Reflections – building the team

And so, we did the cabinet retreat. I believe that it was like nothing that the cabinet had experienced hitherto. It was well organized; it was structured; and it was very productive. I did not waste anyone’s time. I preserved the President’s valuable time, making her to only intervene when it was necessary. During the presentations of the outcome, she was really engulfed in the process. In fact, because of her interest in the presentations, we left from the Baptist Seminary very late (around 9:30 or 10:00 pm). She asked the right sets of questions and made the emphasis where they were needed.

That was that. But like we always said during our team meetings, what happens the morning after? This question is particularly important because it keeps you focused.

However, to do the real work, you need the right group of people. And one thing that I noticed when I joined the team at the Ministry of Planning was that Amara had made it his business to get the best and brightest. He made efforts to go after those who could really add value to his work. He was aware that once he assembled a class A team, he would get superior results and then he would look good. But not only that! It also meant that the work would get done. The notion that whoever you put in a position will be able to do the job is a LIE and it is WRONG. You need to get right people with the right mind set to deliver on the complex tasks. Sometimes, put the politics aside and focus on the task hand. Regardless of a person’s politics, they still love their country and when given the opportunity to serve, they will do their best. I am a living testimony. I do not want to repeat that here. I know some of my good UP friends who told Amara not to hire me. But all that is in the past.

To build my team, I knew that I needed the best and brightest. This was not a difficult task because I could see what was occurring in the Ministry of Planning: Amara had brought on Sebastian Muah, Henrique Wilson and James Dorbor Jallah (DJ). Most people do not know that Sebastian is one of the smartest young men in that country. Though he may not have the melodious voice when articulating his thought process, but he is very good. And yes, I know he can be extremely aggressive in his approaches to things, but he is good.

Many people do not know but Amara made deliberate efforts in recruiting DJ to serve as Deputy Minister of Regional and Sectoral Planning. Amara didn’t know DJ before going to the Ministry of Planning but once someone told about DJ, Amara didn’t care about DJ’s politics. He hunted him and brought him on board. And at that time, DJ had been offered the position of Executive Director of the PPCC but Amara was able to appeal to DJ and convinced him to come at Planning. I am using the word ‘appealing’ intentionally because that is what a good leader does: he or she head hunt for good talents and do not rest until they get those talents. DJ and I came on board about the same time – June 2009 or thereabout.

I can also remember that Dr. Lester Tenny did come to the Ministry of Planning sometime in June or July 2009 on recommendation of the President whom he had met in South Africa. Amara informed Dr. Tenny that the practice in the Ministry is that he would be given a test and would make a presentation to the Senior Management team and then they would go from there. Gosh! Dr. Tenny got angry and started blasting in the hallway. I had just joined the team at Planning, but I know that I went through the same thing, so I wasn’t sure that Lester was angry. Anyway, Dr. Tenny had been an acquaintance from our quizzing days. He was a junior student at Cathedral and was on the team when we (T-High) beat all of them that year (1992) to carry the trophy (I had to plug this one in). This is why Lester did not join us at Planning, but we later worked together in 2010 when he became a Management Consultant at the Public Works.

With the kind of efforts that Amara made to build his team at Planning, I decided to replicate the same efforts in building my team in the basement. I knew that to do an excellent job, I needed to get the right people: talented and passionate. I remember interviewing Ellen Pratt and extending her an offer to serve as National Program Specialist, but she turned down the offer because the compensation was not sufficient to bring her down from Atlanta, Georgia. I continued the hunt and I was finally able to build a class A team in the LRDC.

I was able to bring on board some of the finest Liberians to help me achieve the task of putting the PRS back on track. I brought in H. Gleh Appleton to be my Pillar Technical Advisor for Infrastructure and Basic Services; Jerry Tamba Taylor for Economic Revitalization; Joseph Zangar Bright for Governance and Rule of Law; Shanda Cooper for Peace, Security & Reconciliation; and Theo Addey as National Program Specialist. These were some of the finest Liberians that I have ever met and I proud to have worked with them.

I did not only build a class A team, I provided them additional training and skills to enhance their job. I brought in people to train my team in Rapid Results Approach (RRA) so that they understand how to sequence the interventions so that implementation is easier (not easy).

I also made sure that I motivated the team, not with money but with my attention and encouragement. I paid attention to what they were doing and offered my suggestions and directions where and when necessary. Usually, employees want to know that the boss is paying attention to what they are doing. Money is important but people want to be valued, appreciated, noticed, and respected. These are important motivating factors in any workplace. When you do those things, people will always want to work for you. They will always go beyond the call of the duty and deliver more than you can imagine.

Another aspect of the team in the Ministry of Planning was that Amara allowed each of us, his direct report, to run our shops without micromanaging. He supported our creativity and initiatives and provided the needed feedback and support.  

My philosophy is that when you are a leader or you want to be a good leader, always recruit people who are smarter than you. The smart, accomplished leaders are those who hire people smarter than they are. They tend to preside over a productive, efficient, and happy workforce.

Reflections – the Cabinet Retreat

Once the President had stepped in and ‘commanded’ that cabinet ministers, their deputies and assistants would be required to attend the Cabinet Retreat, the pressure then shifted to me. I had to ensure that the request to “shut down” the government would be meaningful and beneficial to the government. I believe that there been a cabinet retreat before but it probably was just the regular gathering of ministers or their deputies showing who was closest to the President by chatting with her or whispering in their ears or laughing with her.

But this time, it had to be different. I wanted it to be different. I wanted it to be about serious work. Imagine an opposition kid who had made a request for cabinet ministers to leave their ministries on a Thursday and Friday to assemble for a retreat failing to deliver in a meaningful way. It would seem like I had planned on sabotaging the government.

Well, I had some thoughts in my head and felt that the Retreat would be like nothing they had seen or experienced before.  I wanted it to be a real working session and for us to dig deeper into the development strategy and understand what it really meant. Too often, we call these documents fancy names but never really understand what they are all about because if we did, we would pay attention to the implementation of the interventions contained therein.

To do the work I needed qualified staff but due the transition of the LRDC leaving the Executive Mansion and going to the Ministry of Planning, we were short on staff. When I took over, I had an office assistant named Moses Gray and three (3) Pillar Technical Advisors (PTAs) in persons of Cllr. Arthur T. Johnson (Governance & Rule of Law); Cllr. Frederick Gbemie (Peace, Security & Reconciliation); and Amos Koffa (Economic Revitalization). Just before I came on board, William Towah had resigned and moved over to the Ministry of Public Works and so the Infrastructural & Social Services pillar was vacant. I did not have time to recruit for it before the Retreat which was just about few weeks away.

I did not even have a Secretary to do my typing. I had tried two (2) ladies from within in the Ministry of Planning: Bendu K. Bonneh and Sarah Wally but none could handle the task. Luckily for me, I had a Technical Assistant from the UN named Eric Hubbard. He was a blessing. He loved working and then he met me. We hit it off and started doing the work. Also, based on the recommendation of some friends, I recruited a lady by the name of Cleopatra Watkins-Johnson who served as my Executive Assistant. She was a gem and a God-sent. I don’t know what I would have done without her.

Anyway, Eric and I did most of the work because at that time Cllr. Johnson was doing his public defender duty and the other guys (Frederick and Amos) were doing other stuff. Now, this was an embarrassing position because Cllr. Johnson and Cllr. Gbemie were my classmates from Zion University. Now I have become their boss. What do I do? I must make sure I respect them as colleagues while at the same making sure that they performed their tasks. However, I made a promised to myself that I will never treat my friends or colleagues like subordinates because I know it is just a matter of time before the table turns. To be the boss of your friend or former classmate is just a matter of title and which side of the table you sit. Bear in mind that anyone can sit on that side and so I like to refer to them as my colleagues – because they are my colleagues despite the title of the moment.

To achieve our purpose of holding a very thorough and productive cabinet retreat, we decided that we would first hold a series of technical working sessions with all the fifteen (15) sector working groups as a part of a pre-retreat. And in these sessions, we would review all of the ‘deliverables’ under each of the sectors. The purpose of doing this was ensure that each stakeholder understood what was required by each intervention. First, do we understand what this deliverable mean? Can it be completed within the timeframe allotted? What are the resources (human and financial) required to complete this intervention? Are roles and responsibilities clear enough?

Based on the responses to these questions, we would then rework each of the ‘deliverables’ to ensure that they are clear and that all constraints were identified and measures to mitigate those constraints were also identified. To accomplish this, we spend one (1) week in the Ministry of Planning building with all the sector working groups. Eric and I had designed all the templates and scheduled all the sessions to ensure that we touched every sector and looked at every deliverable.

Usually when people tell me that “Jimmy, you seem to understand most of the issues in the country and can ably articulate them.” I am sure they may not be aware that I spend time reviewing every deliverable in the PRS and understanding the rationale for them. I sat in every working session and reviewed all the work products from each of the working groups. This gave me a good understanding of the issues and challenges in all the sectors. My advice to anyone who is interested in a career in public policy or the public sector as whole is to start at the planning function. It is like accountants who start as auditors; they do a little bit of all sectors and tend to have a broader understanding of many sectors than those who go into one sector or industry and spend their career there.

Once we completed the working sessions with all the sectors, we were then ready for the principals to review the work that their technicians had done. Unlike the Technical working which comprised of the government and development partners, the actual Retreat comprised of government officials, only. We wanted the ministers to review each deliverable and state whether they agreed with what they technicians had proposed and then to understand what their role would be in the implementation process.

Overall, we intended for each sector to come out with a revised Implementation Matrix which identified the resources and constraints and how to mitigate those constraints. We wanted each principal to appreciate what they had to do within the remaining two (2) years of implementation.

During the actual Retreat, many of the Ministers participated actively. Noticeably, Harry Greaves (late) who was considered an ‘untouchable’ at the time, sat all by himself and barely participated. Well, it was during or immediately after that Retreat that Harry Greaves was fired for something else. I don’t have the full understanding of wat it was, but I did notice this guy who would not sit in any of the groups but was there simply because Madam President had instructed that everyone be there.

Well, the working sessions were so intense and interesting that I got the attention of many participants especially in the Governance working group where Dr. Sawyer and others were. The interest in the various groups on Thursday, Friday and Saturday were intense. My friend, Col. Remmie Gray, who was then the County Development Officer (CDO) in Cape Mount took notes for this group.

The structure of the Retreat was such that Madam President came and opened the Retreat and then left. The various actors would then work in their various groups and then present their work products at the close of the Retreat on Saturday where Madam President would be present. This format made it possible that no one was showing off in front of Madam President; they had to do actual work and then present their findings.

With fingers crossed, everything went well, and Madam President came for the closing in the Church building at the Baptist Seminary. I remembered we stayed till around 9 pm that night.

As an outcome, each sector was required to present revised implementation matrix for the remaining two (2) years and then state what they would do in the next 90-days. This is where in introduced the 90-Day Action Plan. This was intended to serve as an early warning system so that we know if anything is going wrong before the actual due date. A year is comprised on four (4) 90-day cycles and so if we plan on a 90-day basis, we will be able to detect anything that is not in line and fix it before it becomes problematic.

The lesson here is that your development plan should be that important that you are ready to spend time understanding it and putting it back on track. If it is not important then I do not know what is. My friend, Dr. Alioune Sall, once told me that without a plan, we are like sailors who do not know where we are going and so we will never know the value of wind…

Reflections – my first meeting with the Cabinet.

On or about June 10, 2009, a few days before the official start of my portfolio as Deputy National Coordinator of the LRDC, Minister Konneh asked me to join his team (Sebastian Muah, Boom Wilson, Henrique Wilson, etc) at the LRDC Steering Committee meeting which was chaired by the President, H.E. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. At this meeting, Minister Konneh was releasing the first year’s (April 2008 – March 2009) Annual Progress Report on the implementation of the Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS).

The report presented by Minister Konneh showed that only 21% of interventions had been completed during the first year of the PRS. This was a terrible news and it meant that I had a huge task ahead of me.

At that meeting, I was introduced by Minister Konneh to the Steering Committee. The President asked me to say a few words. I extended greetings, called my name, and indicated that I was ready to do my best in serving my country. My big brother, Minister Kofi Woods, was there and afterwards he congratulated me.

Again, though I was a founding ideologue of the CDC but I considered myself a Neo Progressive and so it didn’t matter to me whose agenda was being implemented so long as the Liberian people would be the beneficiaries of the interventions. Politics did not occur to me. All I wanted to do was an exceptionally good job so that one day, I will be a footnote on a page when the history books are written.

To take on the huge task that was ahead of me, I decided that organizing a cabinet retreat that would bring everyone together to review the strategy and decide on how we would improve implementation and deliver on our mandates would be great idea. To achieve this, I would need the full, undivided attention of the entire Cabinet because they are the owners of the process. I thought that it was important for them to understand the various interventions, resource required and deadline so that when the Pillar Technical Advisors (PTAs) who worked with me or the PRS Champion in their agency approached them, the ministers would have an idea of what they were talking about. I needed to draw that connection at the highest level of the Government.

Well, my boss, Minister Amara Konneh, decided that I should go the Cabinet meeting and make the case for the retreat. He wanted me to convince the President and the Cabinet on why I needed the entire cabinet at the retreat for three (3) days.

Well, so in August 2009 (around the 3rd or 4th), I walked into the Cabinet room, set up the projector and made available printed copies of my presentation to members of the President’s Cabinet. The practice was that you would be in the cabinet waiting room until it was your time to make your presentation and then you would be ushered in.

It was my time and I was ushered in. I began making my presentation by first discussing the first year Annual Progress Report and the dismal performance. I then moved onto what was needed to improve performance and then what I needed from the cabinet. This was tricky!

Everyone enjoyed the presentation until I reached the point where I requested that every Cabinet Minister include deputy and assistant ministers along with relevant directors should leave everything that they were doing on Thursday, Friday and Saturday (August 13 – 15) to be present at the Baptist Seminary for the comprehensive review of the Poverty Reduction Strategy document and all the interventions contained therein.

Just as I completed making the request, Minister Samukai, the Defense Minister of the Republic of Liberia, jumped in and asked “young man, do want us to shut down the entire government in order to attend a retreat?” This was one of the toughest questions I had been asked to date. How can an opposition figure answer YES to such a question? And with such a question coming from a member of the national security team, it made it even more terrifying. Besides, if you know Minister Samukai and how authoritative and commanding his words can be, you will understand my position. Even my boss, Amara Konneh, could not answer the question. Something told me that to say yes, given my politics, could be seen a treason. Silence was the only response I could offer.

I was not ready to let my politics or its appearance get in the way of what we were about to achieve.

With total silence in the room, Madam President jumped in and said YES! Everyone will be there. Everyone will leave whatever they are doing and be at the Retreat.

Well, the rest is history! We did that wonderful Cabinet Retreat at the Baptist Seminary. It ran from Thursday, August 13 to Saturday, August 15, 2009.

For me, the President’s keen attention to the details of the presentation; the reason for my request that the entire cabinet should be present; and the decisiveness in responding to a critical question that had the propensity to derail the work, impressed and motivated me even more. Only the President could answer that question.

Let me be quick to clarify that Minister Samukai, a Fulbright scholar and economist, is one of the finest public servants I have met. My mention of him is just to recount what happened and nothing else. I have the fullest respect and admiration for him. He knew my late father, Col. James F. Kollie, from the Armed Forces of Liberia.

Stay tuned…

In the next piece, I will talk about the Cabinet Retreat. I will go into details about the planning that goes into the holding of a cabinet retreat and what the outcome should look like when thoughtfully planned and executed. A cabinet retreat is a big deal and it should be kept that way…

Regarding my ‘Reflections’…

I thought I made sufficient efforts to provide the context of reflecting on my decade-long public service but it seems that I failed.

The true purpose is not to provide a commentary on anything that is happening today but to narrate my experience so that those who aspire to leadership in the future can understand and appreciate the mistakes that we made so that they may not make the same, exact mistakes.

It is not intended for those who are already in leadership…

In the first two posts, I was narrating the beginning of how my public service started.

In my next post, I will talk about my first interaction with the President’s cabinet. The opposition, buzzy boy was given the opportunity to address the cabinet and make a call-to-action. I will narrate how it went down…

Stay tuned…

Reflections – the context and the beginning of my decade-long public service

Whenever you are lost and don’t know where to start from; it is always a good thing to start at the beginning. It also always good to provide context to what you are about to explain so that people who don’t know much about the subject matter can appreciate the utility of the story.

Here is how my decade-long public service in Liberia started…

It was 0n Thursday, 29 January 2009 that I received an email from Mr. Ignatius Geegbae, Administrative Assistant at the UNDP who was working on the TOKTEN program, inviting me to interview for the position of Deputy National Coordinator of the Liberia Reconstruction and Development Committee (LRDC). He wrote that the interview was scheduled for 4 February 2009 at 11″00 AM. I didn’t know what the LRDC was and so I asked him to send me the ToR for my review. I also do not know how he got my CV and I have never asked him to this date.

After reviewing the ToR, I agreed to do the interview. The interesting thing is that a few days earlier, I had given my employer (Merrill Corporation) my ‘two-week’ notice that I would be leaving my position on Friday, 13 February 2009. And so, an interview for a job in Liberia that was scheduled for 4 February 2009 was like a miracle. Besides, the ToR looked interesting. The LRDC sounded like our Office of Agenda Management (OAM) that we had conceptualized during the founding of the CDC. Or maybe, it was really only Dtweah and I who conceptualized that whole OAM thing because it seems that no one else in the movement even appreciated that concept or attached any value to it. But well, we were excited about it, then and so the LRDC gig looked more fascinating to me.

On 3 February 2009, Mr. Geegbae informed me that the interview had been cancelled and that they would get back to me in due course. This, however, did not bother me much or affected my plans because I was already set to leave my job on 13 February 2009 and fly to Monrovia on 7 March 2009. I really did have other things lined up for Monrovia and so the LRDC gig was just a bonus.

When that day came in March 2009, I packed my bag and boarded the Lufthansa flight for Accra. I stopped over in Accra for a week so that I could see my son who was schooling in Accra. I had left him in Accra in September 2008 to do one year of schoolwork in Accra.

After the week in Accra, I flew to Monrovia as planned. And later in May 2009, the UNDP invited six (6) persons including me to interview for the position of Deputy National Coordinator of the LRDC. Three (3) of us were in Monrovia and the other three (3) persons were in the US. It was a written test. After the test, they informed me that I passed the test and was shortlisted for the oral interview. They informed me that three (3) persons were shortlisted for the interview and because one (1) person was oversea, they would do a phone interview so that no one had an advantage in in-person contact with the interviewers. At the appointed time, they called, and we did the interview by phone. I thought it went well because I had spent time reading the Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS) and understood what it was all about. It had its shortcoming but like every strategy, it is the implementation that matters.

The UNDP later informed me that the names of two (2) persons had been forwarded to the Minister of Planning and Economic Affairs to make final decision. I later found out it was Lawrence Morris (the Honorable) who was the other person on the list.

The Minister of Planning, Amara Konneh, whom I didn’t know and had not met before, was the one we were waiting on for the final decision. Well, he decided, after few weeks, that he would give us another test before making his decision. We met at the Ministry on Saturday, 6 June 2009 for a written test and a PowerPoint presentation. I finished first and left. Later that evening, I got a call from Mr. Edward Essiah, Chief of Staff to the Minister of Planning, that the Minister had decided to offer me the position and that I should report to the Ministry on Monday, 8 June 2009. And I did! Later, I got my official letter of employment which indicated that as of 15 June 2009, I was employed as the Deputy National Coordinator of the LRDC with direct reporting responsibility to the Minister of Planning and Economic Affairs who was the National Coordination of the LRDC. Off course, the President was the Chairperson of the National Steering Committee of the LRDC.

The LRDC was the forum that brought that all the stakeholders (government, diplomatic missions, development partners, civil society, NGOs, etc) together to implement the PRS.

After the rigor of the interview process, the Government of Liberia decided that they would take a radical, opposition ideologue like me to run and manage the Secretariat responsible for the implementation of their development agenda. I want you to imagine this for a bit and reflect very deeply: the guy who considers himself a ‘founding ideologue’ of the largest opposition party that inarguable won the first round of the elections in 2005 is now hired by the Government to run its development program. Hmmmm! Don’t take this lightly! Imagine again! I am James Kollie, a founding ideologue of the CDC. I am not a founding member. Whenever someone refers to me as a founding member, I feel insulted.

Well, it happened. And this was not in a vacuum because many of the actors knew me. I was never on the closest when it came to the establishment of the CDC. I was the Secretary General of the CDC-USA. I managed the CDC website and responded to inquiries as well as critiques. I was active on Limany and The Perspective websites. I was very active on all the Liberian listserv and in all chatrooms. I was a General who was on the battle front. I didn’t only strategize; I executed battlefield plans.

Everyone who was paying attention to Liberian politics at that time knew me and/or interacted with me. Even after I left the CDC on 16 February 2006, I moved directly into championing the establishment of the Neo Progressive Movement so I wasn’t an unknown quantity insofar as my opposition political views were concerned.

However, Minister Konneh and President Sirleaf decided that they would take their bet with me. They apparently saw some value or quality in me that they were willing to overlook my politics and utilize my expertise. They knew that the benefits outweigh the risks of having me run the implementation of the country’s development agenda. That is true leadership! They went for talent and capacity over political loyalty. They wanted to get stuff done and they knew that James Kollie could help them. There are many James Kollie out there.

Well, for whatever it is worth, I was given the opportunity to contribute to my motherland. I had convinced myself, as a Neo Progressive, that helping my country was more important than my political view of any particular persons and so I put my all into doing the job of coordinating the implementation of the development agenda. I wasn’t concern whether it made President Sirleaf looked good or not; I was concerned about whether a Liberian child in Toe’s town would benefit from one more clinic or one more school. And if because of my coordinating effort, one more mile of road was paved, it didn’t matter who was the President when it happened. What mattered the most was that it got done and that child benefited.

The lesson here is that we should always, not some time, go for capacity and competence over political view and loyalty. I am a perfect example of someone overlooking my political worldview and position and extending to me the opportunity to make my contribution to my country.

The position that I occupied between June 2009 and March 2012 as Deputy National Coordinator of the LRDC was an extremely important position. It wasn’t high profile, but it was extremely important and critical. It was like sitting in the President’s office and managing the development agenda. For an opposition kid to have been given that opportunity is indeed a lesson in governance. It meant that after the campaigning was over and governance started, the country needed folks who could deliver, and the leaders saw me as one of those persons. I had gone through several interviews and came highly recommended. I had shown my capability and the leaders noticed. Though they were warned of my politics, they decided that I was worth more to them than the portrayal of my political views.

This is how my decade-long public service began in Liberia and this is one lesson to be learned from that beginning…

Remember! I wasn’t just another Liberian. I was a political figure with very strong views. It wasn’t like just bring another person on board who is not in our party; it was bringing on a key opposition figure into a critical role. This is not accommodation; it is leadership that believe that in talents.

And no one ever asked me to join their party before I could get this gig or continue with it! Absolutely no one. And I never joined the Unity Party.

stay tune…

Reflections on my 10.5 years public service in Liberia: the mistakes, challenges and opportunities

In the next few weeks and months, I will be reflecting on my ten and one-half years in the public service in Liberia. By no means was it easy and/or perfect but I think it is important to share my reflections on the challenges.

It has been nearly three (3) years and I think the temperature is about right that we begin to share our lived experiences so that those who care can learn something – anything – from it.

I will not endeavor to teach anyone for I believe that I am not qualify but at least I can share my experiences in terms of the mistakes we made so that others cannot make those same exact mistakes. If nothing else, I think understanding the mistakes we made might provide valuable insights into what others should not do. I may not know or have the right solutions but at least I can explain my mistakes so that others don’t have to repeat them.

Like many other progressive young people, I considered myself a radical advocate and a Neo progressive. And let me repeat, I am a “founding ideologue” of the grassroots progressive movement, the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC). Though in February 2006 I resigned my membership and position as Secretary General of CDC-USA, everyone believed that I never left the Movement because I kept my relationship with all the colleagues and friends.

Also, I was never a member of the Unity Party (UP) and in fact, folks in the UP called me “that CDC man”. Even though today the folks in the CDC call me “that UP guy”, I am not bothered by either for I am my own man: a Neo Progressive with deep thoughts, philosophies and principles. I apologize to no one for my political moves.

Be that as it may, I think the Liberian people deserve to understand the mistakes we made during the period they entrusted us with leadership and I want to do that. If not for anything else but that others may not make those same, exact mistakes. It will be painful and a betrayal if others repeat the mistakes we made simply because we didn’t tell our story.

stay tune….

I could have used my time differently but…

So I could have sat and wallowed in self pity as the conspiracy for the “great takedown” was being hatched by those closest to me but I decided that won’t make any sense.

In fact, the conspirators were actually hastening what I had planned since 2016. The letter was first written in 2014 and then revised in 2016.

I decided that rather than fight to break the plot, let me use my time taking some courses in Law at Regent University.

And today, May 9, 2020, Regent University is conferring on me a Master of Arts in Law. The ceremony will be held virtually due to COVID-19 but it seems I spent my 18 months wisely.

Always learn to make the best of anything. As I continue to say, when you are given lemon, make lemonade even if you thirst for orange juice. You will get orange one day and by then, you will know how to make juice.

We will continue to use our time wisely and I am sure the others will continue plotting…

The epimological projections of COVID-19 should encourage us to work harder, not give up

On Tuesday, March 31, 2020, experts released their projections on what the expected death toll from COVID-19 will be. On the best side, they are projecting that 100,000 to 240,000 deaths in the United States. In the worse case, the projection is 1.6 million to 2.2 million deaths.

All of these are based on modelling which are based on assumptions.

This reminded me of September 2014 when the experts released their epimological projections for EVD infections in the Mano River Union basin. As always, this was based on the “model.”

The folks at Imperial College in London projected that by November 2, 2014, an estimated 1.5 million Liberians would be infected; 1.8 million in Guinea; and 1.3 million in Sierra Leone.

Given that the mortality rate for EVD is between 70% and 80%, it meant that at least 1.01 million Liberians would have died by November 2014 based on the model.

The Imperial College projections were so alarming that the CDC came out with its own projection. But this projection, which was moderate, indicated that about 1.4 million infections would be recorded in Liberia and Sierra Leone by January 2015. This was an optimistic projection at that time. It pushed the curve and reduced the combined number of infections in both countries.

I remember we were in a meeting when someone told Madam President about the projection. She shouted at the person and told them that it was not possible and we would not accept that projection and resigned ourselves to that. She vowed that we will do everything to ensure that those projections would not actualize.

Well, that dramatic projection helped in only two ways: booster the “CNN effect” that then brought more donor support and also made every Liberian to get fully involved in defeating the epidemic because they did not want to be part of the 1.5 million infected or the 1.01 million deaths.

Under Madam President’s leadership, we were able to defeat the EVD and keep the fatality and mortality very low. By low, I mean far below the epimological projections based on the model.

It was the assumptions that we undermined in order to defeat the model. Everyone has a stake in this game and everyone MUST be involved to protect themselves and their loved ones.

In the end, about 11,315 persons lost their precious lives to the EVD in 2014: Liberia (4,809), Sierra Leone (3,955), Guinea (2,536) and Nigeria) 8).

This was a far cry from the estimated 3.7 million people that would have gotten infected and estimated 2.5 million that would have died as per the model.

From my view, based on my 2014 experience, we should not give up because the model has projected one thing. We must work hard to make the model wrong by undermining the assumptions. This means that we should practice social distancing, proper hygiene, and look out for one another.

Governments should get communities involve; and citizens should not stigmatise infected people. By stigmatizing infected people, we scare others from coming forward thereby increasing community infections.

Darkest, Longest & Most Terrifying 21 days: my 2014-EVD reflections

I will complete my 14-day “self isolation” on tomorrow, Monday, March 30. As I do so, I am constrained to reflect on my 21-day “quarantine” in 2014 during the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD). I have noticed the difference between the 21-day quarantine and the 14-day isolation: and it is not the 7 days difference. It is also not the geography of where the quarantine or isolation took place.

On that faithful Friday morning (July 25, 2014), I woke up around 5 am to check my phone and then later at 6 am to get ready for work. At 5 am when I checked my phone, I saw a missed call from my friend, PO Sawyer, with whom I had spoken around 11 pm that Thursday night. When I tried to return the call, his phone was off. I thought to myself, he must be on the flight to Monrovia as he had told me during our Thursday night’s call.

But then at 6 am, my boss, AMK, called me to inform me that our Ambassador from Nigeria had just called to inform him that PO Sawyer didn’t make it. I was in totally disbelief because the PO Sawyer that I spoke with that Thursday night didn’t sound like someone that was dying from EVD. The news of PO’s death was unbelievable because given everything we had been told about the EVD and how it treated and killed people, PO’s death was different. (I have witnessed the movie called 93-days and in another essay, I will give my view on what I think happened to PO. However, may his soul rest in peace while his memories live with us, forever.)

With the devastating news that we had just received, I still decided to go to the office and compare notes with other colleagues. AMK had already called the Minister of Health who send someone to speak with the staff at the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning. It was Thomas Nagbe, a very smart young man, who came to the MFDP to explain to us what our options and next course of actions would be.

Thomas asked a question about all those who had contact with PO before his departure for Nigeria. I was the first to put my hand up because I always had contact with PO. He was my best friend. Once I did, other staff took the courage to place their names on the list. And then Thomas informed us that we would have to do 21-day self quarantine. Boy old boy, it turned out to be very dark, long, and terrifying 21 days.

First thing, we didn’t know from whence to start counting. PO left Monrovia on the morning of July 20 (Sunday). On Friday, July 18, PO Sawyer, Dtweah, and some other colleagues had gone to the office to see me but I wasn’t there and had no plan of returning for the rest of the day. Dtweah, though he and PO were in the office, never interacted with him. So I didn’t see them that day. However, I had seen PO Sawyer on Thursday, July 10 in Buchanan when I went there to attend an ArcelorMittal board’s meeting. This was a day or two after his sister (the person he is presumed to have contracted the EVD from) had passed away. As usual, I did shake his hands and interact with him. And then later in the week, around July 14 or 15, PO did stop at the office to see me as I had some assignment that I wanted him to assist with. I have no reason to believe that we didn’t shake hands.

Based on the scattered plots of the days between July 10 and July 15, I didn’t know where to begin my 21-day quarantine. At that point, the most pronounced date was July 25th, the PO Sawyer passed away. Do we start counting from July 25th (the day he passed on) or July 20th (the day he left Monrovia)?

Once we received the medical advice from Thomas Nagbe, I proceeded to my residence to begin my self-quarantine. Counting from Sunday, July 20 to Sunday, August 9, those 21 days were the longest and darkest that I have ever experienced in my life.

During this period, I bought about 3 thermometers; several dozen ORS; different types of malaria pills; and host of drugs and medications. I wanted 3 thermometers so that I would be able to compare the readings or just in case there was any factory malfunction, I would be able to rely on the others.

I took my body temperature nearly every 15 minutes. The nights appeared to consist of 26 hours. I lost all appetite and was unable to eat for days. In fact, many days, I gave up and thought to myself, just go into the treatment center. I think I am infected. I think the sooner that I go in, the better my chances of survival will be. Many nights I would lay awake even after taking several different types of sleeping pills. It seems like the sleeping pills were intended to keep me awake.

If I am able to stood, I think then I have the virus. If I go to the bathroom too much, I think I have the virus. Every moment I think that my temperature is too high but when I take the thermometer and measure my temperature, the reading is normal. I want to think that the thermometer is broken because I can feel that I am running very high temperature. I had three so I would use all at once.

Those 21 days in 2014, I will never forget. I can compare that to going to hell and returning. Those days were very terrifying. But I had a friend, Amadu Neckles (MC) who had a vacation planned with his wife and son to travel to US but he decided that he would stay with me in Liberia until the 21 days were over before he traveled. His wife and son went ahead and he stayed with me. I remain grateful to him. He demonstrated that he is a true friend and brother. He visited me nearly every day and tried to cheer me up even though my spirit was dead.

On the other hand, I had some folks that I thought were friends because we referred to one another as “comrades” who inbox me to find out if I was dead. It was unbelievable that some comrades were wising me death. I have still have the messages in my messenger inbox.

With all of these things going on, AMK would call and request that we meet at the Royal Hotel to discuss the possibility of negotiating with the National Legislature for emergency spending power since the 2014/2015 National Budget had not being approved and the Government needed to combat the EVD. It was the call to national duty: that in spite of having no life in me, I had to join him in meeting with Representative Nuquay and Senator Gaye to discuss the possibility of giving the President emergency spending power for the purpose of setting up the National Ebola Response Fund. The plan was that if we moved our own US$5 million into an account to begin the process of combating the epidemic, then partners might see the need to scale up their support.

After that meeting with the legislators, when AMK saw my “lifeless” body, he decided that we will only work remotely until the quarantine was over.

Immediately after those dark, long and terrifying 21 days, we began meeting at the Ministry of Health to craft the response to the epidemic and also the economic recovery plan. Those efforts started around August 10, 2014 and with the help of God, we barreled through that crisis and we are here today. And so doing a 14-day isolation which ends tomorrow hasn’t been too difficult because I did 21-day under very terrifying and traumatic circumstances.

Why COVID-19 is more Complicated for countries in our neck-of-the woods than EVD

In 2014 when Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone were hit by the EVD, it was a blessing that we got the attention of the world. I remember when consultants and media experts would whisper to us that what we needed was the “CNN effect” and then the world would pay attention. It seems that we garnered more than the “CNN effect” and the world came to our rescue.

It is also apparent that the leader of the “free world” at that time had a different worldview and therefore decided that he would be proactive and engaged in curbing the epidemic in the West African region because failure to do that could potentially see the EVD on his shores. Many world leaders then shared similar perspectives and therefore converged on West Africa and fought the ‘virus’ there. When we consider what is obtaining today and the opportunities that were missed to have tackled the COVID-19 in Wuhan, China, the 2014 decision by the leader of the free world looks like the best gift of God to mankind.

Given today’s situation, it seems that countries in our neck-of-the-woods will not be able to benefit from the “CNN effect” and may not see the world coming to their rescue as everyone is dealing with this situation his own back yard. I don’t think the WHO (World Health Organization) will have the financial means to assist poor countries because those who usually donate are themselves struggling to deal with the virus.

It seems that there will be no help coming from anywhere: sooner or later. It means that every country has to fight for its own survival. There is no way any country will feel more sorry for another country than itself. Everyone is trying to ensure that her citizens are safe from the devastating impact of this virus.

What is more terrifying is that the best health care systems in the world are crumbling under the weight of COVID-19. The US, the richest country in the world, is claiming that its healthcare system has been overwhelmed by the COVID-19. Some of the best hospitals in Italy are overwhelmed.

As we were challenged during EVD in 2014, it is becoming apparent that no health care delivery system, the world over, can ever be adequately prepared for such epidemic or pandemic. Like in our neck-of-the-woods were health professionals got infected because of the lack of PPE, the same exact thing is happening in the US. The US is supposed to be the golden standard in health care delivery and it is in the same exact position as we were in 2014.

Considering all of this, it is my strong opinion that we have to take 4-times more drastic measures than what is being obtaining in the US, China and Italy so that we don’t have an outbreak because no one is coming. They are all busy at home. What we learned from EVD is that in a situation where there is no cure, we do everything to curtail transmission. That is why social mobilization and contact tracing are extremely important. We need to watch out for ourselves. We need to listen to the health professionals. We need to listen to the Government.

I understand that the Incident Management Team was meeting today in Liberia. I hope they put together the appropriate protocols, communicate them well, and get the community involved. These viruses are fought and contained at the community level.

May God bless our neck-of-the-woods and keep us safe!