Why Nigeria should be interested in Sierra Leone election – Dr. Yumkella
by Muideen Olaniyi
Dr. Kandeh K. Yumkella, the former United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All is the opposition presidential candidate of the National Grand Coalition Party (NGC) of Sierra Leone. In this interview, he speaks on the coming elections in his country, the political atmosphere and the need for ECOWAS to intervene to avoid crisis.
Daily Trust: What is the political atmosphere like in Sierra Leone as the general election approaches in March?
Dr. Yumkella: The country is excited that on March 7, we will have elections for councilors in local governments, parliament and presidency of Sierra Leone. It’s an important election because it will be an election where you have several new political parties participating, particularly my own National Grand Coalition Party (NGC). It’s a new party, and many of the youths are galvanizing around the NGC because they say it represents change. We are among the three leading parties. The ruling party is the All People’s Congress (APC). The other party is the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP). Both parties have been there for 56 years. We are a new brand. We are less than a year old. But this new party, the NGC, has been built out of what is called The Kandeh Yumkella Movement. That is a movement that was created in 2013 as people were calling on me to go home from the United Nations and run for the office of president. So, they formed that movement and it has transformed into the National Grand Coalition.
DT: How did the people receive your entrance into the presidential race?
Dr. Yumkella: The general public has received my venture into politics very well. They know I’m a development expert. They know I have been in the development field for over 30 years. I have been a professional and an academic. I taught at the Michigan State University at one time. I came home during the war years and served for a year and a half as Minister of Trade, Industry and State Enterprises. And then, I spent about 20 years in the United Nations, reaching the rank of Under-Secretary-General and Director-General of the United Nations Industrial Development Organisations (UNIDO). So, many people are very impressed that I could give up my very good career. I was an Under-Secretary-General - an already ranked position for 12 years. I resigned as Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All. I resigned from a very good job and career to go back home to say I would serve my people. So, the young generation is just excited that this is a breath of fresh air. I’m the only Sierra Leonean who has been elected twice to be chief executive of a United Nations specialized agency. So, they are just excited that somebody could give up such a lucrative career and come home. And by the way, I also served in Nigeria for three years as UNIDO’s representative and director of the Regional Industrial Development Centre. I opened that centre here in Nigeria from 2000 to 2003 before going back to the headquarters. And three years later, I was elected Director-General with the support of Nigeria. Nigeria backed my candidature when I ran as Director-General. But there is a history here. Nigeria wanted that position almost 30 years ago with Professor Adedeji in 1986. He was the most prominent Nigerian in the UN system. But he did not win the election. So, 20 years later, in 2005, when I came up as a candidate, Nigeria backed me. They say, yes, black Africa has tried to have that position since the days of Adedeji. It didn’t happen. With Nigeria’s backing, I was elected as the first person from the Sub-Saharan Africa to be the Director-General of UNIDO. So, I have a good relationship with this great country Nigeria.
DT: You face a herculean task because you are facing a government that has been in power for many years. Do you think you can dislodge the ruling party?
Dr. Yumkella: What gives me hope that we can defeat the ruling party is a number of factors. Number one, we see across Africa, particularly West Africa a desire for change. We have seen it in Ghana, Gambia, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire and of course, Nigeria. So, we believe that it is not impossible to defeat the incumbent. The second reason, the economy is in bad shape. The rate of inflation is 18 per cent. It is one of the highest in Africa. People are literarily suffering. We have 70 per cent youth unemployment rate - the worst in Africa. We have the highest maternal mortality rate in the world. Women are dying when they deliver babies in hospitals. This government has wrecked the economy. They are leaving over $2 billion in debts. When they came in and took over power, we were almost debt-free. And under their leadership, we have seen total mismanagement of Ebola. They did not only mismanage Ebola, they stole $14 million of Ebola money while the people were dying. So, the people are fed up. They see blatant and raw corruption. People who had nothing five years ago are now super rich. Yet, there is 70 per cent youth unemployment. Students are graduating from college. Three years later, there is no job. And these people want to continue in government after 10 years that they have wrecked the economy. People are asking what they do with the money. They wrecked the mining sector. So, the young generation is in revolt. They want change. They want to take back their country and create opportunities for themselves. This is the message of the National Grand Coalition. It is country first-you have to put your country first above yourself. Secondly, you have to provide hope, opportunity and transformation for the people - give them hope that their lives can be better, give them hope that with the minerals and wealth in this small country of seven million people that they can take themselves out of poverty. And finally, you have to transform the economy. We see good examples in Africa where economies are beginning to transform. Cote d’Ivoire is growing at seven to nine per cent. We have also seen Senegal, Ghana, Kenya and Rwanda. We have seen some other countries with good examples that show that we can do it. And that is the message we are giving our people - that you can change your life and we will help you do it. And we come with clear integrity and knowledge that others do not have.
DT: You said they stole Ebola funds, is that not a wild allegation?
Dr Yumkella: No, it is real. A British newspaper has written about it. Our Auditor-General has also shown evidence that the government stood by when almost 4000 of our people were dying and they were stealing $14 million from the coffers that the international community sent to save their own children. Yes, it is in a British newspaper. If you want, we can give you the references. Our own auditor-general of the country showed evidence that while our people were dying, when nurses went unpaid, people were stealing. They had over 3000 ghost workers within three months of Ebola. What kind of heartless people can be stealing money that was sent to them to save lives? And they gave fake contracts to buy ambulances that did not work. About four months ago, the International Red Cross in Sierra Leone came out with a report that from them alone, $2.3 million was stolen. So, you look at that as heartless. Your people are dying and you are stealing money. And you are not paying the nurses. Even now, the Ebola survivors are complaining that they have not received some of their benefits.
DT: What is your assessment of current Nigeria-Sierra-Leone relations?
Dr. Yumkella: Nigeria-Sierra-Leone relations is fantastic. We have always relied on your generosity. You saved our nation. When I was a minister for a year and a half, I was the only one who started leading trade delegations to Nigeria. You can check the records of 1994, 1995. It shows the respect I have always had for Nigeria. Secondly, Nigeria is a very generous nation that sacrificed people for democracy and stability in West Africa. This is why Nigeria has to be concerned if somebody is trying to create instability again in our country, pushing tribalism and wrecking our economy. I worked in Nigeria. My daughter is married here, living in Nigeria. You can see my relations with Nigeria are personal. And I worked in Nigeria very well in my UN career. I also helped to hire Nigerians in the UN.