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Who and how to talk for the Sierra Leone government

By Umaru Fofana

I am not sure why President Ernest Bai Koroma decided to reintroduce the position of Presidential Spokesman in his last reshuffle. But depending on how it is managed and how much fiat and resources the new man and his team get and what they set out to do, it was badly needed not least because it comes in the wake of a long-running disjointed and largely dishonest approach to government information gathering and dissemination, and the blurring of the line between spinning and lying without consequence on government officials, with anyone saying just anything.

It seems the position of Minister of Information is now the domain of only countries whose governments wish to continue to cling on to their state broadcasters to feed the public with one-sided information that suits only the government of the day. Nothing else! So much so that last week I shook my head virulently when I came by a letter dated 7 August 2006, written by opposition or minority leader Ernest Bai Koroma to Victor Angello who was the UN country boss here at the time.

Koroma was complaining about the skewed media coverage by the state broadcaster and complaining that the then UN Radio was tinkering on the brink of doing same. Exactly what he was complaining about is happening today under his watch, in his interest. So no complain. Perhaps worse than it did then not least because SLBS is now a public service broadcaster on paper at least, and should have risen way beyond its present operations. I will bring you that letter in due course.

It is inconceivable that even in this age of media pluralism and social media countries like Sierra Leone can continue to pump huge amounts of money that should be used elsewhere, into propagating what is often falsehood or at best unchallenged one-sided views on so-called state broadcasters. These governments determine who gets appointed to what position even on the state radio station, and what gets aired or screened. Consequences of doing what is right can sometimes be dire for the professional journalists.

It is no mistake that the Voice of America (VOA) does not broadcast to the United States of America. Or that any attempt by the British government to determine the editorial policy of the BBC is met with stiff resistance not only from the broadcaster but also the British public. It is called a critical mass. Lacking in Sierra Leone. So SLBC can afford to continue doing what it does and how it does it. Instances abound of how that resistance has brought Downing Street and Bush House - now New Broadcasting House - into conflict leaving the public service broadcaster intact, editorially at least.

But back to last month’s reshuffle and the appointments of Mohamed Bangura as Minister of Information (I will ignore the other side of his portfolio namely Communications) and Abdulai Bayraytay as Presidential Spokesman. One of the worst-kept secrets in ministerial appointments in recent times has to be Bangura’s appointment. He had been talking about it almost everywhere since Adam and Eve were toddlers. That said, successive information ministers and presidential spokespeople in Sierra Leone have clashed over power and authority and supremacy. In 1998 when President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah had just been reinstated after that military takeover, he brought in a US-based Sierra Leonean called Professor Septimus Kaikai. He mesmerised many a local journalist with his tinge of American accent and smooth talking, and became somewhat arrogant with his proclivity of talking down on journalists, sometimes.

Prof Kaikai introduced a weekly State House press briefing. It was badly needed because the war was still on and later the peace process kicked off. It is completely different to what obtains today at the press briefing organised by the ministry of information and communication which is almost entirely pointless and wasteful of resources both of the state and of those media houses that assign reporters there week-in week-out.

At the time the professor was presidential spokesman, Dr Julius Spencer was Minister of Information. One of the very few human beings in our country in our time who resigned his position because he did not want to become corrupt as his salary could not take care of his needs. There was s serious tension lurking in the back burner and would later come to the fore between Dr Spencer and Prof. Kaikai. As minister of information, Spencer ostensibly wanted to preside over the State House briefing. As Presidential Spokesman, Kaikai insisted it was his turf.

When Spencer resigned for the reason I just mentioned, Septimus Kaikai was made information minister and Kanji Daramy became Presidential Spokesman. Such is the power of a positive media limelight that the new information minister now went back on his words and argued that as minister he should be presiding over the State House press briefing. Daramy, of blessed memory, used the old argument advanced by the professor that as presidential spokesman, he (Daramy) should preside.

Kanji had been plucked from the world of postal services where he had made his name as a true expert in the area. But he had also burned his fingers after hundreds - maybe thousands - of US diversity visa lottery applications were found in the Atlantic Ocean instead of in the post. All hell broke loose then in Freetown. An investigation into the matter left a lot to be desired. Kanji would later be made head of the National Telecommunications Commission (NATCOM) when it was founded. There was an offer for me to succeed him as Presidential Spokesman which I turned down without even scratching my head. But that is for another day.

When Ernest Bai Koroma was running for president in 2007, he had two Carl Roves (his figurative brain boxes like Rive was to US President George W. Bush). Veteran journalist Ibrahim Ben Kargbo and one of the most eloquent public officials in Koroma’s administration, Alpha Kanu. Even if his eloquence is often stretched to hilarity or even preposterousness. So Kargbo was appointed information minister and Kanu became Presidential Affairs Minister which he would seemingly extend to mean to the remit of a presidential spokesman.

Giving a lecture to IB Kargbo on what the media limelight mattered to and for him was like teaching a grannie how to suck eggs. So Kargbo and Kanu jockeyed for media prominence. Incidentally they were appointed by a man who is very particular about what the media says about him and if he could he would seek to determine every word what went out on the media.

Kanu would give his new post so much oomph that he would make several media appearances thereby ruffling Kargbo’s feathers as information minister. Kanu was later made mines minister and he would later run for the position of Public Affairs of the ruling APC party which he controversially won in Makeni. He used the latter position and often spoke on behalf of government in stead of confining himself to the party. Except that ours is a country where there is a very thin line - if any - between state and party.

While the conflict for limelight supremacy was raging, information minister Kargbo apparently asked for clarification from his boss. An official gazette was issued clarifying that the information minister was the official government spokesman. That gazette is still in force and the gaffe-prone Mohamed Bangura has been appointed information minister while Abdulai Bayraytay who is a far more fluent and more guarded speaker is Presidential Spokesman.

I do not know what the president is thinking in view of how much I assume he knows both men, but the least he could afford to witness a clash between these two. He should therefore now try to draw a distinction in functions - even if in-house - between them. Let Bangura concentrate on the communications portfolio in dealing with the telecommunications sector which is already a heck of a task, and let Bayraytay do the talking and media appearances. That way there is unlikely to be many gaffes even if the presidential spokesman should try to be less and less rambling when he answers to questions in interviews. It is a fact of life that the more you talk the more you leave room to err or be waylaid by good journalists, and the more you turn off your audience thereby undermining your essence.

But back to eschewing the disjointed government information gathering and dissemination: Bayraytay should seek to institutionalise the Office of the Presidential Spokesman. Some of the things to do are very basic but worth mentioning. Emails should not be generated from people’s private email accounts. Let there be an official email address receiving and sending out official information or correspondences.

More profound is that there should be a State House communications or information directorate. A strategic communications strategy - founded and soaked deep in multimedia - should goad that. This should take onboard dealing with the apparently freelance and fringe manner in which some of our information attachés operate. They are supposed to be diplomats and are paid by taxpayers back home. They should confine themselves to officialdom and not the figurative attack-dog role some of them play along blatant partisan lines which are sometimes outright uncivil. Sorry, my editor says my space is up here. I will return to this not long from now. And among other things, I will argue on why and how to get rid of the moribund Sierra Leone News Agency (SLENA) and even the Government Information Services (GIS). And with the right people put in charge at SLBC you will see how much money will be saved and how efficiency will take hold. See you then.

(C) Politico 14/04/16