Mr Chairman,  and on behalf of the editorial board of the Patriotic Vanguard, I want to take this special moment to thank you for making the effort and time to speak to me.


© Copyright by Awareness Times Newspaper in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

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