On the re-opening of SLPP Office … “We would never encourage violence” John Benjamin...


UmaruState of the Association report And Valedictory Speech By Umaru Fofana, Outgoing President of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists Delivered at the 19th Biennial Delegates Conference Miatta Conference Centre, Freetown 13 April 2013
Madam Chairman, Founding Members of our noble Association present here today, Chairman and Members of the Independent Media Commission, fellow delegates, good morning. Before I go any further, could I please request you all to stand up and observe a moment of silence for our colleagues who are no longer with us especially those who have passed away in the last four years.
May their souls rest in perfect peace.
Before I start, Madam Chair, please allow me to pay tribute to two people present here. Mariama Coker is Sierra Leone’s Press Attaché at the embassy in Monrovia. Her commitment to SLAJ is breath-taking. In 2011 she travelled from her duty station to Kenema purposely to attend the biennial congress. She even donated $ 200 towards that congress. She has also travelled to Freetown this week to attend this congress. She could have stayed in Monrovia and voted, if voting was all she cared about. But she chose to come and join us. I am proud of you, Miss Coker.
I would also like to acknowledge Amadu Falilu Sesay of SLBC in Makeni. He has been a father figure to me throughout my SLAJ presidency. He regularly called to advise me throughout my tenure. And he was honest to me at all times. I am grateful to you, Falilu, and your pieces of advice helped me a great deal.
IMC commissioners have been a great source of inspiration and courage to me, especially my dear friend Isaac Massaquoi and my former boss, Mohamed Samoura. Sometimes when I think of the AGM next year, and the fact that we have to replace all four media experts on the commission because they are serving out their final term, I begin to wonder what will happen to institutional memory. I hope the SLAJ ambassador, Commissioner Sahr Mbayoh, will have his mandate renewed next year so he keeps that memory.
Madam Chair, fellow delegates, I am delighted to stand before you this day, to deliver the State-of-the-Association Report at this the 19th Biennial Congress, and to deliver my Farewell Speech as President of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists. What I am going to do is more of the latter than the former. My handing-over note which I will make available to the next president in the coming days will deal more with the former. But suffice it to say that if I drop dead after this speech, I drop dead a satisfied man. A satisfied man because of what my Executive and I have achieved for our noble association. It does not take rocket science to see what we have collectively accomplished. It only takes conscience; it only requires honesty; and it only entails love for SLAJ to see, feel and agree that the last four years have been like none other in the history of our noble association. SLAJ, like I said some two years ago, will never be the same, again!
As I stand here, it is more of a humbling opportunity than a proud moment for me. I am very proud of what my executive, with your support and contributions, has been able to achieve. On that note, I wish to therefore state from the start that the success of my tenure belongs to all those who served with me in the executive, while the setbacks we faced are entirely mine and for which I take full responsibility. I therefore take responsibility for all what happened between me and Mr Mustapha Sesay and later with Mr Ismael Koroma. I consider these developments as the biggest setbacks of my tenure. God is my witness that I did not do anything wrong. If I did I would have said so. And at no point in time did I have any interest besides SLAJ’s interest. That was why I held back and did not respond even when they took the matter to the general public. Be that as it may I hereby ask for their forgiveness for all the misunderstanding we had, and I hereby forgive them for all the negative perceptions they created about me and SLAJ out there.
This takes me to a poorly edited, poorly-researched so-called State of The Media Report on Sierra Leone released yesterday by the Society for Democratic Initiative (SDI). The said report erroneously states, among many things, that Ismael Koroma and I were gunning for press attaché positions in APC and SLPP respectively hence we fell out. This is UTTERLY STUPID and COMPLETELY NONSENSICAL and bears NO TRUTH whatsoever! It suggests that someone at SDI is envious of the accomplishment and respectability I carry in the eyes of the public and is seeking to erode that. It makes true the saying to Beware of the naked man who offers you clothes. And this so-called State of the Media Report should serve as an eye opener for SLAJ to review its relationship with SDI which has been frosty in any case owing to the same presumptuousness of the leadership of the organization and the scramble for donor funds at any cost.
Madam Chair and fellow delegates, I may not have been the best qualified of all of you when you voted me in November 2008; but you had confidence in my intelligence and my sagacity. I was probably not the most competent when, sometimes at the risk of your friendship with some individual or even your jobs, you so determinedly chose to elect me as your president, not once but twice; it showed you had respect for what I represented and I am sure you are sure of what my leadership has been able to deliver. Some founding members of our association who have been around, have paid tribute to my executive which some of them have described as “A HISTORY-MAKING EXECUTIVE”.
That stern defiance, that dogged determination, and that extreme sacrifice and love for and trust in me, were the things that were to later inform every step I was to take as your President. I did not waver. I did not bend. I did not prevaricate. All because of you.
In the last 50 months, I have fallen out with some of my friends. All because of you. In the last four years, I have challenged authority, sometimes at the risk of my safety and security; all because of you. In my two terms I risked my marriage, parted with my hard-earned money and risked my only paid job; All because of you. Vilification by a few, I have endured. Name-calling and betrayal by a handful I have faced. But the support and loyalty and respect of the vast majority of you I have unwaveringly enjoyed. I am proud of each and every one of you and the support you gave me.
In good times such as when some of you got married or had your child-naming ceremony, I was present. Both in and outside the country. And I did so at my personal expense. In bad times such as in sickness or bereavement, I was by your side and helped with some of your bills. And when the ultimate happened and a colleague died, I helped take care of and am still taking care of some of the families left behind especially with fees for some of their children. All at my personal expense, and with money I took from my personal account.
Usually when people hold such positions they make money for themselves. God is my witness, that when I first became your president, my two foreign accounts were each in five digits. As I leave they are each in four digits. I may be leaving poorer than I was when coming in, but I am leaving more satisfied than when I came in to this position.
I was perhaps the only leader of any organisation that I know of in this country, the office of whose president or CEO, did not operate a budget. Payment of dues has been in trickles. I safeguarded your resources with my resources, and I protected your safety and security at the risk of my safety and security; sometimes with my life.
I have heard someone take almost the entire credit for some of our accomplishments. Yes, every member of my executive deserves credit for everything we achieved, but nothing could be much further from the truth than anyone attempting to take the credit as mostly theirs. When I ran for president in 2008, three of the main things I stood for were the defence and protection of journalists, securing a befitting space to be able to do that from, and journalists taking over our own association instead of political or corporate interest that used to run it. As I step down, I am proud of the accomplishment in those areas.
To secure a SLAJ headquarters, I told you about my sustainability plan when I was running for president hence the need to have one that would help sustain itself. An office space with a conference hall that would be given out on hire.
I used my contacts with the British High Commission in Freetown and due to the respect I commanded and still do command there as a respectable practicing journalist with a record of transparency, they listened to my call to pay for the office space when we eventually discovered one. Decent institutions do not give out their money to indecent people even if the institution they head is decent. But the process to secure that money was long. So I had to use my own personal money £ 7,000 at the time to pre-finance payment for the office. I left an executive meeting because of the urgency of it, went to the bank, withdrew the cash and brought it to the meeting. We later changed it and paid the landlord. The exchange rate made me lose almost ten percent of my money when I was eventually reimbursed weeks later, or so. But what I did not lose was the office space, especially so because there were other interested tenants. In the last almost four years, we have not asked anyone to pay our rent. We have used money from the rental of the hall and residue of money raised to organize our AGMs and Biennial conferences. Some other executive and planning committees would have shared such among themselves.
We were also able to secure office space for each and every other SLAJ Provincial Branch throughout the country. This is Unprecedented in the 42-year history of our association!
Following a visit my executive made to him, His Excellency the President, Ernest Bai Koroma, officially instructed the Ministry of Lands to provide our Association a plot of land so we can raise funds to put up a more permanent structure the construction of which we have already discussed with the Chinese embassy in Freetown. I am sure IDEAS PARTNERSHIP, one of whose co-owners, Mr Siray Timbo has been exceptionally nice and helpful to us over the years like I told you yesterday, could be approached to do a plan if not for free, I bet for a hugely discounted cost. I dedicate myself to continuing helping with this building project even after my presidency.
The office space acquisition may have been praised because ours is a society where people value the tangible. But it is nothing compared to the defence of journalists and journalism that my 4-year stewardship has come to epitomise. I woke up and responded to your calls at times as late as midnight or even later. I did so as early as 5:00 am and earlier. I used my own car, until it broke beyond repairs, to drive to Tombo, Pujehun, Kambia, Kabala, Bo and several other places to respond to the distress call from or about a journalist. I used my wife’s car until it also broke, to respond to your calls throughout the country. I stayed in hotels and guest houses with funds taken from my salary as a BBC worker, which I should have been saving for my family. That was because I saw each and every one of you as a party of my family. I turned down overseas study and job offers because of HONOUR to live up to my word that I would serve out my term as your chief servant.
When Radio Democracy almost went under, I helped bail them out. Not only did I give them a loan part of which they paid back and part of which I waved off early this week, but I was also there to do project proposals for them to secure donor funds. I was there to inspire them not to break down. When Radio Bintumani faced some of their most difficult times I was there to ward off the threats and to help reconstitute their Board. When community radio stations found it difficult to pay spectrum fees in the same amount as commercial radio stations, I advocated for them for the halving of their fees which NATCOM very understandingly accepted. For this I would like to thank Mr Siray Timbo who showed more understanding and bent over backwards on many occasion in dealing with defaulting radio stations. The NATCOM Act gives him the power and the right to shut down a lot of radio stations that defaulted. But Mr Timbo and his Commissioners hung heads with me and we struck compromise on every occasion. I only wish to urge all managers and proprietors of radio stations to comply with the laws of our land and duly pay up their spectrum fee.
Madam Chair, fellow delegates, this statement is not a blow-by-blow account of the stewardship of my executive in the last four years. Every year since you first elected me, I have been doing that as stipulated in our constitution. In Makeni at our AGM, in Kenema at our Biennial, and in Bo at our AGM.
But let me mention the third main thing I said I would do if elected and how I have done that. I vowed that I would have no special interests as your President. Special Interests I never had as your president in all these 50 months. Allah is my witness. I never called any editor of any newspaper or radio station to influence their editorial content. I did sometimes call some of these editors though, when there were threats to sue them or take them to the Independent Media Commission, with a view to making sure they were sure of what they had published. Reckless journalism I condemned in the strongest of terms. And I led by example in my practice.
One of the criticisms levelled against me has been about the so-called disunity and division in SLAJ. What the critics have so dishonestly or ignorantly failed to do is to apportion the real blame for this disunity and division if at all they exist. What I did wrong was what you did namely to have voted for me. They hated SLAJ because we redeemed it from their clutches. And never allow them or their stooges to take it over again for they shall take it to the mud.
Now, I spent my personal resources to organise functions especially a barbecue in 2010 to coincide with World Press Freedom Week celebrations, exclusively for journalists 60 years and older. Apart from paying respect and tribute to them for having been there and having paved the way for us, I urged them to help talk to those who for reasons of the democratic exercise of your right to vote for me, had decided to stay away from SLAJ. That never yielded any dividend. I would greet some of them in public places and they would respond disapprovingly and condescendingly or would sometimes not even respond at all. Should I have bowed down before them? I know the answer is an emphatic NO for I do that only to Allah and to my wife when I wrong her.
Among those things my executive and I always stood up for was the respect for our colleagues in the provinces. We did not only always ensure that we organised their own training programmes for them or invite them to join us in Freetown, we also ensured that where there were a few overseas possibilities we alternated them between someone from the provinces and someone from Freetown. As the year’s delegates list shows, it is almost 50/50 divide now of SLAJ members in Freetown and in the provinces. And we have to accord them that respect and STOP calling them Upline Journalists as some have so derogatorily sometimes referred to them.
Madam Chair, fellow delegates: When I first ran for president in 2008, and many of you here know that, there was an unprecedented level of interest to join SLAJ. And such was how fraudulently things were done that various executive members at the time went around with SLAJ membership forms recruiting people at random and in the most uncivilised of manners. Additionally, all monies collected in that enterprise never went into the SLAJ coffers. When my executive later took over and had access to the accounts sometime in January 2009, or so, the only money there was, was Le 8 million paid by PANOS Institute which was tied to a specific project.
During our tenure, transparency in membership drive has been unprecedented. I would like to doff my hat to Mr Abdul Rahman Swarray and Mr Sheik Bawoh, the former and current even if outgoing Vice Presidents of SLAJ respectively, for ensuring transparency. And I would also like to salute Mr Ismael Kooma who would come to me and say; “Mr President I cannot recommend these names for membership because they do not meet the criteria”. And I would duly support his position and ask that the matter be referred to the VP who by our constitution heads the membership committee. I would however wish to urge that in future membership shold be processed much faster.
In his internationally acclaimed bestseller, Capitalist Nigger: The Road to Success, A Spider Web Doctrine, Chika Onyeani writes: “It is not what you call me, but what I answer to, that matters most”. Madam Chair and fellow delegates, my administration has been called bellicose, confrontational or even anti-government. To that I wish to say this: If standing up against policemen when they beat up Moses Kargbo and lied that he had beaten up five of their officers is confrontational, I am proud to have been confrontational. If excoriating the police because some of their men went to Makeni and arrested Abdul Charles Mansary and locked him up in a smelly police cell in the east of Freetown was being bellicose, I am proud to have been bellicose. If taking on government ministers for ordering the arrest of journalists in Bo and Freetown is being anti-government or fighting against government, I am proud to have fought against the government and for which I have no compunction. No good pressure group leader aspires to lead their group pre-determinedly to fight or avoid fighting government. The former is stupid, the latter is cowardly and treacherous. The “fight” necessitates itself and the leader must do accordingly. We are called a pressure group and must pile the pressure.
Perhaps out of desperation or sheer buffoonery, the other day someone referred to my administration as a failure. Nothing could be further from the truth. The glowing tribute you journalists have been paying to my administration in your calls to me, in interview on radio, on social media, etc, have sometimes driven me to tears. I know those people can say whatever they want to say. My defence of your right to criticise our leaders is innate. I therefore know that others have the right to criticise me. But all criticisms must be done with sincerity and on a sound base.
If my administration failed it is because it FAILED to loot the SLAJ treasury or appropriate SLAJ property. If my administration failed, it is because it failed to turn the SLAJ leadership over to the influence of politicians. If my tenure was a failed one, oh yes it is because it failed to ignore attacks on journalists by those in positions of power. If my presidency failed, it failed because I failed to use my tenure at SLAJ as a covert campaign for political office. I was not looking for a political office and I am not looking for one now. If I failed, that was because I FAILED to stand by quietly when so-called journalists abused our profession. I called them reckless.
I proposed a special access to study journalism for colleagues under the mature scheme. I would like to thank Mrs Bernadette Cole, the Dean of the Arts Faculty, Mr Isaac Massaquoi the head of the Mass Communication Department, Mr Abdul Rahman Swarray and Mrs Williette James both lecturers at the department and were members of the SLAJ executive at the time for their help in this regard. It took longer than I had expected for it to happen, and it was watered down from what I had anticipated. But happen it did. For those of you who wish to do the special journalism course at FBC, you can now do so by contacting Mr Isaac Massaquoi.
Madam Chair fellow delegates, have we not had a lively few weeks in our premises at Campbell Street? When I ran for office in 2008 I launched my campaign at the presidential lounge of the national stadium. The other candidate launched at China House. And the other at YWCA. This time all candidates have done so at the SLAJ HQ. Well painted. Nicely kept. And I heard someone say the office does not befit our status. Well, I will let that pass.
The Headquarters is now complete with newly supplied state of the art equipment for our resource centre. Over ten laptop and desktop computers, a server, and a long list of other very useful things needed to run the SLAJ headquarters.
But that SLAJ Headquarters also sometimes replaced the Ombudsman’s office. Aggrieved workers and other citizens who felt hard done by, would stream in with complaints expecting the SLAJ President to take up their matter, and the BBC correspondent to report it on the World Service.
Our low water mark has been our failure to secure a repeal of the Criminal and Seditious Libel law and the promulgation of the Freedom of Information Law. We tried litigation, we tried advocacy but they did not work. And I say that even though the operation was a success the patient died.
On the international front we were able to make SLAJ become a full member of the federation of African Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists. I asserted our presence at those two organisations more and better than ever before. We are now held at a very high esteem and we must never allow that to erode.
Again in 2008 when I was running for office, I promised working with the Anti Corruption Commission. They are the institution I have given the greatest deal of time of all public institutions. And I urge that SLAJ should always collaborate with the ACC. The fight against graft needs the full collaboration of the media.
There was a freeze in our relationship with the Sierra Leone EITI. I will give a great deal of detail on this in my handing over note.
Madam Chair and fellow delegates, there was pressure during the AGM in Makeni for an extension of the term of the SLAJ Executive to four years. I nipped it in the bud because I did not want it to be seen and misunderstood that I was using my popularity to extend my stay in power. Now that I am bowing out, I feel morally highly placed to suggest that we consider a one year extension for the term of our executives regional and national. Two years is too short and not in line with international standards. Three years is the vogue and Liberia did so two years ago.
I also suggest that no one person should serve in the SLAJ executive for more than eight years even if in different executive positions. Unless two of those years are in an ex-officio capacity.
I also suggested in Bo that we should reshape the holding of our AGM because of the huge funding difficulty. To be raising US$ 30,000 every year to meet is not sustainable and can be compromising. I restate that we consider a representative meeting of say the National and Regional Executives and some representatives of some sort to meet annually. If the three-year term mandate is accepted, then a full elective congress can happen at a triennial conference as it happens at WAJA, FAJ and the IFJ.
Talking about WAJA we have US$ 10,000 for SLAJ for training which the next executive can implement. And talking about IFJ we received their bill last week for payment of our arrears of about 700 Euros. We have to pay that promptly or our membership will be suspended which I so doggedly fought for.
I would also like to suggest that eligibility to run for President and Secretary General be contingent upon active journalism practice. I will refrain from talking further about this because of the prevailing circumstance. But I think it is worthy of consideration.
We should also establish continued membership of SLAJ. Should it be a life time thing or should a member who leaves the profession have their membership suspended until their return? I think they should forfeit their membership or at least have it suspended, if they leave media practice, teaching or public relations work. When or if they ever return to any of these three they can have the suspension lifted.
Finally, because there is no transition clause in our constitution we establish one that will not be more than one month. But for the next executive they can start functioning as such, but we be allowed between one week to two to do a comprehensive handing over which will include a detailed financial account of the holding of this biennial conference.
I pray there will be no rancor after today’s election. Winners will win magnanimously and losers will do so gracefully.
To all of you, I will surely and sorely miss you all. But do not panic. I will be pretty much around. And will be glad to continue serving this the only association I belong to, for the rest of my life. Remember, laughing at our mistakes can lengthen our own life. Laughing at someone else’s can shorten our life. I will leave you with the words of Walter Lippman, “The final test of a leader is that he leaves behind him in other men the conviction and the will to carry on”. To all of you running to lead our association, please have the conviction and the will to carry on with the struggle. It is a struggle, no matter what you may think or say, that we must live with. I thank you very much for your support. I ask for your forgiveness where I may have erred. To err is human. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Fare thee well. I will miss you all.

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