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A reality check on presidential philanthropy

Dr. Abdul Koroma - Department of Civil Engineering, Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department

“It is more blessed to give than to receive” is one of several biblical verses that have immortalized giving to needy individuals and causes. It has also provided the incentive for both small and large scale donations of financial and material resources to charity organizations. Both our cultural and religious beliefs demand that we share our resources be it little or plentiful with the poor and needy. Today, our society increasingly frowns at wealthy people who in typical “Mida’s touch” fashion don’t share their resources with suffering humanity. In some advanced and civilized democracies, electorates are even given the opportunity to scrutinize the philanthropic attributes of those vying for public offices. The rationale behind this is that the philanthropic deeds of these aspiring political leaders show not only their “human” side but also their humility. As a consequence therefore, society tends to admire, celebrate and applaud the few individuals – be it political leaders, sports personalities, celebrities and business leaders – who cheerfully and charismatically share their substance with humanity.

Our world would have been worse off had it not been for the philanthropic interventions by certain individuals and corporations. Today we see how the philanthropic nature of Bill and Melinda Gates is making a world of difference to impoverish “under 5s” and pregnant/lactating mothers in our country. I think of the young men that are now benefiting immensely from the Craig Bellamy Foundation. The work and achievements of many international organizations like UNICEF and the Red Cross would have been impossible had it not been for the philanthropic gestures of individuals and firms who have made the choice and commitment to give back to society what the gift of God in them has helped them to acquire over the years. Bill and Melinda Gates may have never seen or known a poor, malnourished and sick under 5 from my hometown of Yonibana. However, through their Foundation, they are helping to give that child a future by meeting the medical and nutritional costs needed to increase his/her chances of survival. That’s why the world celebrates them. That’s the reason why pictures of them visiting a neglected rural slum in a developing country are being transmitted to worldwide audiences. The same can be said also of many of us who on a daily basis are making huge sacrifices from our meager personal earnings in order to meet the developmental needs of family members, friends, neighbours and our community as a whole.

In the same vein, we admire our Presidents when they display a philanthropic heart. I was touched when I learnt quite recently that both President Obama and former President Bush have written personal checks to individuals and families who had personally written to them about a crisis they are going through. It is refreshing to know that as great and powerful these world leaders are, their hearts can also be touched by the personal ordeals of their fellow human beings.

This brings me to the philanthropic deeds of our current President, His Excellency Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma. The President has been lavished with praises for his numerous philanthropic gestures. There have been many reported cases wherein had it not been for his timely philanthropic intervention, things may have stagnated or a particular group unable to meet its obligations. In all sincerity, I am not too surprised at this display of philanthropy by our President considering his strong Christian heritage. My concern though as always is how do ordinary folks on the streets view the President’s philanthropic deeds. Do people perceive the President to be a wealthy person in the light of some of the mammoth presidential donations that have been publicized? Do others see it as an attempt by the President to canvass popularity/approval from certain groups? Or is it a calculated strategy of divide and rule? These are not questions that are farfetched or ones to be dismissed lightly with the usual partisan effrontery, especially considering some of the fallouts that have followed some Presidential donations.

Some of the President’s philanthropic deeds have caused a spiteful public uproar. In two separate instances, the President has given out cash donations to the Unions of Okada Riders and Musicians in the sum of Le100,000,000 and US$10,000 respectively. The reason for the donations are so murky that only the giver and the respective recipients can truthfully attest as to the purpose of such donations. My piece is not overtly concern about where the President is getting all these monies to dish out to these interest groups (mind you he has been a successful business man before taking public office). I leave that to the Auditor-General and independent journalists to come up with answers for the general public. I’m more interested in the subtle underlying messages the President’s philanthropic deeds are sending to the wider public.

President Ernest Koroma is the President for all Sierra Leoneans. He is the Fountain of Honour, Father of the Nation and by extension he is the head of every group, union and association in Sierra Leone. The concern though is, if one particular group of persons can get one hundred million Leones from the President to set up regional offices, how about other groups, unions and associations? All of these national groups, unions and associations have their own peculiar needs, can they all march to the President and expect to get cash donations to solve their immediate needs? The question we should ask is this: if the President has done it for one group, is he naturally obliged to do it for other groups? Will the President’s decision to see certain groups or his implicit refusal to see others cause discontent or be misconstrued  as biased towards them by virtue of their political leanings?

The Academic Staff Association (FBC), of which I am a member, may probably need a bus to help Okada-bound lecturers like us get to campus on time to conduct lectures. In the spirit of presidential philanthropy, can we book an appointment with the President with the aim of soliciting financial favours to get us that bus we so badly needed? On the basis of such presidential philanthropic interventions, do we have the right to consider the President as “the Lender of Last Resort” whose cash donations can literally save the day?

As trivial and ridiculous as some of these insinuations may sound, the reality is that the President’s Philanthropic gestures should not be perceived as causing a schism in our fragile society. We certainly don’t want to see an endless march to State House or Presidential Lodge by needy groups, associations and unions for some kind of Presidential sweepstakes. Just look at the public fallout from the two donations cited above, with all the accusations and counter-accusations by members within those two groups about the manner in which those donated funds were handled. Such public rumblings and nasty fallouts over money donated by the President, which was probably done in very good faith, are bound to create negative public perception for the Office of the President. Many people may rightly or wrongly start accusing him as doing a “Museveni”, that is, throwing sacks of money in order to increase his political capital.

The President is not only the Fountain of Honour, but also the symbol of national cohesion. His actions, whether be it philanthropic or governance, should not be seen as being partial, divide and rule, or seeking vainglory. In order to buttress the fact that my insinuations are not off the mark, an article on the 22nd November edition of the Awoko Newspaper was titled: ‘Are there Christians in Sierra Leone?’ The article was raising concern with regards to the recent philanthropic gesture by the President to award Hajj Scholarships to 149 individuals from 149 chiefdoms nationwide. Take a hajj scholarship to cost around $5,000 and that amount to a staggering $75,0000 or the equivalent of three billion Leones. The author of the article stated that whilst the President has consistently made philanthropic gestures to the Muslim Community, he has not done likewise to the Christian Community. The author made mentioned of Yayah Jameh, President of the Gambia, that though he being a Muslim, has in the spirit of national cohesion and unity provided pilgrimage scholarships to both Muslims and Christians.

We certainly don’t want such ugly partisan or sectarian ill-feelings start bubbling and simmering in our country especially at a time we are working so hard to cement the bonds of national cohesion and inclusiveness. In as much as we are happy that our impoverished Muslim friends, brothers, sisters and neighbours were given the opportunity by the President to conduct the Hajj, Christians equally have the right to air their grievances that their spiritual needs have been neglected by the ‘Father of the Nation’. The Christian Pilgrimage may not be as popular or even scripturally based as the Muslim Hajj, but it nonetheless deserves recognition by the President in an effort to promote peaceful and fraternal co-existence between the two predominant religious communities.

The President, like any of us, has the right to donate his hard-earned personal income to any person or group of persons he so chooses. However, whilst he remains in office as President of the Nation, that right should be superseded by his national obligations to promote unity, peace and justice for all persons and groups of persons. His philanthropic deeds, no matter the basis for them, should not contravene his scared oath. He should therefore conduct his philanthropic deeds in such a way that they don’t portray him as being a wealthy person or showing favouritism or be seen to be overtly partisan. Voters did not go to the polls in September 2007 or November 2012 to elect a Philanthropic President; neither did they go to the polls expecting cash or cheques from the President to help solve their perennial daily needs. They however went to the polls to elect you; a President who they strongly believe can make a significant difference in their socio-economic lives by providing the platform and enabling environment for rapid economic growth and expansion needed to increase their standard of living and quality of life.