Nigerians, like citizens of many large countries, often prioritise news on domestic affairs over what goes on outside their borders. However, as regional or global powers, such countries also need to be well informed about developments around the world, especially in countries where they have interests.
Nigeria accounts for 51 percent of West Africa’s population and 72 percent of its GDP. It dominates trade and investment flows within the Economic Community of West African States, and has been the main anchor for providing peace and stability in the region.
It rescued Sierra Leone from total collapse in the hands of renegade soldiers and rebels of the Revolutionary United Front before the United Nations and Britain completed the task of stabilising the country. What happens in Sierra Leone should, therefore, be important to Nigerians.
Sierra Leoneans will go to the polls on March 7 to elect new leaders. The country has made advances in democratic politics. An incumbent party was defeated in 2007 and power changed hands peacefully. There is relatively free speech and basic rights are respected, despite occasional police violence and the detention of journalists. Indeed, the country enjoys middling scores on global indices on democracy and governance.
The process leading to the March 7 poll and its aftermath needs to be properly managed to prevent a slide back to instability.
A Non-ethnic Party Challenges Historically Dominant Parties
Sierra Leone’s politics has been dominated by its two oldest parties, the All People’s Congress (APC), which has governed the country for about 35 years, and the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), which led the country to independence and has held the reins of power for 16 years. Within the sub-region, it is only in Sierra Leone that the first post-independence parties have survived and thrived. Their success is linked to a decision that allowed parties to operate regardless of history, and the ability to feed on the country’s ethno-regional divide. In the 2012 elections, for instance, the APC received 80 percent of its votes from the North and Western Area, and the SLPP, 76 percent of its votes from the South and East.
The March 7 elections promise, however, to upend this duopoly. A new party, the National Grand Coalition, headed by a results-driven ex-UNIDO head and ex-chief UN advocate on sustainable energy, Kandeh Yumkella, has been advancing a new type of politics that rejects ethnic divisions.
It promises to restore lost values of merit, professionalism and relatively clean government, as well as diversifying the economy and making it work for the jobless. Large sections of the youth, the impoverished middle class, informal artisans, petty traders and ‘okada’ bike riders, those in rural communities and the vocal and active diaspora have rallied to the party’s message of change, even though the party is yet to develop structural ties with these groups.
Countries that are ethnically divided often rely on special rules, such as power sharing, electoral systems that facilitate coalition formation, and affirmative action to enhance cooperation. Nigeria, for instance, is well known for its complex rules on power sharing, the percentage of votes that candidates must have across a certain number of states to win presidential elections, and the rule of appointing a minister from each of the 36 states. The proscription of the first independence parties, which were largely regional, and application of these special rules have helped to create national parties and coalition politics.
However, in Sierra Leone, the NGC operates in an environment where the rules for managing ethnic divisions are weak. Sierra Leone operates largely a winner-takes-all system. Disturbingly, just a few days before the dissolution of parliament, the APC government even tried to lower to 50 percent, without public debate, the entrenched rule which required that a presidential run-off can only be avoided if a candidate scores 55 percent of the votes. The 55 55 percent rule is meant to encourage parties to reach beyond their ethnic strongholds.
Political scientists, scholars of diversity management, activists and policy makers should closely follow the developments unfolding in Sierra Leone. The NGC, a party that was formed barely six months ago, with no clear ethnic base or ethnicity-sensitive rules in its governance system, is challenging received orthodoxes on partisan politics in ethnically bifurcated societies. The outcome is still unclear, but the visibility the party has enjoyed in this short period is unprecedent for a new party.
What accounts for the NGC’s ability to capture the public imagination? It is down to the country’s precarious living conditions, a yearning for a new direction after 56 years of failed promises, and the NGC’s message of economic transformation, providing real jobs to unemployed or underemployed youth, radically revamping education and health provision, and contolling corruption. The party does not respect ethnic strongholds, as it attracts voters from both the APC and the SLPP. It is really liberating to witness a reordering of the political landscape as Sierra Leoneans cooperate around a party that transcends our hitherto resilient ethno-regional divisions.
This has created panic among the two main parties, especially the APC, which seems desperate to remain in power. Sierra Leone’s democracy faces four kinds of threats: a selective use of rules to exclude opponents in the electoral field; deepening authoritarian practices in the way the two main parties are governed; a Supreme Court ruling that has elevated the power of parties, and by implication party leaders, over the electorate in determining presidential mandates; and a worsening economic situation.
The APC is trying to limit electoral competition in order to preserve its hold on power by selectively using the constitutional rule that bars dual citizens from contesting parliamentary and presidential elections or becoming ministers. The primary target is Yumkella, who the APC thought was a dual citizen, but who renounced his American citizenship last November before he filed his nomination papers. After Yumkella outmanoeuvered the APC on his American citizenship, the party came up with two new conflicting arguments: that Yumkella did not satisfy the requirements to contest the elections because he was a dual citizen when he registered to vote, and that he did not resume his Sierra Leonean citizenship when the dual citizenship law was passed in 2006, which renders him stateless.
Legal scholars have pointed out that the 2006 dual citizenship Act allowed individuals who had lost their Sierra Leonean citizenship to resume it without conditions, and that possession of a Sierra Leonean passport is evidence of intention to resume such citizenship. They have also argued that the dual citizenship Act provides Yumkella the right to register as a voter, which is different from the requirements for contesting elections.
The irony of this attack on Yumkella’s candidacy is that, by the APC’s own admission, 53 of its 70 MPs in the dissolved parliament are from the diaspora, with many holding dual citizenship; and a large number of ministers have two citizenships. In his initial attempt to have Yumkella disqualified, the leader of the APC, Ernest Koroma, barred holders of dual citizenship, including those who have served two parliamentary terms and risked losing their pensions, from applying for his party’s parliamentary ticket. However, he still retains individuals with dual citizenship in his cabinet, which clearly violates the constitution. This issue is all about brinkmanship and targeting of opponents – not respect for rules.
The second threat to Sierra Leone’s democracy is the deepening of authoritarian practices in the two main parties. In a previous article, I traced the roots of this authoritarianism to the delegate system used by the two parties to choose leaders, and the supreme power enjoyed by the ruling party’s leader. Party leaders dictate the composition of the electoral colleges, and the small size of the electoral colleges facilitates bribery and the coercion of voters. Indeed, the APC has not even held a competitive election for a national position since 2007. Koroma also enjoys the title of Life Chairman of the party, which is a throwback to the bad governance days of ‘life presidents’ that ruined African countries in the 1970s. He was allowed to select the party’s presidential candidate and running mate, even though more than 1,000 delegates had assembled at a delegate conference to do just that. Julius Maada Bio, the SLPP’s presidential candidate, who is referred to as Paopa (i.e. ‘he will rule, whether the public likes it or not’), also enjoys total control of his party after protracted conflicts, sometimes violent, over delegate lists, formation of parallel executive committees, and court battles. He also carries a historical baggage of coup making, allegations of involvment in corruption when he was a military leader for three months, and a US travel visa rejection.
A ruling by the Supreme Court in 2015 that the loss of party membership should lead to the removal of a sitting president or vice president is the third threat to our fledgling democracy. Even though Koroma and his vice president were elected on a joint ticket, he took the unprecedented decision to sack him in the middle of the Ebola crisis in 2015. What the Supreme Court’s ruling suggests is that as supreme leader of the APC, Koroma can cause the removal of his handpicked presidential candidate from the party if the latter wins, which will lead to his loss of the presidency. An ECOWAS Court later ruled that the vice president’s removal from the party was unlawful as it failed to follow due process. This is the most serious threat of a constitutional nature Sierra Leone faces as a nation. Efforts by the Constitutional Review Committee to correct this problem were rejected by the government.
Sierra Leone’s economy has also been in dire straits since 2015 as GDP contrated sharply by 21 percent that year largely due to the collapse of global iron prices and the Ebola pandemic that halted many activities. Despite a moderate recovery in 2016 and 2017, the economy remains undiversified; about 80 percent of the youth are in poverty and 60 percent are not productively employed; inflation is about 20 percent, with the price of rice, the staple food, having risen by about 60 percent between 2015 and 2017; salaries of teachers and civil servants are not being paid on time; and corruption has corroded public and religious values—with missing Ebola funds and pilfering of pilgrims’ payments for the 2017 Hajj by State House officials the most scandalous.
Only a small group with links to government and mining companies benefited from the mining boom of 2012-13 through kickbacks that allowed companies to enjoy zero taxes and duty waivers on imported goods. The IMF has suspended funding of the government’s budget after it reneged on an agreement to boost revenue flows through the ending of duty waivers and lifting subsidies on rice and fuel. To placate voters, the government is pursuing a populist budget involving a variety of vote-catching expenditures for which it has not been able to raise the necessary funds. The situation is likely to get more desperate for many families in the coming months, which in an election period can be destabilising.
Sierra Leone is at a crossroads again in these elections. The politics of brinkmanship, authoritarian impulses, and a mismanaged economy that blighted the future of young people were the drivers for our civil war. Bad governance under the APC, which was in power from 1968 to 1992, was largely responsible for that catastrophe. Will the elections be free, fair and credible? Will losers – government and opposition parties – accept defeat if the results are certified as credible? And will Koroma usher in a peaceful transfer of power if his party loses, as Ahmad Tejan-Kabbah did in 2007? Nigerians and the global public need to be fully engaged in observing the process. Sierra Leoneans do not want another bailout.
Yusuf Bangura writes from Nyon, Switzerland, and can be reached through Bangura.firstname.lastname@example.org.