Why we need change in Sierra Leone – authoritarian impulse is a drag on development (Part 2)

Yusuf Bangura

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 4 December 2017

I define an authoritarian impulse as an urge to submit or compel others to submit blindly to authority. Such an impulse rejects individual choice, freedom and competition in choosing those who govern, and opt instead to concentrate power in the hands of leaders.

It may be indistinguishable from an ‘authoritarian personality’ in psychology, when those who exhibit the trait have an inherent urge to dominate others. However, in many cases, the authoritarian impulse may be driven by societal processes and weak institutions, as leaders exploit ambiguities in rules.

The authoritarian impulse is what may account for the large number of illiberal democracies in today’s world, especially, but not limited to those with a shallow history of democracy.

Some have argued that Donald Trump’s behaviour is pushing the US in an illiberal direction. The US could well be having an ‘authoritarian personality’ problem in Trump, and is held in check largely by the country’s institutions of checks and balances and citizen activism.

In illiberal democracies of the type that I interrogate in this piece, when an authoritarian impulse takes root, it tends to have a corrosive effect on already weak public institutions, making it harder to hold leaders to account.

Regular competitive elections take place but civil liberties, political accommodation, and the rule of law are abused or not consistently respected. As Fareed Zacharia has observed in popularising the concept of illiberal democracies, leaders manipulate state institutions, cultivate a culture of mass or party obedience, and govern with little regard for due process.

Sierra Leone has come a long way from its dark days of mindless authoritarianism and civil war to a democratic system that has experienced four competitive elections, in which power has alternated between parties. Despite the existence of a draconian criminal libel law and occasional arrest and detention of journalists, the press is relatively free; and the right to organization and assembly is respected, even though police violence on peaceful protest is common.

Sierra Leone ranks as a ‘democracy’ in the influential Polity IV Democracy Project, which is a category below ‘full democracy’, but higher than the other four categories of ‘open anocracy’, ‘closed anocracy’, ‘autocracy’ and ‘failed/occupied states’. In the Freedom House Index, Sierra Leone is categorised as ‘partly free’ in three categories of ‘free’, ‘partly free’, and ‘not free’, with middling scores on political rights and civil liberties. And the Mo Ibrahim African Governance Index has recorded an increase in Sierra Leone’s governance score in recent years; it was ranked 30th out of 54 countries in 2015, with improved scores on safety and rule of law.

One may quarrel with the quality of the data for compiling these indices, but it is clear even by anecdotal observation that gains have been made in the democracy field. However, these gains have occurred in an environment of governmental failure in improving living standards; widespread corruption, as reflected in the country’s poor score in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index; weak institutions, especially in the delivery of services and administration of justice; and growing centralization of power in the presidency.

Authoritarian parties

These problems provide fertile conditions for an authoritarian impulse to flourish, move the democratic gains in an illiberal direction, and act as a drag on development. Over the years, but especially during the current political cycle, our two oldest parties, the All People’s Congress (APC) and the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), have shown a preference for authoritarian practices in governing their respective parties and choosing leaders to contest national elections.

Political parties, we should note, are the bedrock of modern democracies; they aggregate voter choices, choose individuals that represent voter interests, and either govern the state or hold those who govern to account. Because of these core functions, no country can become fully democratic without democratically organized parties.

The APC has a long history of authoritarian practices, which go back to Siaka Stevens, its first leader, and Joseph Saidu Momoh, who succeeded him. The party’s constitution is even ambivalent on the value of elections, as it opts to choose its standard bearers by either a process of selection or election.

Two key factors currently fuel the party’s authoritarian impulse: its use of a delegate method of choosing leaders; and the supreme power enjoyed by its current chairman and leader, Ernest Koroma.

Under the delegate system, only a tiny number of activists choose the party’s candidates. A committee identifies influential voters in constituencies to act as an electoral college. This system, a variant of which is practiced by the SLPP has been substantially abused, leading at times to violence.

Party leaders at different levels often dictate who should be in the electoral college; and because of the size of the electoral college (ranging from 100-200 members in constituencies and not more than 1,500 for the presidential candidate), it has been easy for powerful candidates to bribe or coerce electoral college voters in elections.

Recent developments have shown that the delegate system occupies even less importance in choosing the APC leaders. In the party’s 2013 national delegate convention, candidates for all positions in the national executive were elected unopposed; opponents were either coerced or offered promises to withdraw from contests. Indeed, the party has not held a competitive election for a national position since it came to power in 2007.

The situation took a turn for the worse in 2017 when Koroma was allowed to select the party’s presidential candidate and running mate, even though more than 1,000 delegates had gathered at the national delegate convention to perform this task. None of the 27 individuals who had campaigned for the job challenged the decision, and virtually all have rallied to the anointed candidates.

More disturbingly, the youth wing of the party voted early this year to make Koroma ‘Life Chairman’ of the party. This is a throwback to the bad governance days of ‘life presidents’ or single person dictatorships that ruined most African countries in the 1970s and 1980s. Koroma’s failure to denounce this decision raises questions about his commitment to democracy and institution building. And he has remained chairman and leader of the party after the convention of 2017—positions that have in the past been held by the party’s presidential candidate.

As chairman and leader of the APC, Koroma’s power has been enhanced further by our Supreme Court’s ruling in the Sam Sumana case of 2015, that loss of party membership should cause the removal of a sitting president or vice president. By this ruling, if Koroma continues as leader of the APC and Samura Kamara – the party’s standard bearer becomes president, Koroma can cause the party to expel Kamara from the party and overturn the verdict of the voters, as Kamara would also lose his position as president. The Supreme Court has dealt a colossal blow to our democracy, which leaders with an authoritarian mind-set can exploit.

Nothing captures the APC’s authoritarian impulse better than its new Themneh campaign slogan, tolongbo. The linguist, Sheikh Umarr Kamarah, has recently described it as ‘a command to the congregation to do what is regarded as a duty without questioning’. As he brilliantly observes,

‘It takes away one’s right to think and decide for oneself. It macerates the personal voice and endangers Democracy. It promotes the absence of dissent and deviation, and the presence of blind following. It is but a sheepish trek to cultism’.

The SLPP has been in power for far fewer years than the APC. However, it has also taken an authoritarian turn in recent years, especially with the rise of Julius Maada Bio as the dominant force in the party. Amazingly, the SLPP is, prima facie, much more committed to democracy than the APC. However, it favours only elections that the dominant wing of the party is sure of winning.

This explains the long-running battles by Bio’s faction, which controls the national executive, to deny key opponents free access to the party’s facilities; use of targeted violence on Bio’s opponents; dismissal and counter-dismissal of members from the national executive committee; persistent court battles on subversion of party rules; and the conduct of illegal elections to determine the delegate list for elections for the national executive and the presidential nominee.

A semblance of stability has returned to the party after two of the main contenders, Kandeh Yumkella and Andrew Keili and their supporters left the party. With a delegate list that favoured Bio and his group, the election of Bio as the party’s presidential candidate was a foregone conclusion. Bio now dominates the party in ways that are similar to Koroma’s domination of the APC.

Our two main parties are, thus, two sides of the same coin. The recent reference to them in public conversations as Alhassan and Alusine (twins) or Aki and Pawpaw (twin actors in Nigerian films) is stunningly accurate.

Effects on development

How does the authoritarian impulse affect development? It is common knowledge that the East Asian countries became industrial giants under highly authoritarian conditions. However, our history shows that authoritarian rule is bad for our development.

As I have observed elsewhere, ‘we always make progress, however limited, when our politics are democratic; and regress, sometimes very badly, when we allow a single party, the military, or warlords to lord it over us’. Our growth trajectory over a 56-year period correlates remarkably with our political development: largely positive during democratic rule, and negative or anaemic during authoritarian rule.

The authoritarian turn in our two main parties should be a worry, therefore, for voters. There are four ways it can adversely impact development. The first is the stifling of internal debate, making it difficult to generate new ideas and sound policies beyond the five yearly catch-all manifestos. The absence of internal party debate has resulted in overly powerful leaders, sycophancy on the part of followers, and failure of policy-based groups or factions to develop within the parties.

In 2012 and 2017, there were 19 and 10 aspirants respectively for the SLPP’s presidential ticket; and in 2017, the APC had 28 aspirants for its top ticket. This very large number of aspirants is indicative of weak or non-existent intra-party debate, which would have narrowed contests to a few candidates based on the policies of contending groups.

Second, authoritarian practices may downplay the importance of merit. Appointments in public institutions may be decided by proximity to the all-powerful leader and small circle of close loyalists. The accent on patronage prevents the state from developing a talent pool of administrators, and serves as a disincentive for individuals to invest in expertise.

Third, public policy may be captured by a small group of business, administrative and political elites. This may make it difficult to regulate favoured businesses and their political allies. It may concentrate benefits in the hands of less-productive individuals and sectors of the economy.

Policy capture may, indeed, frustrate efforts to diversify the economy as the ruling elite is either too embedded in sub-optimal practices to think about alternatives, or may block reforms that threaten benefits.

Finally, authoritarian practices may strengthen segmented clientelism in the provision of services. Authoritarian rulers treat voters as individual clients, rather than as citizens with rights. They may strike private deals with voters–usually leaders of a few powerful voting groups–in dispensing patronage, especially during the political season, rather than support systems of service provision that benefit everyone.

A breath of fresh air

In conclusion, are there countervailing factors to the authoritarian impulse? Three developments seem promising.

The first is the emergence of the National Grand Coalition (NGC), which promises greater transparency in governance, justice for all, national cohesion and economic transformation. It is still early to assess the party’s commitment to these objectives.

However, the decision to dispense with the delegate system in choosing its presidential candidate in post-2018 elections is a welcome innovation. This could impact the behaviour of other parties, especially if it wins the 2018 elections.

The NGC party’s constitution affirms that its presidential candidate will be elected by universal suffrage, giving the vote to all paid-up members, including those in the diaspora. This electoral rule, which I have advocated several times in speeches and writings, is currently practiced by Ghana’s National Democratic Congress.

The NGC’s lower level elections will still be governed by a delegate system, which, as discussed earlier, is open to abuse. However, the one-member one-vote system for the presidential candidate could have a spill-over effect on lower level elections, necessitating a realignment of rules.

Second, The Constitutional Review Committee (CRC), which held wide-ranging national consultations on plans to revise our 1991 constitution, recommended in its report that ‘loss of party membership should not nullify or cause the removal of a sitting President from office…’ This recommendation questions the Supreme Court’s decision on the Sumana case that allows parties to overturn the mandate of the electorate if they are dissatisfied with their leaders.

Unfortunately, the government’s White Paper on the CRC Report has rejected the recommendation, as well as the recommendation to change the description of the president as ‘Supreme Executive Authority’ to ‘Chief Executive’. The authoritarian impulse is, disturbingly well and truly potent.

However, the CRC’s recommendations are now in the public domain and may empower future governments to act differently.

The third countervailing factor is citizen activism. This seems to be gaining strength through not only advocacy groups and the conventional media of radio, television and newspapers, but also the wide reach and vibrancy of social media, especially WhatsApp. The main parties and government do not control public information anymore.

The challenge is to convert citizen control of information into capacity to hold parties and the government to account. Sustained public engagement and operationalising the freedom of information law may help in this direction.

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