By Lindsay Barrett
As Adama Barrow the new president of Gambia takes charge in Banjul the reverberations from the military intervention by ecowas that secured his mandate will echo loudly throughout the sub-region. Major elections are scheduled for two countries in the west african community in the next year and as campaigning for the election to choose the President of Liberia, later this year, and Sierra Leone, at the end of February 2018, heats up there are signs that the contests will be both acrimonious and closely contested. As a consequence it is not unlikely that the eventual results could be rejected or at least queried by the losers especially if these turn out to be the candidates endorsed by the ruling establishments.
In such an event the sub-regional body will be tasked with the challenge of reinforcing its determination to make the acceptance of the popular will of the electorate the hallmark of governance in all its component states. Ecowas’s intervention in gambia was visibly and vocally supported by all sitting heads of state of the organisation and Liberia’s President, and current ecowas chair-person, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Sierra Leone’s Ernest Bai Koroma were actively involved in negotiating ex-president Yahaya Jammeh’s eventual acceptance of defeat. This has inspired many potential voters in the two countries to hope that their forthcoming elections will not result in the need for similar intervention. However, at the same time some elements of the process of democratization and systemic transformation in these nations seem to indicate that there is a growing need for the institution to ensure that the principles and objectives that it enforced with its gambian initiative will be strengthened.
One of the most important aspects of democratic choice is the empowerment of members of the electorate for the exercise of their fundamental right to choose their leaders. It is therefore imperative that incumbent governments should ensure the autonomy and independence of the machinery that is put in place to conduct elections as a fundamental service to their citizens. In achieving this, such governments are charged with the responsibility of ensuring that the electoral process is not only free and fair but that it also reflects the genuine sentiments of the participants. However this aspect of electioneering is the most volatile and politically sensitive element of the process and can often lead to a rise of tension in the society. As a consequence the approach of elections in african countries, where ethnic divisions and historic loyalties are often more deeply rooted than the attachment to general principles of public accountability, can give rise to circumstances that will promote conflict rather than harmony in the nation. In order to avoid enthroning conflict, as the main fallout from electoral contests, certain standards of conduct and accountability have been codified by the regional body. Once these are adhered to in elections anywhere in the sub-region it is imperative that the results that are announced with clear proof of veracity must be accepted and not compromised. This is the overriding reason why the regional body should support and protect the results that are declared by the official managers of any national election.
As the contests in liberia and sierra leone draw closer observers from around the sub-region and especially those ecowas staff members whose duty it is to monitor and analyse electoral issues must be vigilant, deliberate, and objective in their assessment of the conditions that exist for public participation in scheduled elections. In liberia the profile of party establishment is noticeably multi-layered and replete with new interests to a greater extent than in sierra leone where two older parties the sierra leone peoples party (slpp) and the all progressive congress (apc) have survived the critical years of armed conflict and continue to dominate the agenda of political competition there. As a consequence while victory in liberia might depend on the extent to which a serious candidate can cobble together a credible coalition of the members of smaller parties, in sierra leone the control of substantial numbers of institutional loyalists on either side of a clear divide, whether in support of the ruling apc or the once ascendant opposition slpp, will characterise the nature of the contest. Already the consequences of these factors have begun to influence the discourse over the future of governance in these countries.
In Sierra Leone in spite of a long delay in the official announcement of the date for elections President Ernest Bai Koroma, the apc leader, has appealed to contestants to prepare themselves by remembering the need for unity and cooperation in rebuilding the nation. His statement which came at the start of the new year appeared to encourage major players in the political arena to ignore widespread rumours that the process might be aborted. It is widely assumed that Ebk (as the president is popularly called) will eventually endorse a successor from his own party and anoint that individual with the advantages of incumbent power. Meanwhile supporters of the apparent front-runner in the race for the ticket of the slpp former military head of state retired brigadier julius maada bio organised a rally in the important provincial town of Bo last year where the turnout indicated that in spite of having lost in a previous presidential race his personal following was still substantial and vocal.
Maada Bio has maintained a strong hold on the loyalty of the grassroots membership of the slpp in spite of the fact that major figures in the party have also challenged his ascendancy and questioned his right to seek the party flag once again having lost the battle for the ticket once before and the presidential tournament once already. However the results of major electoral contests in neighbouring west african nations such as ghana and nigeria have served to inspire his supporters when they contemplate the historic victories of General Buhari who won at his fourth attempt in Nigeria and Nana Akuffo Ado who triumphed at his third attempt in Ghana.
Since the restoration of peace in Liberia more than a score of parties have applied for registration and at the last count twenty one of them had been successful and almost all of them have announced that they will be presenting presidential candidates. It is of particular importance to note that parties such as the true whig party which had been the stalwart of the old order until 1979 and Liberian peoples party representing the once powerful reformist movement have gradually faded into the limbo of fringe representation while only a few of the new parties can boast of anything resembling truly nationwide spread in membership as symbolised by their parliamentary representation.
In fact the two most effective parties are the unity party to which president johnson sirleaf and her vice president and putative successor hon. Joseph boakai belong, and the congress for democratic change (cdc) which became popular on the back of the glamorous campaign for the presidency mounted by Liberia’s famous ex-football star George Opong Weah, the Unity Party has the most credible spread of membership in parliament with 25 representatives and 11 senators. This is followed by the cdc with 14 representatives and 3 senators but the fragmentation of the national interest is reflected in the fact that a substantial proportion of the rest of the membership is made up of small cliques belonging to the crowded party list. As a result voting on any major issue can hardly end in an unchallenged victory for either of the major parties without complex alliances being stitched together. This is similar to the problem that has to be overcome for a single candidate to emerge as the overwhelming victor in the presidential race.
In Sierra Leone President Koroma’s major challengers are clearly defined by their identification with the strongest opposition party, but in liberia opposition to the continuity of Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf’s legacy has been voiced by a plethora of interests and this might turn out to be the central theme of the discourse surrounding the contest. The disenchantment expressed with Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf’s record in office is not based on empirical evidence of either incompetence or the rise of influence-peddling, which her critics allege, but is rather motivated by a deep-seated inclination among Liberian political actors to regard the presidential seat as a privileged prize. As a consequence many of the most visible candidates are offering the electorate a choice based on their personal desire to enjoy the perks of power rather than on any serious alternative to Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf’s transformative vision. As a consequence some of the more serious candidates who might emerge voicing credible visionary policies that can expand the changes that Africa’s first freely elected female president put in place are likely to be stigmatized by the opportunists as being her loyalists even where that is not a verifiable fact.
While the assumption that Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf will support her vice president’s bid to succeed her has already been strengthened by her own utterances it is interesting to note that some of the most vocal aspirants have refused to accept her declaration of support for Joseph Nyuma Boakai at face value and insisted that she is providing clandestine support to other aspirants. This tactic is clearly meant to undermine the strength and autonomy of some of the more visible challengers, but not in order to enhance the chances of success of her chosen favourite. With this atmosphere dominating the start of the election year it appears almost certain that the primary announcement of results in the eventual contest might be challenged no matter the outcome and this will make it imperative that regional endorsement of the integrity of the process be sought. The fact that Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf is the chair-person of ecowas at this time and played a prominent role in resolving the Gambian crisis gives this presumption greater importance as an integral factor in ensuring that the eventual outcome will reflect the true expression of the will of the majority of liberian voters. Regional approval will also be of vital importance in settling any disagreement over the eventual result of the contest in sierra leone especially since acrimonious sentiments have been expressed in the ruling party over the role of Dr. Abass Bundu a prominent son of the nation during whose tenure as executive secretary of ecowas the institution’s focus on strengthening democratic governance in its member nations was initiated.
In recent weeks some highly knowledgeable analysts have published analytical reports in which they have identified dr. Bundu as one of the slpp’s major leaders from Northern Sierra Leone, and asserted that his intervention as a key supporter of the aspirations of former military leader Maada Bio is a major force shaping the fortunes of the opposition party.
For decades the slpp has been regarded as having a strong southern base, while the apc has been characterised as depending on ascendant northern membership for its survival as a national organisation. Dr. Bundu’s prominent role in the slpp appears to be part of an effort to break the cycle of regional and tribal partisanship in the perception of the political profile of the nation. As ecowas executive secretary dr. Bundu was an advocate of regional integration as a major force for both economic and political stability. His supporters argue that his staunch support of maada bio reflects his wider regional advocacy translated into an agenda for national unity. However in the last few years he has had to overcome a number of adverse events that many people believe were orchestrated by the ruling party to undermine his credibility because of his visible alliance with the former military leader. This time around, however, there appears to have been a relaxation of attacks on his person and many observers have expressed the belief that president koroma’s new year message seemed to signal a desire on his part to bring a new spirit of genuine tolerance into existence in the political arena when he said in that address: “fellow sierra leoneans, soon, our national electoral processes will begin. There will be several aspirants seeking political office; debates will go on, tensions may rise but whatever you do; you must never lose sight of the fact that sierra leone is bigger than everyone; it is bigger than every group and every political party. We therefore owe it to ourselves and to our future generations to stay together, to work together and to build this our beloved nation together”.
Given the scenarios outlined above it appears that ecowas will be well-advised to upgrade and intensify its machinery for monitoring and guiding the processes of electoral competition well ahead of the actual contests in these two nations. It has been noted that the gambian imbroglio came about to a large extent because the actual operation took place with minimal international observation and participation. This situation arose when the erstwhile president yahaya jammeh insisted that certain guarantees of conduct that ecowas wished to put in place were unnecessary. When the regional body was unable to convince the gambian authorities to accept certain conditions it chose to watch the process from a distance rather than to be fully involved and this apparently led the former president to assume that regional concern for the integrity of the process in his country could be easily overlooked. The historic events that unfolded thereafter however have proven that he was misinformed.
It may have helped that gambia is one of the smallest and least populated countries in ecowas and its military was no match in size, equipment, or experience for those of nations like its neighbour senegal and nigeria the two nations that provided the bulk of the expeditionary force deployed ostensibly to protect the gambian people’s right to choose their leader. That it turned out to be a successful initiative might have been due more to the overwhelmingly unequal balance of forces rather than to any conversion of the convictions of the former president. Ecowas must work hard to avoid any such circumstance being repeated as a result of the forthcoming contests.