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Final Thoughts on Sierra Leone’s November Elections

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It is less than two weeks to the crucial presidential, legislative and local council elections in Sierra Leone. The polls will mark the fourth presidential elections since the current political settlement, fashioned in 1996 as a response to a raging civil war and the collapse of the post-colonial state, came into effect. It has already lasted longer than the combined periods of military rule (about six years) and that of the immediate post-colonial Westminster-style parliamentary democracy (in its pristine form also lasting for just six years: it was brutally repudiated by a military coup in 1967.)

No doubt the inherent strengths of plural democracy are impressive but, as our experience has shown, it thrives only when there is a steadfast commitment to its virtues as well as a positive awareness of its messier manifestations by the political leadership and educated elite.

It is clear that in this respect we have been lucky, so far, to have had leaders who have demonstrated the appropriate temperament for the exacting demands of pluralism – and none more so than Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, the first leader of the current dispensation. Not only did he provide space for the opposition, he actually encouraged and supported it to become vibrant enough to unseat his own party from power. No one in his party has much reason to praise him for that apparently boundless commitment, but posterity will doubtless judge him very warmly. Kabbah was a senior civil servant when another leader, Albert Margai, attempted to tamper with such a transition, with disastrous results – and, a keen student of history, he took those lessons to heart.

Ernest Bai Koroma, so much more the politician and far less the statesman with a sense of the country’s historical vicissitudes, has nonetheless shown a temperament suited to the messier aspects of plural democracy. The argument in his favour in this respect can be made a posteriori: he has not clamped-down on free expression or the mass media, and there has been no political prisoner during his five-year tenure. The manner in which some of his supporters always eagerly point to these facts can sometimes appear sinister, and Mr. Koroma’s critics can respond, appropriately, that democracy – a positive attribute – is much more than the absence of restraints and restrictions. But it is idle to pretend that Koroma’s commitment to maintaining our democracy so far has been anything but genuine. The real test of his commitment, however, will come this November, and Koroma will be judged both by the way his supporters behave during and after the elections, and by the way he responds to an overall voter preference that may not be in his favour.

To this prospect – for good reasons even by inference – Mr. Koroma’s attitude has been disappointing, even slightly sinister.

Competitive democracy is maintained only when diverse political leaders respect, or at the very least trust, each other enough to assume that either one would, when trusted with power, maintain the dispensation which ensures opportunities for all; a shared belief that none would foul up so completely as to endanger the status quo or repudiate it. Political party leaders do not need to like each other, or even to remotely approve of each other’s economic or social platform. But the fundamental expectation of a commitment to the constitutionality – and the assumptions underpinning it – has to be present among all the key political party leaders for each other.

Mr. Koroma’s rejection of the proposition for a presidential debate, and even more so his robotic echoing of the depraved and completely untrue mantra of his party that Julius Maada Bio, the key opposition leader, is a “violent man” who disrespects authority”, must be recorded as a particularly unsettling signal. The excuse was clearly so obviously feigned as to do Mr. Koroma no favours. Moreover, if he meant it, Koroma should have used the opportunity of a debate to lecture his younger challenger on the singular virtues of the rule of law and respect for constituted authority. Forums like presidential debates have now become one of the most important mechanisms for enhancing mutual respect and understanding among contenders, as well as effective means of demonstrating accountability to the public by both the president and his challengers. They are, in in other words, necessary for the nurturing and enhancing of democracies, especially young ones.

What did Koroma do instead? He fell back on so-called ‘rallies’, standing in an open car holding a red football amidst thousands of enthusiastic youthful supporters, many obviously drunk or drugged, and all the time chanting ‘World’s Best’! The spectacle of a greying middle-aged and heavy-set man pretending to be the country’s answer to Argentina’s Messi is so obviously undignified as to be nauseating. But the problem is not simply a matter of an awkward spectacle. The reliance on mob mobilisation as “political momentum” has been one of the great problems of young, immature democracies, particularly in countries with massive illiteracy and youth unemployment.

Most of Africa’s post-colonial democracies were at first undermined, and then overthrown, by the machinations and foolishness of demagogic leaders who, feeling encumbered by the intricate demands and sensitivities of democratic institutions, mobilised the uneducated and jobless masses and attempted to foist effective one-man rule on their countries. This is what Siaka Stevens did in the 1970s in Sierra Leone; Nkrumah had attempted to do it earlier in Ghana and was overthrown in a coup. The system that Stevens created dissolved into a civil war and was swept aside by a military coup. The point is that there is no shortcut to electoral victory or good governance: it demands hard-work and positive appeal, and one must adhere to an intricate process that demands respect for diversity of views and personalities, and that surely must perforce avoid exciting potentially tumultuous forces that can lead only to nihilism. (It may be observed that anytime the “World’s Best” rallies with his frantic mob-youth, businesses in Freetown instinctively board up: so fearful are people of the latent implications.)

I have stated that so far President Koroma has demonstrated a respectable, though not at all enthusiastic, commitment to democratic tenets. He first ran for president in 2002 and lost to Mr. Kabbah. He then became a loyal, though largely forgettable, opposition for five years. Some of his rhetoric before the elections in 2007 – including one in which he was quoted as saying that he “will make Sierra Leone ungovernable” if he was cheated of victory – are the kinds of overheated bluster that must be regretted, and they do indicate that for Koroma violence is indeed an option in the practice of democracy.

I point this out only because this is very much the same accusation Koroma’s supporters continue to make against Bio. But they relate to Bio’s role in the necessary overthrow of the one-party state which the APC’s Stevens foisted upon the country, and not to any recent thing that he has done. In fact, one can say without affectation that Bio’s commitment to the current democratic dispensation – which he indeed played a crucial role in bringing about – has been faultless so far. Amidst the senseless noise and chaos and malice of the media landscape in Sierra Leone, this bears repeating. He first contested the leadership of the SLPP in elections in 2005; he lost, and gracefully accepted that loss. At the time he was very popular at the grassroots of the party. But there was no suggestion of violence around him. Before that, while briefly heading the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) military government in 1996, he conducted democratic elections against the wishes of the majority of his colleagues, and handed over power to the winning party. He then left the country and studied in the best liberal tradition, earning two degrees in international relations at the American University. I had got to know him while he was a member of the NPRC, and I rather liked him. Unlike his colleagues, he was very modest and accessible, and he was never involved in some of the outrageous scandals that accompanied some of his colleagues at the time. He was certainly the most peaceful and temperate member of the NPRC throughout.

All this is important to state – as assurance to everyone that in Bio’s pair of hands our very hard-won and fragile democracy will be safe and secure. Of course, adding the attractive and erudite Dr. Kadie Sesay to the ticket makes those hands even more assured. President Koroma doubtless does not need this added assurance. A clear indication that he recognises Bio’s respectable credentials was that he took him on his first foreign trip when he became president in 2007, and he remained in touch with Bio until the latter became his chief opponent in 2011. His current reaction to Bio smacks of petty churlishness, and it is unsettling because it suggests motives that ought not to be suspected of a leader of an emerging democracy. It suggests hatred of credible opposition. (As a thought-experiment, try imagining Samuel Sam-Sumana, who Koroma has ill-advisedly retained as Vice, as – horrors! – President Sumana in case Koroma is indisposed while serving, as is possible. Surely Sumana has taken his title of “vice” all too-literally.)

I have concentrated on the presidential contest because it holds the key to the future of the current political dispensation. A lot can be said about the role of parliament as a key underpinning of the democratic system. But parliament has been more or less a largely pliable institution; and this is unlikely to change soon. A particularly disturbing issue has been the decision by the two leading parties to drop old parliamentarians in favour of populist new choices during the nomination process, a problem compounded by the bewildering and anti-democratic decision by the National Electoral Commission (NEC) to make no provision for independent parliamentary candidates. The last parliament had a membership that was about 70 percent new; and the next one will look similar. This is tragic, since parliaments grow by experience: and membership experience is gained over several parliamentary lives. We are unlikely to have an effective parliament without experienced members who have served two or more terms in the legislature.

Finally, there is the leadership of the NEC, in particular the chair, Christiana Thorpe. Ms. Thorpe has a history of anti-democratic sentiments and behavior. As a minister in the NPRC government of Valentine Strasser, she was reputed to be one of the most vociferous opponents of the transition to democracy process; she clashed many times with then chair of the NEC, the distinguished and upright James Jonah, on the issue. Her unilateral and grossly indecent decision to invalidate169,054 votes from 477 polling stations on the grounds that there had been “over-voting” in those stations disqualifies her for holding public office in a democracy. Her lame excuse that the invalidations “have not affected the outcome” has been shown to be false by the fact that almost all the stations where votes were invalidated were in areas that vote overwhelmingly for the SLPP. Solomon Berewa, the victim of those invalidations, has argued in a recent book that had Thorpe not invalidated the votes the final result would have been 969,705 votes cast in his favour and 950,407 votes cast in favour of Koroma; Berewa’s claim that he accepted the results only in the interest of the peace and stability of the country seems credible since two of the NEC commissioners refused to sign the results because of Thorpe’s illegal decision.

That Koroma reappointed Ms. Thorpe to the job of conducting the November 2012 elections must be seen as a singular act of bad faith. One hopes that both he and Ms. Thorpe will act with better judgment and faith through this electoral cycle. In their hands does the future of our democracy and our hard-won peace rest.+

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