Why the SLPP should avoid a repeat of the 2007 Charles Margai debacle?

Professor Michael Conteh

19 March 2012

Tom Nyuma (in green) on a guided tour of kailahun with president Koroma

The most intriguing political news making the rounds in Sierra Leone today is the decision of the Kailahun District Chairman – Retired Lieutenant Colonel – Tom Nyuma, to swap the green political jersey of the opposition SLPP for the ruling APC’s red.

In a country where political allegiances are treated with religious zest, the decision is not only significant because of Nyuma’s high-ranking status, but how the SLPP respond. This is critical for their electoral prospects in the general elections taking place in November.

Many commentators – licensed and citizen journalists have been pouring over the news, sometimes with a jaundiced perspective. I am just among a small minority who believe that such political defections remind us of an undemocratic past – the 1970s single party rule, which must be rejected.

But I also believe that the beauty of democracy is the opportunity of choice; Nyuma is free to exercise his right to assembly guaranteed under the 1991 Constitution, although the same constitution (Article 11:77K) imposes restrictions on cross-carpeting of members of parliament only.

It is not clear whether this same restriction would apply in this case, as the Local Government Act is also silent about political defections.

Many SLPP supporters would like to evoke this section of the constitution, but that opens up a whole new constitutional debate for another day, which is hardly plausible as elections are just a few months away.

This is what further complicates the situation for the SLPP, who were clearly taken off-guard by this defection.

That said, APC supporters are clearly excited and have been quick to call game over.

Understandably so, Nyuma was not an ordinary SLPP member of Kailahun district, he is also the chairman of a strategic eastern political constituency.

Until now, he was a rising star within the SLPP party, and given the recent resurgence of easterners in the party, one would not have been surprised to find Nyuma a minister in a victorious SLPP government.

Also, few people would deny that Tom is a living national hero, after his exploits in the civil war against the RUF.

Despite the irony of his defection to a party he helped overthrow in 1992, the APC are willing to forgive him, at least for the purposes of winning the elections.

It is a symbolic victory for, particularly a President Koroma who wishes a favourable place in history, defined not by the miscalculations of his first term -northernisation and economic mismanagement, but a second term that he believes he needs to be seen as a national president – not just a Bombali head of state.

However, while the issue of Nyuma’s defection would undoubtedly go down into Sierra Leone’s contemporary history, in the mould of Paramount Chief Kai Samba and others who defected in 1967 to support Siaka Steven’s APC, today the SLPP’s response may have serious ramifications both for its electoral prospects and image as a truly national political party.

Belligerent factions within the SLPP party are already desperate for Nyuma’s blood.

Yet, it is best to draw lessons from recent history; the Charles Margai defection and his formation of the PMDC party – an episode the SLPP would like to forget, but one that can help them navigate this scandal.

Like the Charles Margai – PMDC saga, to treat Nyuma as a traitor would only give him unnecessary political clout that may make the APC take him more seriously than they would have liked (perhaps even making him a cabinet minister in a re-elected Koroma presidency).

To hunt Nyuma down, as Berewa did to supporters of Margai in the cabinet, would only help the APC avoid the necessary scrutiny over it’s mishandling of the economy.

More importantly, to vilify Nyuma would only make the SLPP appear tribal, as the party that only wants northerners to join its fold, but would evoke religious heresy when south-easterners go the other way.

Thus, the best way for the SLPP to respond to such a high profile political defection is to give it a deafening silence.

Because, like the Margai episode, while political defection is nothing but a selfish act of moral bankruptcy and opportunism, the response can also tell a lot about the true character and philosophy of the SLPP.

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