The Sierra Leone election like no other

Rivalry hug: The ruling All People’s Congress (APC) presidential candidate Samura Kamara (in red) meets his rival, Brig (Rtd) Julius Maada Bio Bio (in suit) of the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) at Freetown's Radisson Blu hotel. They are among the 16 contenders for the top seat in the March 7 election. KEMO CHAM | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma last week took a break from attending to state matters to join the campaign trail. His first stop was Kabala in the northern Koinadugu District.

For the ruling All People’s Congress (APC) party, the concern over Wednesday’s polls is not just the fear of losing power, but also at stake is the legacy of a man who has dominated politics in this country’s for the past 10 years. President Koroma is under pressure to deliver victory for the party, not just to justify his controversial hand-picked successor, but also to guarantee himself a peaceful retirement.

There has been a lot of talk about corruption under his watch and the need to protect the alleged loot. But for his supporters, the 64 year-old former insurance broker has no match in terms of his accomplishments. He has himself never missed an opportunity to blow his own trumpet.

“Under normal elections, we are strong enough to win in the next five to six elections…,” he said in December, at a Christmas Dinner party organised in his honour, boasting that he was leaving the presidency with the APC at its strongest.

Dozen heavyweights

But less than a week before the votes are cast in what has been described as the most competitive elections since multiparty democracy was introduced in 1996, few people can agree with his overoptimistic demeanour of Mr President. And his visit to Koinadugu was part of the explanation.

APC is not only facing a more determined opposition, it is simultaneously dealing with cracks within like never before. At least half a dozen heavyweights have abandoned it.

Notable among those are three former cabinet ministers. One of them, Mr Peter Bayuku Conteh, who hails from Koinadugu, cited “dictatorial” tendencies as reason for his departure.

Koinadugu, like the rest of the northern Sierra Leoneans, has always been an APC stronghold. But the bruising flagbearer contest last December left its people disenchanted. Former Central Bank Governor, Dr Kaifala Marah, one of about a dozen people who vied for the APC’s ticket, is from the district. Angry youths burnt down APC paraphernalia in protest against President Koroma’s choice of his former Foreign minister, Mr Samura Kamara, when he was unveiled.

There were similar expression of discontents in Port Loko and Kambia in the region, over what was seen as the president’s unilateral decision.

In addition to the intraparty quagmire, APC has to deal with a fragmented but determined opposition. For the first time in a long period, a third force with a real chance of influencing the elections outcome has emerged.

In all, 17 political parties are contesting the polls. According to the National Electoral Commission (NEC), 446 elections will be held for local council positions, including mayoral contests in five cities: Freetown, Makeni, Kenema, Bo and Kono.

The 3,178,663 registered voters will also vote directly for the 132 seats reserved for ordinary members of parliament. The elections for the 12 seats reserved for traditional rulers [Paramount Chiefs], were held earlier.

But the presidential race, with 16 candidates, is the major point attraction. And the APC and SLPP candidates are the undoubted favourites.

But the winner must have at least 55 per cent of the total vote to avoid a runoff, which many analysts say was unlikely in this poll. Part of the reason for this is the emergence of many breakaway parties, notably the National Grand Coalition (NGC), led by a hugely charismatic and respected former UN diplomat, Dr Kandeh Yumkella.

Most of NGC’s top figures are aggrieved former SLPP members, but the party appears much of a threat to APC.

Dr Yumkella, 58, is campaigning on the platform of job creation, hence his popularity among the youths. He has vowed to declare education as an emergency as his first act in office.

If the Sierra Leonean elections were to be decided internationally, the impressively eloquent agricultural economist would win hands down.

A supporter of Sierra Leone's All People's Congress (APC) presidential candidate Samura Kamara gestures during a campaign rally on March 3, 2018, in Kambia, ahead of the country's General Election on March 7 for a new president, parliament and local councils. FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Dr Yumkella is best known for his tenue as head of the Vienna-based United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (Unido) and he has served at various high level UN panels, including as the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Sustainable Energy, a position he left to contest the presidency.

His purported recent public endorsement by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo almost created a diplomatic row with Nigeria.

NGC came at a time when pro-democracy campaigners mounted a drive to promote issue-based as opposed to ethnic-based politics, that have characterised Sierra Leone since before independence in 1963.

APC and SLPP have dominated the system throughout the period. While APC has largely enjoyed support from the northwestern part of the country, SLPP held sway over the southeast.

This seemingly impenetrable reality is what NGC seems to have crushed.

Dr Yumkella appeals to the mostly educated elite, who have refused to partake in the country’s politics due to disillusionment.

NGC comes across as the moderate version of the two extremes – APC and SLPP – and the alternative for those who feel aggrieved in either [and there are many of them] and wanted to switchover without risking humiliation.

All three former cabinet ministers who left APC joined NGC.

Another hurdle for the APC is the eastern Kono District, which has until now played the role of a swing state.

Kono was notably instrumental in the election of President Koroma in 2007. But with the formation of the Coalition For Change (C4C) party, things have changed. C4C is the brain child of former Vice-President Samuel Sam-Sumana, a presidential candidate himself, who has been sounding like someone seeking his pound of flesh for his unceremonious removal from office in 2015.

Those and several other factors, including the struggling economy exacerbated by the events of Ebola epidemic and the flooding and mudslide disasters in 2015 and 2017 and how they were handled, were all working against the incumbent.

Despite opposition to his candidature, Mr Kamara exudes a remarkable character.

The 66-year-old economist has the unique experience of having served under all governments since 1991, including the junta regime led by his main challenger in this election, Brig (Rtd) Julius Maada Bio, whom he served as Finance minister.

The father

Mr Kamara also served as Financial Secretary in the late Tejan Kabbah-led SLPP administration. And in the Koroma administration, he notably served as bank governor and Finance and Foreign Affairs minister. He is credited with spearheading President Koroma’s development blueprint, the Agenda for Prosperity, but which also makes him a target for critics who say Koroma failed to deliver his promises.

Mr Kamara campaigned on the platform of an inclusive government. His manifesto, ‘Governing for the Grassroots’, promises effective public finance management.

Brig Bio, 53, is making his second attempt at the presidency. The man who considers himself as the father of Sierra Leone’s Democracy, lost to President Koroma in the 2012 polls.

Bio is campaigning on the premise of revamping the education system. In his New Direction Manifesto, he promised to provide free primary and secondary education.

The other candidates include two women, highly educated and intelligent, with interesting programmes.

Sadly, due to Sierra Leone’s highly regionalised politics, these men and women were mere statistics in the race.

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