Dr. Minkailu Bah, the Honourable Minister of Education has been quoted as saying the improvement in the education sector under the APC-led government, has been in many sectors from primary school to university levels. His words were cited in an expansive piece detailing a background to the plight of those Sierra Leone students who were recently rescued by government after they got stranded in Venezuela.
APC Govt, Improvements in Education & Why Students in Venezuela are Grateful
By Dr. Sylvia Olayinka Blyden
When APC-led government and Dr. Minkailu Bah first took over Education Ministry in 2007 after SLPP lost elections, overseas students were receiving paltry sum of $450 per year as allowance. The APC govt swiftly raised it from $450 to $1,200 per year. Within another few years, APC again raised it from $1,200 to $1,800 per year. This is now four times the sum in dollars that overseas students had been receiving under former SLPP government.
I have noted a few acidic attacks on the students in Venezuela for writing to say THANKS and express APPRECIATION to President Koroma for heeding their cries. As someone who was designated to liaise between the students and the government, I am well placed to explain why President Koroma deserves the THANKS he has received from the students. Let me take my time to explain why the students who are all from decent homes, decided to behave as civilised citizens who know when to be grateful.
These 22 students now saying THANKS to the President, left Sierra Leone few years back on the understanding that all their economic needs will be one hundred percent taken care of as assured by the late President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.
The late Venezuelan Head of State, during the height of his oil economic boom, had decided to collect students from all over third world countries like Sierra Leone and other West African nations with a promise to their governments that he will take fullest possible care of them. President Chavez had assured their home governments did not need to spend a single cent on the students he was flying out to Venezuela to study.
A little over twenty students were taken from Sierra Leone. It was all well and good in the first year or so and then, sadly, President Chavez died, the Venezuelan economy took nose-dive and that country’s relationship with America also tumbled. It got so bad that the United States declared Venezuela as a State that was a Threat to U.S. National Security and restricted transfer of funds from American banks into Venezuela. The currency in Venezuela devalued at an unbelievable rate.
In the meantime, the Sierra Leone students alongside other African students now found themselves with a serious dilemma whereby they were still receiving the same amount of allowance in Venezuelan currency from that Venezuelan government but because the Venezuelan currency had greatly devalued, the actual worth of the money they received just could no longer sustain them.
It was the same quagmire that other African students found themselves and so they all turned to their various home governments for assistance. In the case of Sierra Leone, after attending a conference in Venezuela, the Deputy Foreign Minister Mrs. Ebun Strasser-King, on her return, wrote a passionate appeal for the students. In her appeal, she explained she met with them and discovered the most unexpected plight that the students had found themselves through no fault of theirs. Her appeal was later buttressed in writing by her boss, Foreign Minister Dr. Samura Kamara.
All the written appeals from the Foreign Ministry received consideration from the Education Minister Dr. Minkailu Bah.
So it was that following these high level interventions on behalf of the students, that President Koroma’s government approved for immediate rescue to be sent to these students. Again, it should be strongly noted that allowances for these students had never been budgeted for since they had left this country on what were supposed to be 100% Hugo Chavez scholarships.
However, the fact that they were now faced with an economic crisis after the death of President Chavez, it was decided by the APC-led government that the same amount sent to other government-subsidised students around the world, was also to be sent to Sierra Leone students in Venezuela that had previously not been included in for such subsidies.
So it was that the Sierra Leone government sent the allowances for the stranded students to Sierra Leone embassy in Washington for it to be wired to the students in Venezuela.
Now let me digress a little. When the APC-led government and Dr. Minkailu Bah first took over the Education Ministry in 2007 after the SLPP lost elections, the policy in place was for overseas students to receive the paltry sum of $450 per year as allowance. Within a twinkle of an eye, Dr. Bah with the approval of President Ernest Koroma, swiftly raised it from $450 to $1,200 per year.
Within another few years, Dr. Minkailu Bah again with the approval of President Koroma, raised it from $1,200 to $1,800 per year which is now four times the sum in dollars that overseas students had been receiving under the former SLPP government.
Speaking recently on the issue, Dr. Minkailu Bah stated that President Koroma places huge value on education. Dr. Bah rightly pointed out that this is evidenced in massive increase in all sectors of government’s intervention in education from primary school level right through to university subventions. The quadruple increase of overseas students allowance from $450 under the SLPP to current levels of $1,800 is a sign of the importance that President Koroma places on educating students.
Meanwhile, as reported above, the sum of $1,800 each for 22 students in Venezuela were last year of 2014 wired from Bank of Sierra Leone to our embassy in Washington DC. However, because Venezuela was now declared a Threat to the U.S. National Security, banks in America could no longer allow wiring of funds into Venezuela.
Furthermore, the physical cash that could be hand couriered into Venezuela could not be more than $10,000 by law. So an initial sum of $10,000 was hand couriered from the Embassy and distributed to the students but in actuality, the total annual amount due the 22 students was a whopping $39,600.
Attempts to move the cash from U.S. banks into other Western countries banks for onward transfer to the students, met with fierce resistance from the embassy’s U.S. bankers who formally wrote to strongly warn the embassy that if any routing of funds into Venezuela happened as originating from that U.S. bank, the bank will have no option but to shut down the entire embassy banking operations for engaging in sending cash to a designated State that was a threat to U.S. National Security. Not once but three times, the Embassy was warned not to be the conduit to send money to Venezuela. I have seen all the letters.
So for a while, the cash laid in the bank in America whilst the students languished in Venezuela; having only received 455 dollars each out of the $10,000 hand couriered to them.
Eventually the students wrote letters of appeals to President Koroma who, as Father of the Nation, was so moved that he took a deep personal interest in the sorrowful plight as explained. During his last visit to America, the President summoned a meeting of Ambassador Bockarie Stevens, the Head of Chancery Isha Sillah, his Foreign Minister Samura Kamara and myself during which various means of sending the monies to the students were explored and discussed. It was then decided on the best way possible that would also be in consonance with the wishes of the students.
The students had in their discussions, made it ABSOLUTELY clear that they did not want the monies sent into Venezuelan bank accounts as when it was converted into the local currency at the bank rate, it was not to their advantage. They preferred the raw dollar bills and we all could understand especially after Ambassador Stevens took his time to explain in a fatherly manner, on behalf of the students. He explained the huge difference between the bank rates and parallel market rates in Venezuela.
So a method was devised that was to the agreement of the students and also was within the international anti money laundering laws which the Government of Sierra Leone has to abide by when doing money transfers.
Whilst members of the Opposition SLPP and irrational critics of the President were lambasting President Koroma in print media, on social media and over the local radio stations, the truth was that the President, through a designated liaison, was ensuring all stops were pulled to resolve the crisis his citizens found themselves out there in Venezuela.
At the end of the day, a solution was not only found to ensure the students received their dues but to the GREATEST UNEXPECTED DELIGHT of the stranded students, I can state that with the very firm oversight of President Koroma, even a missing year of allowance due to these students but which had been trapped in civil service bureaucracy, was carefully unravelled, traced and then successfully added to their allowance sent to them.
Hence instead of $1,800 for each of the 22 students as the one year allowance, they now received an unexpected two years of allowance. It took a while to unravel the bureaucracy but with the support of the President and the patience of the students who had requested we look into the possibility of them having a backlog, it was all unravelled and extra cash made available.
Each student now ecstatically is receiving a sum of $3,600 cash for the last two years instead of $1,800 for past year that they had expected. One of them wrote to tell me that Christmas came early for him this year!
Again, it is very important to take note that all the 22 students know perfectly well that the problems they faced were actually geo-political and subsequent to the death of late President Hugo Chavez and socio-economic downturn in Venezuela. All the 22 students know that their dilemma in the first place, was never the fault of the President and Government of Sierra Leone.
Every single one of the 22 students all know that when they signed to leave this country for further studies few years back, it was on the understanding that they had a 100% fully funded scholarship from President Hugo Chavez and that the Sierra Leone government had absolutely NO financial obligation towards them. (I repeat, absolutely NONE!). This point is very important to take note of as is the fact that the 22 students did not want their monies wired into Venezuelan banks for them.
President Koroma, however being the Father of the Nation, stepped up to the plate to ensure the stranded students were rescued. Even after the rescue effort met with an initial hitch in America, the President again stepped up to the plate and moved all possible ways to remove the obstacles in the way of rescuing the plight of his students in Venezuela.
It is against this backdrop that the students in Venezuela, all coming from very decent homes where the value of GRATITUDE was taught them by their parents, have of their own volition, written a beautiful letter of THANKS addressed to the President. Their beautiful words they penned down in their letter speaks for itself. Their thanks have put the detractors of President Koroma to shame. Some of the detractors are now angry and even attacking the students for being grateful.
I hope the above expansive background will allow these critics and acidic commentators to join the students in Venezuela to put their hands together and give a round of applause to His Excellency the President Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma. I believe the President deserves the thanks and appreciation and most of all, the 22 students (who are the directly affected parties) also believe he deserves it.
Personally having been in the thick of unravelling it all, I am very proud of the efforts of the President in this matter. He has been simply superb! Yes, the President might have all his faults like all humans but when he does good, we should be able to put differences aside and recognise that he has done well.
© Copyright by Awareness Times
Newspaper in Freetown, Sierra Leone.