• 16 candidates jostle to succeed President Ernest Koroma
Emma Emeozor [email protected]
Sierra Leone’s presidential election scheduled for Wednesday is a litmus test for the country’s 3.1 million voters to show that they have truly learnt lessons from the 11-year civil war that devastated the country with no fewer than 50,000 people killed and another 4.5 million people displaced. For the first time, the two main parties will be joined by new parties in the contest for the State House; 16 candidates are contesting the presidency.
And of the 124 legislative seats, 112 will be contested while the remaining 12 seats are reserved for Paramount Chief Members. Secondly, in previous elections, many Sierra Leoneans were nostalgic as they were still struggling to overcome the trauma of the civil war. Now, the civil war cloud has cleared enough for those who have been aloof and sceptical about the political future of their country to participate in the electoral process. Though the country has been agog since the campaigns started, there has been palpable fear that the exercise could be marred by violence.
Also, it is of note that the Wednesday poll is the fifth since the country returned to multiparty democracy in 1996 and the third since the end of the civil war in 2002. Here lies the concern of the international community and the country’s leaders of thought, including outgoing President Ernest Bai Koroma, who has completed his constitutionally approved two terms. The thinking among observers is that Sierra Leone will learn from its neighbour, Liberia, which also passed through a similar war experience but conducted a free, fair and peaceful election recently.
The dominant political parties
Until now, two political parties have dominated the country’s political arena. They are the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP). Reports say that while the APC stronghold had been in the North, the SLPP is in the South-East, with the capital Freetown and mining district of Kono less predictable. Now, the APC and the SLPP are facing threats from 14 new parties, particularly the National Grand Coalition (NGC) and the Coalition for Change (C4C). What is of interest in the emergence of NGC and C4C is that their membership was drawn from the APC and SLPP, respectively. According to reports, the NGC emerged out of long-standing disputes within the SLPP. Its presidential candidate, former Director-General of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) Kandeh Yumkella had previously declared his intention to stand as SLPP flag-bearer. But he and other party members who formed the NGC felt frustrated by the leader of the party, former military Head of State Julius Maada Bio, who contested the 2012 presidential poll and lost to President Koroma but refused to step down “despite criticism within the party.” Bio is SLPP flag-bearer in the 2018 election.
On the other hand, the C4C is said to have emerged following irreconcilable differences among leaders of the APC. Thus, former Vice President Sam Sumana “who was controversially sacked in 2015” led a group of like minds to form the C4C. This was after he successfully challenged his dismissal as the country’s vice president at the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court in Abuja, Nigeria. The leadership of APC has been severally accused of abuse of power and outright dictatorship. Precisely, President Koroma has been accused of building a personality cult within the party, dictating the tune always. The most recent accusation made against him was that he imposed the 2018 APC presidential candidate, former Foreign Affairs minister Samura Kamara on the party.
Whereas it had always been a straight fight between the SLPP and the APC, the tide has changed with the emergence of NGC and C4C. The SLPP and APC know this and they have been on their toes to weather the storm. Also, of note is the emergence of two female presidential candidates. A nurse, Josephine Olufemi Claudius-Cole, is the presidential candidate of the Unity Party (UP) while a Proprietress, Gbandi Jemba Ngobeh is the presidential candidate of the Revolutionary United Front Party (RUFP). One of the tolls of the civil war on Sierra Leone was the massive loss of men in the war front. The result was the visibility of women. It was the same case in Liberia. Of course, after the exit of Liberia’s warlord, Charles Taylor, a woman, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf emerged as president of that country. But can Sierra Leonean female politicians perform the Liberian feat? This is one of the questions the ballot box is expected to answer on Wednesday. For now, the two female presidential candidates also pose some challenges to the ruling APC party that has boasted of winning the poll outright. More importantly, the fact that 16 political parties are battling for control of the State House is a clear indication that a clear winner may not emerge on Wednesday. Put differently, a run-off election will determine who, among the 16 candidates, eventually wears the crown. This is because the country’s constitution demands that for a candidate to be declared winner, he or she would have scored a minimum of 55 per cent of the total votes cast. The 55 per cent clause has been a source of concern to presidential candidates as it has become a routine for the winner to be determined by the outcome of a run-off election. Run-off election is time consuming, energy sapping, more spending is involved and sometimes the popularly expected winner may lose to an unpopular candidate by a narrow margin. A recent move by the executive to “change the winning threshold of the presidential election from 55 per cent to 50 per cent” was reportedly rejected by the legislature. As it is now, the ruling APC party cannot boast of making a third victory in a row until the end of voting on Wednesday.
Five issues have dominated the presidential campaign. They are new parties and old faces, regional divisions, corruption and Ebola scourge, women and FGM ban and controversy over Chinese investment.
The people are worried that intra-party disputes could result in an unstable political system that would again lead to another era of crisis. The manner the NGC emerged was readily cited as an example. Another example cited was the internal structure of the APC. President Koroma has said he would remain the party’s chairman after leaving office. This has created tension within and outside the party. There is fear that he will “exert outside influence over the APC” and the president if the party wins the election.
On regional divisions, it was observed that “Sierra Leone is sharply divided along regional lines that overlap with ethnicity, with the APC broadly reliant on the Temne and Limba people in its northern strongholds and the SLPP more popular in the south with the Mende ethnic group. The people are worried that “development is also driven by regional considerations.”
The Ebola crisis that hit the country from 2014 to 2016 exposed the high level of corruption in the country. “Government auditors found in February 2015 that 30 per cent of Ebola funds under parliament’s control could not be accounted for, amounting to $5.7 million (4.6 million euro),” reports said. Interestingly, the country’s “Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) has had a string of failed prosecutions and foreign donors have doubts over its efficacy.” Therefore, “voters want concrete plans for reform and to build trust.”
Women and FGM ban became an issue following outcry by the women that they are being marginalized politically and economically. The emergence of only two women as presidential candidates and the banning of female genital mutilation by the police during campaigning were considered as a clear indication of the marginalisation of the womenfolk. Women reportedly rejected the action of the police. The founder of pro-FGM organisation, Sierra Leone Women are Free to Choose reportedly told local media “that is what we women do in Sierra Leone.” Fuambai Sia Ahmadu argued that cutters had been “viciously disgraced by white women importing and imposing their own worldview on women they apparently feel are socially inferior.”
The controversy over Chinese investment in Sierra Leone reportedly erupted during the presidential debate after the left-wing Alliance Democratic Party (ADP), Mohamed Kamarimba vowed to scrap two major Chinese projects. The projects are a toll road and a new airport. On his part, Yumkella “called for a review of the road, which is seen as unaffordable.”In his reaction, SLPP candidate, Bio said “most of the Chinese infrastructural projects in Sierra Leone are a sham with no economic and development benefits to the people.”
Fear of post-election violence
Though the campaigns have been held and the election will hold on Wednesday, there remains the fear of post-election violence. Analysts believe the SLPP and APC are the two major parties that may likely be at one another’s neck after the results might have been released, depending on who won. Over the years the two parties have been known for creating political crisis following election defeat. Already, SLPP candidate, Bio has warned that he will not accept the results if the election was considered as not fair and free.
This even as it has been reported of “an orgy of violence that was unleashed in the northern town of Kamalo,” described as “the hotly contested hometown of the ruling APC party candidate, Kamara. During the violence, several people were injured with SLPP candidate, Bio fleeing for his life, “after his vehicle was set upon by APC supporters in the Kamalo.”
Both parties have, since, been engaged in the war of words, with Bio accusing the APC of attempting to assassinate him.
Who occupies State House after Wednesday?
The APC and the SLPP are the major contenders in the 2018 presidential election jus at it was in 2012. In 2012, SLPP candidate, Bio won 37.4 per cent of the votes cast in the run-off while outgoing President Koroma won 58.7 per cent. From all available reports, the candidates of the NGC and C4C are dark horses who want to break the monopoly of the political arena by the APC and SLPP. But this may be a herculean task for them as they are yet to find their feet on the ground. Most of their supporters are youths who may not even qualify to vote and Sierra Leoneans in the Diaspora.
For a candidate to win the election, it would require the effort of a coalition of parties. Even then, a run-off election cannot be ruled out. This is because beside the influence of the party, personality also counts. Local voters are often tempted to consider the personality of the candidates more than the party and the issues raised during political debates. Certainly, it’ is too close to call.