Exclusive Interview:

  Regionalism Is Intensifying – Kandeh Yumkella

The National Grand Coalition (NGC) posited itself as a better alternative to the two traditional parties, the APC and SLPP. In the last election, they campaigned on the promise of ‘change’ and putting ‘Salone Fors’ (Sierra Leone First). Over a year in existence, some are suggesting that the party has not lived up to expectations in terms of providing better and sound alternative voice and serving as an effective opposition.

Alhaji Dr. Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella, leader of the NGC in parliament, has had years of global experience, having worked with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) as Director-General, amongst other portfolios.

Dr. Yumkella, an agricultural economist also served a junta led National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) government. In 1994, he was appointed Minister of Trade and Industry under the National Provisional Ruling Council but had to resign because he thought by then “the situation in governance was not right.”

Returning home in 2015 to re-engage in party politics, Dr. Yumkella was faced with a lot of controversies, amongst them, his membership of the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), his late father’s party.  He subsequently left the SLPP when they were, in his words, “pushed out by the injustice in the party at that time” and formed the NGC.

In this exclusive interview with SierraEye Magazine in his office at parliament prior to the court verdicts on the petition cases, Hon. Kandeh Yumkella  denied suggestions that his  decision to leave the SLPP was borne out of desperation to rule Sierra Leone at all cost.  He also opened up about the challenges that parliament faces. We started off by looking at his early life.

You were born in Kychom, Samu Chiefdom, in the Kambia District. Can you tell us about your early life growing up in this part of Sierra Leone?

I grew up in Sierra Leone in two phases. Phase one was as a kid up to ending secondary school. Sierra Leone was a wonderful place. We had the best educational system from primary all the way to college. We had very good teachers who took care of us as if we were their own kids. They made us competitive as well. Phase two, in the university, things were getting harder and we became very militant at that time, advocating for students’ rights, political freedoms in the country. During the four years as an undergrad, we matured very quickly because we were always demonstrating. We were part of the demonstrations in 1977. I was Senior Prefect at Christ the King College (CKC). From that time, we became very much interested and active in politics until from there, when I went to the United States.

What was your dream job? Did you envision that you would play such an important role nationally and internationally?

No. My dream then was just to be very well educated. We had our friends whose parents were teaching at Njala University College and they had told us that smart people should have what is called a PhD. We didn’t know what it meant, because their parents had PhDs; so we wanted PhD. Our dream was just education. All we wanted was knowledge and to be very bright. Hanging around my father and my uncle in Bo, Dr. Yillah, of course one had bigger ambitions as well. I wanted to be like them. I just knew that beyond education, I had to be something big.  In terms of career, I wanted to be a medical doctor because I admired my two uncles who were medical doctors, while all their wives were also nurses. But my father changed all of that. He insisted that I go into agriculture.

By December 2005, you were made Director-General of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), what would you consider your achievements in this position?

That was like the pinnacle of my careerina sense that I got elected to that position as the first black sub-Saharan African. Before that for twenty years, there had been about three or four candidates from sub-Saharan Africa. I won by a landslide, purely out of competence.  I was an inside candidate, which usually is difficult but I competed and I got backing from around the world. I did well so that my second term, I went unopposed. I was voted by acclamation. There was no other competitor.

I pushed reform in the organization; I created an energy department which later on had a huge portfolio of programmes. I supported the Environmental Department; I more than doubled the technical cooperation delivery of the organization. When I was leaving, I left huge pipeline of programmes. I built big partnerships with the European Union. When I came in, we were doing projects worth 10-15 million dollars with the EU. By the time I left we had pushed that to almost 30-40 million. The environmental projects grew. I also supported Trade Capacity Building and meeting international quality standards to help developing countries gain markets.

In my second term, I became a little more radical. I decided to bring in Harvard University, Grandfield and Stanford to help us do what we called Change Management in the whole organization. I introduced oracle into the organization with complete change management. Of course we ran into problem; financing became very tough but fortunately I had built reserves.

It is one of the best jobs one can ever dream of.  I was part of the CEO Board of the Secretary-General’s office. In that Board I could view first-hand, the financial crisis from 2007 till about 2009-2010. I was part of the Secretary-General’s ad-hoc committee to lead the Rio plus 20 Summit in Brazil, which was the third summit on Sustainable Development.  I did two jobs at the same time; I volunteered to lead energy systems, the UN Energy Group which I chaired for eight years. 

I created Sustainable Development Goal number Seven and I laid the foundation for Sustainable Development Goal Nine. So, if you hear everybody talk about Agenda 2030, I contributed to two of the Sustainable Development Goals. Sustainable Development Goal Seven is on energy and Sustainable Development Goal number nine is on industrialization and infrastructure.  I was convinced that African countries cannot fight poverty without creating wealth to grow their economies like the Asians have done. You cannot do it without access to reliable and affordable energy and at the same time, they must diversify their economies into industrialization.

You came to national limelight in 1994 when you served as Minister of Trade and Industry under the National Provisional Ruling Council junta government. Why did you accept to serve under a military regime?

Maybe you can say it was youthful enthusiasm in my head. I was still an activist in those days even though I was an Assistant Professor at Michigan State. I was still involved deeply with Sierra Leone issues with a number of other young Sierra Leonean Professors. We were networking; we created a group, called Coalition for Social Democratic Change in the early 1990s. We wanted to push JS Momoh to allow multiparty system. We used to meet with Professor Jimmy Kandeh, Professor IB Abdallah and some other friends. So, we were always connected.

I was teaching then when I was contacted. Call it youthful exuberance; I said maybe I could try it; I consulted colleagues and within two weeks, I packed up and came home to serve. It was war time and tough. I was here when the rebels first got to Mile 38. I was behind the scenes and consulted a lot by the UN about Bintumani 1 and the transition to democracy. Then I resigned and went back to academia and from there I joined the UN. It is also one of the wonderful experiences I had.   

What were the circumstances that led to your resignation from this position?

I thought by then that the situation in governance was not right. I had come here with an open mind to serve the country and I felt I was not as effective as I should be. I don’t hold on to position because of titles. In those days, my father and others were trying to revive the SLPP; people were interested in me staying and run for office but I chose to go back to academia. In a way my instinct was right, because three weeks after I left, there was a coup. You can call it divine guidance that my instinct was right that there was something going on.

And you returned home to reengage in party politics. How did you arrive at that decision?

That was a difficult one. As I said, I was, I was at the pinnacle of my career. I was an Under Secretary General; I could have stayed at the UN for another 10-15 years. I resigned and decided to come home at a time when the country still had ebola. I arrived here in August 2015. This was a very difficult period to come home but I made the sacrifice and came. I have been here for over four years now.

Under what circumstances did you decide to leave the SLPP?

We were pushed out by the injustice in the party at that time. A group of us took the decision that we would leave. We struggled through different processes; membership was overturned; we endured to re-apply. We went through all kinds of unconstitutional motions. There were times we were denied access to offices; our posters were burnt in party offices across the country. We faced such hostility and injustice. We went to the courts and justice was never delivered by the courts. We endured for three years and we decided to do something different.

Some of your critics say your decision to leave the SLPP was borne out of your frantic desire to rule Sierra Leone at all cost. How would you react to this criticism?

I left because the processes were not transparent. Rules were not followed; methods were used that were not constitutional. Look at how many times our delegates won lower level elections and how many times they were overturned. People are refusing to understand that we fight for justice and constitutionality and not just power. Countries deserve the leadership they get but we fight for values and those values we have never backed away from.

How will you describe your current relationship with President Julius Bio?

My relationship with the present government and the president himself is very cordial.  I recognize him as president of the republic; he won the elections. Our party and I have taken a position that we would be a constructive opposition. We have proven for over one year that indeed we are constructive and we have behaved as an independent party and very issue focused. We critique, we provide ideas and we support good things that the government has done. When they have also gone against the rules of parliament, the constitution, we have also spoken out.

So, I believe that I, personally, have demonstrated what it means to be an independently minded person that is focused on values that center on justice, constitutionality and good governance. This is a very bipolar country; people expect you to leanand so we have gone through the pains of being vilified when we oppose things that the government is not doing right. We have gone through the pains of being vilified when we support the government. We have chosen to continue as a party and personally as leader of the party in parliament to be independent and focus on the values that made us establish the NGC.

Will you consider an offer of a ministerial or any other appointment from President Bio?

I have enjoyed being a parliamentarian.  I have shown that we can be constructive and support good initiative by government. I did the same for APC but people tried to rewrite the narrative. We like what we are doing now and we will continue doing what the people want us to do.

Your party, the National Grand Coalition (NGC) was supposed to be a coalition of all the smaller parties that would have formed a third force to the two main parties. Why did this not happen?

We tried several scenarios; scenario of coalition with parties; scenario of starting a new party; scenario of adopting another party; all kinds of ideas were debated. We felt that the country needed a new platform and we created a new platform-a coalition of progressives, rather than a coalition of parties. At the same we sought to have strategic alliance with other parties. What we realized was, politics in Sierra Leone in particular is very much based on three dimensions; the self is first, the tribe, then the community. Nation comes number four or five.

Unfortunately in discussions with people, they assess politics within that frame. We have seen entities we spoke with to have coalition or strategic alliances; everybody wanted to have it their own way and everybody wanted to be on the ballot when indeed they knew, they didn’t have support. Look at the results, none of the other parties could even get 2% of the votes. In a way I was vindicated by some who said they were more experienced than us. We just knew that the youth wanted change.

The first people to protest that something was wrong with the elections during the first round were the SLPP; they did a press release. Second was the NGC; third was C4C then the APC. APC only realized the elections were not good when they started losing and they in fact documented better than we did, what was wrong with the electioneering process. For example, we had already said that all the results for every district should be tallied and announced in the district. In the second round that was what APC demanded. We complained of duplicate RRF forms, that numbers were been changed, but they ignored it in the first round. But in the second round, suddenly the APC itself documented even more than we did, what was wrong.

Now we see that being repeated in places like Tonko Limba. So the whole role of NEC, we have to take a look at that.  We believe, if we had not been hounded by the government of the day; they fought my candidacy more than any candidacy in the country. The fact that I am even here one year later is credit to me. People forget what I endured through the campaigns. We did our best in those elections. They deliberately delayed the registration of our party till five months before the elections. We were still at the Supreme Court till the week before the elections.

Quite a number of prominent NGC members have left the party and joined the ruling SLPP; are you disappointed about this? Are you worried about the future of NGC?

Not at all; remember, we are a coalition of progressives and of people who were not happy with happenings in their parties and we had this number of people who had never been in politics. For them, this was their experiment; they came full force, young people; we paid their candidature fees. We did that maybe out of altruism and the belief that we should give an opportunity to people to have a chance in governance. So, when we lost some went back to their political parties.

For some, they wanted short-term victory. Others were in for the long haul.That is another dimension of Sierra Leone politics; it is about patronage. Our corrupt kleptocratic system has built a patronage system. So people know when you get power you have access to wealth, almost like feudal Europe; you are close to the royalty you get land, good education and good opportunity.  In Sierra Leone, it is patronage.  People know they have to associate and the moment it doesn’t work for some, they move on and go where there is hope that they can also have access to wealth. This is because of the governance structure, the lack of equal opportunity as well as lack of economic space for people to excel as entrepreneurs and so on.

So we hold no animosity to people. Remember what we did. For the runoff, we told supporters they were free to make a choice. So we stay true to our values. So, they who are leaving, we have not been angry with them. We understand their circumstances. We know those for whom it has been very personal and some were clear that they couldn’t wait five or ten years in opposition, they needed benefits now.

Now I hear people talk more about tribalism. Those who hounded us the most are the ones expecting us to defend them. We have spoken when we needed to, we have challenged issues; you saw us at Bintumani 3. We went to the peace conference for good reason because we believe things are wrong in this country. Tribalism and identity politics is one of them. We campaigned heavily against corruption. We wanted accountability. Again part of the mafia mobilized money to fight me. We now see those who were ringleaders expecting us to be their cheerleaders. No, we are focused on justice and we have done things to say we hold no grudge.

Are you disappointed that the Supreme Court has not yet delivered a decision on the case regarding your eligibility to contest the last Presidential elections?

There are so many cases in front of them. Ours was finished; all they needed to do was to write judgment which they wrote and everybody went to court for them to read it, they said one of their colleague was not properly dressed and they left. Since then, there has been no word. So this is justice delayed and it is the same for everybody. There are cases put in front of the court by the Bar Association. There are other cases and some are very simple opinions. In the UK, Supreme Court could give an opinion in 3 days. When one citizen challenged Theresa May about Brexit, the decision was given with a reasonable period. Here, no. Things are just left.

I strongly believe that part of the tension in the country is the lack of justice. It is in the TRC report that the lack of justice drove a lot of people into protests, into rebellion and nothing has changed. We saw it right through these four years and it is across the board.  The justice system is such a critical part of governance that even for us politicians to defend the right of others, we have to be sure that there is a justice system that would adjudicate in their favor. We have to be sure that even us who will be protesting (it is my right as a politician to lead a demonstration) but I have to be sure that I will be defended in court. And we saw that happening here in the 60s and 70s when judges would say no to the government. But it hasn’t happened here in the last fifteen years.

What has your first year in Parliament been like? 

It has been a learning experience. I have seen the importance of parliament firsthand. Every law is passed there. All big agreements have to go through parliament. If parliament just rubberstamps every agreement, this country is in trouble. That is what happened for the last ten years.  That is so much that went wrong. So, the role of parliament is so crucial that if it works well, you would not even need an Anti-Corruption agency because parliament is in charge of oversight.  Every ministry is to be accountable to parliament.  But parliament currently lacks that capacity to do all the work we are supposed to do. 

Most of our parliamentarians don’t have offices and people leave the provinces to come here. They are supposed to have resources to go to their constituencies.  In every other country, they build offices. I have been to Ghana, I have seen their offices. We don’t even have PAs. So imagine you are on five committees and you are supposed to perform.  In Ghana, their research group alone received about five million dollars from the World Bank to build their capacity to do economic analysis because they have the power of appropriation. It is parliament that decides how much money goes to each ministry because we have to do appropriation. Government makes the budget but we can change it in parliament. 

Our parliament compared to the others is very weak. So I have been advocating for capacity building for parliament for this one year. So it has been a wonderful experience, learning from colleagues who have been there, reading more the constitution now than I ever did before; the rules of procedure and also now having the opportunity to interact with other parliaments to see how they function, the way they vote, the way they analyze. We are there to represent the people, not just to make speeches. We have a long way to go to be able to function as an equal arm of government, to provide the necessary checks and balances, to make sure we don’t have too much power in the executive.

In a 2018 interview you had with Sierra Leone Telegraph, you spoke of hidden actions to prevent you-MPs, from being effective in your job. Are such actions inclusive of petitions initiated against opposition MPs much as we need to know your position regarding those cases and their outcome?

It comes back to the fundamental issue of justice. The constitution is clear. You finish those cases in four months. Leaving them hanging over parliament I think makes parliament dysfunctional.   Let parliament settle to do the work. Apart from the Councilors, we are the only elected officials. We are not serving at the pleasure of the executive.  I hope that my role in parliament will encourage more young people and professionals wanting to be in parliament.  You need good parliamentarians if you are going to have good governance in this country, if you are going to have checks and balance and accountability.

In addition, there are some who are deliberately destabilizing our constituencies. They are going after a number of us in the opposition to make sure that we don’t come back.  That is ongoing and I can say that as a fact. Some of us have been able to go back to our constituencies to defuse tensions. There is not a fair allocation of resources across the country. This is one of the things the Kenyan Peace Commission does; they look at equity in allocation across the country. They do ethnic audit to make sure that one ethnic group does not dominate services in the country. It is by law; no ethnic group should have more than 30%. These are the things I want to work on now.

How effective do you think the present opposition in parliament is?

The current opposition has been partly effective and I think part of it is because of the petition cases. Part of it also is that we have not really organized ourselves to be a formidable opposition. We have not coordinated well enough our positions on issues. But all in all, we’ve tried. It is a learning process. Maybe some things will change in year two. But it has been turbulent parliament but at the same time we have passed a lot of bills.    

You had drafted a Bill to amend the law pertaining to dual citizens contesting presidential and parliamentary elections. What happened to that Bill?

We need two-third majority to pass it. I have been negotiating from August last year with all political parties.  We have now also built a coalition to work on some aspect. Remember, it is two aspects; one is Diaspora Voting Right, the other is the Dual Nationality. So we are working on those two. I am optimistic that at least one of those we can complete in collaboration with other political parties in parliament.

One of the legislations I want to work on also this year is the Presidential Transition Act. The Speaker is also interested in that. This is to ensure that we have an orderly transfer of power from one administration to the next, even if it is the same party because the Ghanaian one, they saw problem even when it was the same party. When it is a different party, it is a big problem. And particularly when we talk about injustice, it is injustice to just dismiss people who are career professionals in ministries or embassies. It is injustice when they are even relieved off their responsibilities and they are not paid their benefits. This is wrong. I know SLPP also suffered that, I see the same thing happening now. This is wrong! So, this Act, my hope is, will cover some of these for posterity so that this does not happen. This is what creates tension in the country and people are aggrieved.

In a February, 2018 talk you gave to students at Fourah Bay College, you emphasized on “forging unity in a divided nation”. A year on, the country appears more divided and polarized. What should be done to address this critical issue?

It is a fact that tribalism is growing. Regionalism is intensifying and it is a danger to social cohesion, a danger to good governance. Once people rely on tribal sentiment, tribal identity, the wrong people are voted for and appointed to various positions because it is about tribe first then we look at competence later. Those dangers I talked about are very ripe now. You go back to TRC you will see those things there and I think a lot of those factors are prevalent now in 2019 from all sides. So we went to Bintumani 3 because we realized they are a danger and we believe dialogue is necessary .We must have serious dialogue; one event is not enough. We must set up systems on checks and balances; do what the Kenyans have done, we should do ethnic audit of institutions.

If you want to fight corruption apart from Commissions of Inquiries, let us see very transparently who won the contracts so we don’t repeat the same things that we have done before. We should avoid revenge politics. We should not repeat those things that were wrong. They tell us the country owes 530 million dollars to contractors in the country. One of the worst corrupt places is debt management and procurement. Well, let us publish the list of people the country owes and let us see how much and why we owe that such money. These are locals we owe. Are the contracts real? Are they real debts? Unless we begin to do those things then some of what we’re doing will be cosmetic.

Pleasure talking to you

Thank you very much!

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