Since 1992, the name John Oponjo Benjamin or better still, JOB has been a permanent fixture in the politics of Sierra Leone. His breakthrough came when the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) overthrew the All Peoples Congress (APC) of then President Joseph Saidu Momoh on April 29 that year and made him Secretary of State, Chairman's Office and later, Chief Secretary of State and Secretary-General of the junta. Since then, he has been a fearless opposition leader, interim chair of the National Unity Party, a Councilor and Chairman of the Kailahun District Council, a Finance Minister, chairman of the opposition Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) and now, a contender for flagbearer ahead of the SLPP primaries this weekend (14-15 October). In this illuminating interview with Concord Times recently, JOB takes us on a roller coaster ride of his life and political journey. Read on!!
Concord Times: What was it like growing up?
JOB: I am the first of six siblings. Sadly, we have lost one brother and one sister. My brother died fighting the RUF [Revolutionary United Front] rebels under suspicious circumstances. My sister died because of the poor maternal facilities in this country. My father passed on when I was in fifth form and from then on, my mother (of blessed memory) took up the role of both parents. When you consider that she had never gone to school, you will begin to understand the challenges she had bringing up six children as a single mother. Up to the time when I was at FBC [Fourah Bay College], she was the sole family bread-winner. She never once complained, depending as she did on her petty trading and local restaurant (cookery shop). So, for me, it was a very humble beginning and had it not been for her efforts, I might have dropped out of school. As soon as I graduated, I took up the first employment that came along as a teacher because I felt it was my duty to relieve her off some of the burden she had carried alone for over six years. I became the father of the family and she even allowed me to use my late father's bedroom. The education and welfare of my siblings became my primary responsibility. She preferred to stay in Segbwema even after I had made some progress economically. She spent her last few years with me, insisting on personally cooking my meals, until God took her. Words cannot express how much I miss her.
Concord Times: What was your dream as a child?
JOB: If I had had the support, I would have loved to train as a medical doctor. This was the reason I repeated 5th form so that I could study the sciences separately because at my first secondary school (Wesley Secondary) in Segbwema, we were taught General Science and sat it at the GCE O'Level examinations as opposed to Physics, Chemistry and Biology as separate subjects. I was still young and determined but as my family situation changed, so did my fortune and career path. Politics never featured in my early plans as a youth. It was at FBC that I first became interested in politics, first as a Students Representative Council Member (SRC), then President of Bai Bureh Hall and in that same year, the Chairman of the Rag Committee. I was elected to these positions by my peers who assessed and found the requisite qualities in me. By the way, it was during my tenure as Hall president that FBC held its first inter-hall sports meet and partly through my efforts, our Hall won all the trophies except one. I was a go-getter then and still am. Reading Mathematics and Physics and dabbling into politics while also being on the Editorial Board of the Aureol Times Press was like a juggling act but I was confident that I could manage. Being on the editorial board nearly led to my rustication from FBC because of an article we had published but that is all water under the bridge now.
Concord Times: As one-time Minister of Finance how do you rate Sierra Leone's current economy?
JOB: I will let you draw your own conclusions based on the few facts I will give you: the exchange rate of the Leone then and now. By the time I fully handed over in 2007 the exchange rate of the Leone to the British Pound was around Le4, 000 to £1 sterling. It has rapidly depreciated to around Le10, 000 to £1 sterling. This cannot be blamed on global financial problems alone. To my mind, it is largely as a result of gross mismanagement by the APC. By 2007, we had cleverly negotiated with the Paris Club, IMF and World Bank for our debts to be written off and they were. How much do we owe today? I do not have the figures at hand but you can be sure it is plenty. So, who has been more prudent in managing our finances; the SLPP or APC? I know it's the former SLPP administration. But do not take my word for it. It's a matter of public records, please check and verify.
Concord Times: You will be challenging Bio for the flagbearer of your party, how do you rate your chances?
JOB: Bio's chances are good because this current government is very unpopular but my chances are better or even best when you factor in the other aspirants. Party members are not easily bamboozled, despite the low literacy rate in our country. Fancy words and empty promises do not fool voters these days. My track record is beyond reproach. I weathered all that the APC threw at us when I was chairman and leader and I steered the party to an election that we dubiously lost in 2012. Where was Maada after the 2012 Elections? Why was our petition thrown out of court? Who has used more of his personal resources for the betterment of the party? Who is the APC most terrified to contest against? These are questions that you yourself can find ready answers to.
Concord Times: What do you have to offer as a President John Benjamin?
JOB: A lot more than President Koroma and the others before him have offered this country. There is a need for the next government to:
Change direction from regional bias to meritocracy: Appoint government functionaries based on merit rather than party or regional affiliation because this is the hallmark of our present government. Various articles have researched and published results on who's who in this government. My administration will embrace all Sierra Leoneans who are suitably qualified to hold positions of trust. If an aspiring candidate for any job in my administration has a past that cannot stand probity, bye bye!
Implement real Transparency and Clear Audit Trails: Despite Audit reports and the like, most recently into the Ebola relief funds, this government remain resolute in covering up for miscreants and out-right thieves who continue to plunder our resources. If my brother were to be offered a job, I will sack and bring him to book if accused and proven to have been engaged in any wrong doing. Ernest Koroma 'sets aside' those found wanting and recycled them later: Kemoh Sesay, Balogun Koroma, Afsatu Kabba, to name a few.
Combat corruption with a vigour not known before now: Quite a number of public officials continue to bleed the nation because the ACC is itself not transparent. When was the last time a functionary accused of corruption been found guilty despite overwhelming evidence and been made to face the full penalty of the Law? That will stop as soon as I am sworn in. Unexplained assets can be easily investigated and confiscated if need be. Any wrong doings will be thoroughly probed and any guilty party brought to book. It is only by setting uncompromising and fearless examples that the corruption with impunity in Sierra Leone can be ended.
Rebuild the economy: Rebuilding the economy is not rocket science. The NPRC did it after President Momoh drained our resources, the SLPP government in which I served for two years did it and left the economy with a clean bill of health; so I have the experience to do it again and it will not take me long.
Restore trust in politicians: A huge proportion of our compatriots have lost confidence in politicians: 'na wan mami born dem', 'den all na tiff man' 'mi nor di waste mi tem for vote', 'me a tire sef'. These are the sayings of those we rule or hope to rule. Reversing these negatives is easy. I will lead by example and if you do not fall into line, the consequences will be grave!
Raise the standards of life and living: It is not enough just to raise the minimum wage to Le500, 000 when a bag of rice alone costs Le200, 000 or more; rent is charged in US dollars; transport cost continues to rise and the list is endless. I will ensure that pay rates can support a family through the month. We will do a food basket survey to determine the basic wage that a family can subsist on and ensure that workers are paid that wage. I will focus my attention on the infrastructure. We will not do just trunk roads but feeder roads as well. We will ensure that health centers are adequately staffed and that the two-shift education system is relegated to history.
Training our youth for tomorrow: Currently, if you do not succeed at the WASCE examination, your best prospect in life is one of the following: a wheelbarrow pusher (woroke), an unpaid parking attendant, a thug on hire, an 'attaya base regular' or worse still a burglar. This is because there is a huge chasm between WASCE and tertiary education with nothing in-between. I will revive and adequately resource the technical institutes and trade centers to cater for those who are not able to enter college but who might provide the middle manpower that we so desperately need. I will provide incentives for our youth to enter into apprenticeships beneficial to this country. Since the SLPP built scores of school rooms through the SABABU PROJECT after the war, there has been no expansion. That is one of the first lapses I will address. We have thousands of trained nurses that have not been employed; they call them volunteers and pay them nothing. To make a living, they use all kinds of subterfuges to extort money from patients. If we cannot fully employ them, why train them? We train teachers that only want to work in urban settings because they are forgotten when they take up employment in village schools. That will change during my stewardship because I will provide incentives that will make rural areas as attractive, if not more appealing to teachers and other essential staff.
The Energy gap: We should not be proud that our children sit beneath dim solar street lights to study. This government promised to raise electricity generation from 90 megawatts to 1000 but progress has stalled at 100 megawatts despite the huge investments. To attract development partners, we need adequate and sustained energy. Even when Bumbuna was 95% complete, the APC under Energy Minister Afsatu Kabba decided to contract a marine energy boat at a cost of $32M when Bumbuna only needed about $37M or so to come online. Poor judgement perhaps for the kick-backs that the rental agreement afforded the negotiators. It was only after the scandal of the hire cost broke that they turned their attention to Bumbuna. I will ensure that we cooperate with neighbours and development partners to speed-up Bumbuna II so that power is not rationed. It is a right for every Sierra Leonean.
Many more development ideas will be published in my manifesto and implementation will start the day after I assume the Presidency
Concord Times: What is the nature of your relationship with Bio?
JOB: I have known Maada Bio since he was prosecuting the war against Sankoh's rebels and was based in Segbwema with my late brother as their Unit Commander at the front. Because of the meagre rations they were provided, my mother fed them and I provided the resources for this to happen. When my brother, their leader, was killed, in fact assassinated for becoming too 'too famous,' they staged a coup-d'état and I was invited to join them in the NPRC. We were friends then and we are still friends today. Both of us are vying for the flag and a lot has been made of the breakdown of our friendship, blowing up this mole hill into a mountain. I bear no grudge against him and I hope he bears none against me for at the end of the day, I expect him to support me when I am chosen to contest for our party. In the same vein, I will support him if in the unlikely event he defeats me at our primaries. After all I supported him in 2012 when as chairman of the SLPP we chose him as our standard bearer.
Concord Times: It is true that you are friends with President Koroma. How are you able to maintain such a relationship considering the sometimes toxic nature of our politics and the fact that both of you belong to different political parties?
JOB: It is true that we are friends even when we sit on opposite sides of the political divide. I first met him at Fourah Bay College. We were both in student politics at the time. On graduation, we became businessmen and at one time, we even considered forming a political alliance in 2002 but soon realised our folly because the SLPP is ideologically as far away from the APC as the proverbial Heaven is from earth. There was nothing to be gained from such an alliance, so we went our separate ways. The APC adopted him as their presidential candidate in 2007 and look at where he is today! When my mother passed on, he came to my house to pay his respect as did Maada Bio. Prior to that, I stood by him when he was wrongfully arrested and detained for complicity in a treasonable offence. We will still be friends after I become president but if any evidence were to come to light for any wrongdoing during his stewardship, I will not judge him until he has had his day in court.
Concord Times: What are your hobbies?
JOB: I am a keen sportsman but more specifically a racquet sportsman. I played badminton for FBC and lately, played for the Hill Station Tennis Club. I also ran the club as president and during my tenure I took a youngster to an international competition where he performed admirably. When with the NPRC, we sponsored Leone Stars until they appeared in the Nations Cup finals in South Africa. Sports is a fruitful diversion for the untapped energies of our youth and I promise to pay due attention to their pursuits.
Concord Times: What sort of books do you read?
JOB: When I was younger, my cousin and I read practically all the novels in the Peace Corps library in Segbwema which they kindly loaned to us. Business and politics have connived to deprive me of the spare time that I used as an avid reader. Currently, I am reading a book by Brian Tracy on Leadership. This bodes well for my current ambition to lead this country.
Concord Times: Any type of music that you dance to?
JOB: I listen to all genres. I have a huge collection that I relax to but these days, I do not play my music collection as regularly as I would like to. I still have my iPod and speakers and the music on my smart phone. When it is not ringing from the many calls I receive, music from it often helps me to get through the day.
Concord Times: Mr. Benjamin, tell us about your family.
JOB: I am married and I have raised six kids, five of them I fathered and the other is my late brother's only daughter whom I have raised as my own and put through Law School. There are countless other extended family children that I am responsible for. I am a family man in the true sense of the word, especially as it relates to our African setting
Concord Times: What is Segbwema like to you and how do you spend your times when you are there?
JOB: The town occupies a special place in my heart and even as president, I will frequently retire there to recharge my batteries and forget about the hurly-burly of public life. The people have been good to me and the feeling is mutual. In Segbwema, I am not just a politician but a farmer too. I cannot recall when the last time I bought imported rice was. I grow my own food and besides, I believe that that is what all of us must do if we are to break our dependency chain on imported foreign foods. Home sweet home as they say!
Concord Times: Thank you very much Mr. Benjamin.
JOB: It was a pleasure talking with you.