Monday, August 8, 2016

Interview: Why Kelvin Lewis for SLAJ President

Sierra Leone journalists vote on 3 June this year for a new executive. Two people are running for presidentK- incumbent Kelvin Lewis and his Vice President Stanley Bangura. Kemo Cham talked to the two presidential contenders who spoke about their plans for the next three years, if elected. They also responded to accusations and made counter-accusations. Here is Mr Lewis: 
Politico:  You have been at the helm of affairs at SLAJ for the last three year. How much of your pre-election plans would you say you have fulfilled? What are these?
Kelvin: I would say l have fulfilled practically all of them. My first task was to bring unity because l inherited an association which seems to be falling apart because of election disagreements and some people had gone and were not associating themselves anymore. So as I went around the country. A lot of people said ‘you are talking about unity can you bring back two people – David Tam Bayoh and Philip Neville, so [that] they can participate in the activities of the association?’
That I have achieved. If anybody was at the world press freedom day, you will see that David Tam Bayoh was one of the participants and of course Philip Neville
is actively in our forum and he even declared that he wanted to stand [for SLAJ presidency], which shows you that they have both come onboard. So frankly speaking the question of unity, I have achieved.
I also said that l would promote specialization and in promoting specialization l did say I would focus on training that is specific. We did a lot of training on health issues, on the Ebola, we also did training on gender issues and two sets of training on investigative journalism. We also did training on environmental reporting. So in terms of promoting specialization, I think I have started doing something very well.
I also did say that in the University [of Sierra Leone] we have Masters students as lecturers and it will not be nice for Masters students to continue to be teaching other Masters students, that we wanted to uplift the university to get to PhD level and l will be looking for scholarship or whatever to get them to move up to that level. Thankfully I got an offer from Airtel to get a bursary of US$5, 000 for one PhD student to help in their research if they are doing it in Sierra Leone or in the West Africa Sub-region. And as I speak to you l know for a fact that more than three lecturers have put in their papers to start doing their PhD. So there is motivation there. So I think frankly speaking I have gone through most of what l said I would do.
The last few months of your tenure have been shrouded in so much allegations of corruption and maladministration. And visibly you have been disturbed at some point responding to such accusations. Why would you want to continue to head such an organization under these circumstances?
Now, when I set out I did not know that there were these intrinsic problems within. And besides that, the other problem we had is that SLAJ did not have the structures. There was no financial structure before me and even the governance structure was not well defined and it was because the governance structure was not well defined. That is why you had executive after executive after executive having problems, because basically a lot of people wanted to become executive members for different reasons, not to give their services to the association. But I would say a lot of them are doing so because they want some benefits. They are looking forward to either travel or some financial benefits.
Now, because there is no well-defined governance structure it becomes an issue when you as the head directs others to do their work. They don’t want to do it and you do not have the power to sack them because they will say we are elected on the same platform, and you don’t have any power over me and all of that. And that is wrong for an administration and that is one of the things we need to fix up at SLAJ.
I am committed to transforming SLAJ. When I came in I said l was going to give back to SLAJ what I had taken from journalism. I have benefitted a lot from journalism although it is through hard work. The respect I have in this country, outside of this country, it is through journalism. So I said I would give back.
And that is why I have started a transformation process; I have started putting in place financial rules and regulations how things must be done. Of course in any society when you want to bring change you would come across stiff resistance. It took me three months to begin to convince my executive that we needed an outside firm to come in and put in place financial structures which were not in SLAJ. Before that, people were taking monies in millions of leones and going outside to pay. I insisted that ‘no, it should not be like that, you should pay by cheque. Then we would be able to trace whatever payments are made.’ Of course I got resistance, and I will tell you a lot of the resistance I am getting now, a lot of the invectives that they are pouring on me, is because I stood firm on issues of financial principles.
I am not in SLAJ to eat SLAJ money and I have been a stumbling block for people whose aim it was to make financial gains out of their positions. I would not be deterred because at the end of the day I want to retire with a strong SLAJ. I have started and I should continue because if I lose now it would be a long time more before SLAJ would start reforming again.
You made a point about some of the things you have realized that SLAJ needs to fix. For example you said when you came in some executive members were not taking instructions from you because they said you were all elected and you didn’t have the power to sack them. Like you said ‘these are the things we need to fix,’ I would like to know if you have done anything towards this.
Yes! I have spoken to people and we are looking at putting forward the governance manual that would be brought forward to the general body to have them look at it, agree on it and then pass it. It would be like bye-laws but the time is not ripe for now because now it would be too controversial. People will think wrongly that l want to concentrate all the powers into my own hands, become the super ruler, that sort of thing. So after now, we would be in a calmer state to be able to look at things objectively and say this is not for me Kelvin, this is for the good of the association.
Like your predecessor did in terms of adding one year to the term when he was going out, is that what you’re looking at?
That is what I am looking at. Then nobody would accuse you of wanting to benefit out of it, you know. Giving the opposition I am faced with for even bringing in these new rules and regulation on finance and all of those things, I know this is an election year and things would escalate and people would twist it into something different.
Briefly, how would you like it to look like, in terms of holding your executive members to account?
The question is not holding them to account. The first thing is we have to have an organogram to know that this person takes this decision and the decision comes down to so and so and so. And it should also state the extent to which each executive can make a decision on an issue. And if we have those parameters then we can go forward because everybody now knows where their boundary stops.
Are you saying that as it is now it is not clearly spelt out, as to who does what and where your power and responsibility stops. Is that what you are saying?
Exactly, that is the problem.
Are you a card holder of any political party in the country?
Certainly not. I have never been a card holder of any political party in all my life.

Do you have any relationship with any political party?
In this job that we do, you get to meet people and you got to be associated with them.
When this APC government was in apposition in the early 90s, they used to call me to interview them. Victor Foe knows my name; he calls me by my name because I did several interviews with him when he was in parliament from 1996 onwards.
So I know all of them. I have been in this business for 30 years, mind you. So I know people on both sides, but I am professional and my relationship with them is on a professional level. And that is where it would stop.
Word is that you’re too close to the main opposition, SLPP? 
I think people are telling a lie. I am definitely not close to the SLPP. I have friends in the SLPP just like I have friends in the APC. I went to school with people in the SLPP like I went to school with people in the APC. I was accused again by the SLPP of being a pro-APC when the SLPP was in power because of the kind of stories we carried.
This contest for the presidency has been likened to a national one. They are saying you represent the SLPP even if you don’t hold a card, while your opponent represents APC?
I think people want to paint me wrongly. If you come into this country and for the first time and stay here for a whole month and you look at Awoko Newspaper, you would never ever be able to put your finger down and say this paper supports this party or this party. And that is how I have carried myself. So people would talk because they want to paint you and make you look bad. But I am not that kind of person.
Now, one of the issues that have come up, I think in the aftermath of the Ebola epidemic, which SLAJ was very instrumental in fighting, was the issue of the US Embassy funding. There have been a lot of talk around that but personally I have not heard you saying much about this?
This is again why I have said we need to put down rules and regulations. Now they are saying I as the head of SLAJ awarded a contract to Premier Media, headed by Dr [Julius] Spencer, without going through procurement procedures, which is bidding and all of that. But I challenge everybody to tell me or show me that document which is SLAJ’s document where they say this and this are the procurement procedures, there is none.
And you cannot hold government procurement procedures because SLAJ is not a government institution. That is one. Moving forward with that, how did that contract came to be awarded, did Kelvin or did SLAJ award the contract? No!
Dr. Spencer has been doing a lot of work with SLAJ on the Ebola and he was in fact the face of our Ebola fight. He was chairman of the committee. It came to a point when we thought that the messages were becoming monotonous. We had spoken to everybody and we were repeating ourselves. So the idea came to spice it up, bringing in sort of drama which would make the program look interesting. So on his own he [Spencer] spoke with people at the American Embassy, explaining the situation and gave them a proposal and they accepted the proposal. They paid the money. The contract was between him and the embassy that was why the embassy has not said one word. And even if the Embassy thought that we had breach procurement rules or whatever, they would not continue to deal with us.
The last training we did about two month ago which is on environmental studies, which is now running, we got money from the embassy. They have not banned us. They have not said anything we have done wrong.
They have their systems, they check it and whatever rules and regulations they have, they don’t have problem awarding that contract. It is just a matter of people thinking that the man …What Dr. Spencer brought to that Ebola fight could have cost us [SLAJ] millions and millions of Leones. He wrote the project with the UNDP, which gave us about a hundred thousand dollars; we did training with that and all sorts of things. It was that money we even used to support staff of radio stations with food, with credit for their phones to call people to interview for the program and all of that thing. That money came from the UNDP. Who wrote the project? Dr. Spencer. Did we pay him? Not a single cent.
He did also a project for the CDC and several of those projects ended up into serious training, serious programs which went all around the country for people. Who wrote that program? Dr. Spencer
Did we pay him? Nothing.
The Ebola radio program… that program was initially coming from the President’s office. It was they who said we should increase the time on the radio from the 30 minutes that we were giving to one hour and that they would pay. That program ran for more than one month. State House could not pay a single cent. It was Dr. Spencer who personally went through the UNICEF boss, spoke to him, and cajoled him, put our case across then UNICEF said okay, I think you guys are doing a great job, we would pay.  A lot of the radio stations benefitted and in Kabala part of that money was used to build a multi-purpose hall and you should see that hall and you would feel proud.
But all of those radio station managers, with all of the money that they’ve got, not one has given Dr. Spencer one sweet to say thank you, and neither me.
Again, apart from that Ebola program, the education program…who sat down and drew up the contract and started the negotiations? It was Dr. Spencer. He doesn’t own a radio station but he did so much. I felt bad that we have not been able to pay him and we are unable to pay him. If we were contracting that out, it would have cost us so much money. And people were jealous because of that but the monies were not going into his pocket.
Again Standard Chartered Bank wanted to do something about Ebola; they contracted Premier Media to do it. They wanted to pay only Premier Media to do it. Dr Spencer negotiated such that radio stations would now come in and get some of that money. He convinced the people to increase their budget and to be able to spread it around but people still don’t appreciate. This is what this country is like.
Our next question will be more between you and your opponent now. Firstly, how do you feel that your own deputy (Stanley Bangura) is contesting against you?
Well I think it is a democracy and he has the right to contest and its okay by me. I am not bothered by that.
Now how would you say you are different from him to the voters, so that people should vote for you instead of him?  
Well, at least I have done something that I can show and l would love to hear him talk about the things that he has done and what he wants to do. But me, I am running my campaigns on three things: One I am committed and I give my time to SLAJ a 110%. I hardly miss meeting and I do what is right.
Secondly, I’m honest. You go around the country, and you would not find my name in any police station.   I have come to know police men just because I go there to beg for other people but not for myself, never!
Thirdly, I have brought into this profession integrity, and I think that people with integrity should stand up. I want this profession to be respected. That is why when I came in I introduced the “Black Tie Dinner.” Before then, the image of journalist is of wearing jeans and t-shirt all around. So I introduced to the people of this country that journalists are also respected people, they can dress well.
And I am changing the image of the association and I want to continue to do that.
Lastly, I have started a transformation agenda. SLAJ is changing. The structures are not in place. I am putting those structures in place. Before me SLAJ had employees but none of them were paying their NASSIT. Their NASSIT, Pay as you earn, NRA, were not been paid. I regularized all of that.
SLAJ registration as a body corporate was nothing. It never existed. The documents were nowhere to be found. I regularized that. SLAJ does not have a register of its members. That is what I am fighting to put in place. For a person that entered any school, you have an ID number, which tells you from the beginning up to now, how many people have gone through that school, whether they are dead or alive, everybody has an ID number. SLAJ does not have a register of its members and this is why you have people going on and impersonating. And it is something that should stop, it should stop.
So I am fighting now to have a register, electronic data base. I have developed that. And I would continue to put financial structures. Never in the history of SLAJ, 45 years, has anybody presented an audited account from a real, certified, professional, accountant. I am going to be the first to do that and I am not going to do that with any accounting firm but with the fourth largest accounting firm in the world – KPMG. And if anybody doubts the integrity of KPMG, they should look back at the Ebola funds, when people started twinkling with the Ebola funds, KPMG said we are hands off. That tells you how they value their integrity. They are doing it now and they would do it for three years and you would get to know the whole history. If I have eaten money would I open the books to an auditing firm like that, who could not bend on their integrity? I have nothing whatsoever to hide.
Some people are saying you are using the verification exercise to kick out those that you think would not vote for you. You may have heard that there has been a petition around this. What would you say to this? 
This is verification. I don’t know why people are jittery but I know why. It’s because they came through the back door and there is no record of them. Before Steven [Douglas] started the number of the roll was nearly 1, 000. We are now crossing the 400 marks. So I am still waiting on the 500 ghosts to come and present themselves…who were on that list…who were SLAJ members. Where are they? I don’t think all those five hundred have died, yeah 10 or 20 might be dead.  That is what the verification has revealed so far. But that is the tip of the ice bag.
I am not going to look at qualification, which has made a lot of people jittery because we know a lot of people don’t have the basic requirements, which is four WAASCE or O’Levels. That is not the concern right now. The concern right now is: did you go through…did you apply to become a member and were you interviewed? That is all what we want to establish at this point.
And even at that, there are problems, we understood. The vice president is the head of the credentials committee. Now we called a meeting, and I challenged the procedure of how he chose to accept members. And it was Umaru Fofana who stood up and said during his time that the process used to be [such that] the vice president chairs the committee, the committee interviews and each member of the committee agrees that yes, this person should be accepted and they sign and when they sign the list should be taken by the vice president to the president, who brings it to an executive meeting and they sit down and agree before they issue out letters.
We come to understand that what the vice president was doing was that the people come to the panel, they sit, they interview them, nothing is written on the forms, and then the vice president collects everything and says: “okay gentlemen, you will hear from me.”
He takes them, and he alone approves who should be a SLAJ member. That procedure is wrong and that was what was challenged, which led to the membership verification committee. He was claiming [that] nothing was wrong but according to Umaru, procedurally it is wrong. It does not mean that when you are a head of the credentials committee therefore you must take sole decision without the rest. And a lot of things are coming out and people are jittery, they start attacking the process, so that they can torpedo the process and it does not go on because they don’t want the cleansing to go on, that is the whole problem they have with the list.
Are you expecting this to be ready before the congress? 
I am expecting it to be ready, the head of the Electoral Commission is a man of integrity and I believe he would address the issue. I don’t know how many people they have petitioned; I don’t know the grounds of their petition. The Electoral Commission just wrote to us asking for a two days extension, so that they can handle the issues. Let him handle it whatever comes out, if it is okay we will not oppose and we would accept it. But I respect him, he is a man of integrity and he would do the right thing.
I have heard accusations as well that you have, through Awoko, hijacked an agreement between SLAJ and Airtel. That is the SMS news update. According to what I heard it was supposed to be for SLAJ but now it is between Awoko and Airtel?
(Chuckles) You know, in 2010, I did not even think to become a SLAJ president when I sent that proposal to Airtel. That has nothing whatsoever to do with SLAJ. That had been activated even before I became SLAJ President. Like I said, people are just drawing conclusion [Kelvin presented a copy of the agreement with Airtel which showed that it was signed within 2012].
I would like to know what mistakes, if any, that you may have realized you committed within these last few years at the helm of SLAJ and how you intend to address them if you are elected for the next three years? 
Frankly speaking, I think I trusted people I should never have trusted. Moving forward, I am going to be very circumspect.
Thank you very much for your time
(C) Politico 25/05/16

No comments: