Sierra Leone presidential debate – what does the audience think?

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 18 February 2018

The presidential debate is over, but the repercussions and political fallout continues. It was never expected to be a dull contest. Only one of the six candidates on the podium – Mohamed Kamaraimba, had not served in one government or the other in Sierra Leone.  But was this to his advantage?

Both Samura and Yumkella had served as ministers, in the military government led by Julius Maada Bio. Did Bio use this power-relationship – ‘the boss and his subordinates’ to his advantage during the debate, or was it the opposite?

Two of Sierra Leone’s popular socialites and political commentators – Mrs Sylvia E Jolliminah Blyden and Lawyer Emeka Taylor, were both present at the ringside – watching the debate live.

So, what do they think about the debate, and who was the winner?

This is what Mrs Sylvia Blyden – the mother of former social welfare minister – Dr Sylvia Olayinka Blyden; and also, the erudite Lawyer – Emeka Taylor, said about the contest.

Mrs Sylvia Blyden:

It was the real curtain raiser for Presidential Debates in Sierra Leone. There were a few technical glitches, but overall it was good. I was right there in the Hall from the beginning to the end, and I thank the organisers for inviting me as well as giving me a good view at the front seat.

I was happy to be seating near Lawyer Emeka Taylor and we held some discussions on performance as well as on the Sierra Leone economy. I also sat near Sylvanus Koroma who is passionately APC – What do you expect?

Being the very first national debate of this nature, I expected some stage fright from the participants. But after a hesitating start, they did rather well except for Musa Tarawally who was very uncomfortable right through. Last night was definitely not the best day in his life.

Kamarainba was youthful and exuberant.  He had passion. That was a dreadful answer to say that he could change the health system in three weeks. What he meant to say, I believe, was that he was so truly fed up with what he is seeing in the health sector, he would hit the ground running if he becomes President.

Anyway, there were moments when I held my head and wished the ground would open to swallow me up from embarrassment, when bad gaffes were made. There were other moments when I roared with laughter and the quips and “back talk” successfully fired by the candidates and landed with precision on their opponents.

I assure you all that the crowd were all partisan and their minds already made up. Not many would have changed their views about the candidates, based on their performance on Thursday night.

Finally, I endorse the recommendation made, that the Moderator should have allowed both Krio and English to have been the vehicle of communication.

So, what does Lawyer Emeka Taylor think about the debate?

I was a sixth former at Saint Edwards Secondary School between 1992 and 1994. We (i.e. the students) had the Literary and Debating Society (“L&DS”) which was compulsory for all sixth formers, who gained admission to the school. Students in the lower classes were selected and invited to become members of the L&DS.

Each week, the L&DS students organised a debate. No student could back out of participation when selected as a debater for that session. Sometimes the topic was impromptu, but most of the time, you would be given sufficient time to prepare. From time to time, the debaters got a share of “boos” which gradually changed to applause, as they eventually honed their skills and mastered the art of public speaking.

The debaters at L&DS really did hone their skills in time. Many of us are presently  legal practitioners.  We know that you need to do adequate research prior to the debate or presentation. We learnt how to marshal the facts on which we intend to rely, and to do so within the shortest possible time.

We learned how to speak into a microphone, we learned how to communicate effectively in English and less importantly, we learned how to throw barbs at the opponent without being self- defeating or detracting from the substance of the debate.

Other schools like The Albert Academy, the Grammar School and St Joseph Secondary school, also had literary and debating societies. At Fourah Bay College, the Halls had a debating team too. I was fortunately  a member of the Davidson Nicol Hall debating  team.

Over the years, I have been involved in clinical legal education programmes in Nigeria,  South Africa and USA. In each of these countries and in each university where the programme has been incorporated into the curriculum, the art of advocacy, amongst other skills, is a significant benchmark for a passing grade.

So I took that background, my love for debates, and a weary body – at the end of a day’s work to the Bintumani Conference Centre last Thursday to watch the Presidential  Debate organised by AYV TV, the Sierra Leone Association  of Journalists, Campaign  for Good Governance, The Political Parties Registration  Commission and a few others.

In my view, the Sierra Leone Presidential  Debate Committee put up a “near perfect” show. I wish they had catered for audience participation at the event – so that the audience could put questions to the presidential aspirants.

It didn’t help that the moderator was indecisive as to the governing language for the occasion. I felt English would have served two needs. (a) stressed the importance of education to a disillusioned electorate; and its use would raise the bar for future aspirants. (b) Our international guests invited to the event would not  have been put at a disadvantage.

I also thought  that the video clip of the coverage  in Bo during the interlude was not such a good idea. The clip and the interviewees were definitely anti- APC.

But having said that, the presentation was first- class. The ushers, the photographer, the MC and the technical team all seemed to be on top of their respective game.

Ah, the debaters? Kandeh Yumkella was by far the superior debater on the floor. Each time a question was put to him, he gave complete answers within the time allotted to him – whether it was 30 seconds or 2:30 seconds.

In 30 seconds “the man from Kychum” told us in English why he should be the next President and then he translated to Krio for the benefit presumably for the “home” audience. That was possibly a show of his versatility. But it was ironically his blunder of the night. He set a bad example. Some of the other candidates who had previously been tongue tied, or at best stammering, got a life line.

Ok – what did Yumkella say? In 30 seconds each time, whilst some of the others fumbled, Yumkella told us what he would do to improve sports, what he would do to outlaw violence against women, and what he would do to halt corruption.

Yumkella gave us his take on the toll road, the issue of dual citizenship, large scale investment, etc. For sports, Yumkella said that he would reintroduce inter-collegial sporting competitions, get international trainers, and root out politics from the sporting arena.

For violence against women, Yumkella believes it can be tackled by changing some traditions and enforcing the law at all times.

Yumkella believes that there is no policy in place for the toll road, and the new airport arrangement must be reviewed.

As regards the dual citizenship debate, he agreed that it is undesirable for a President to be a dual citizen. But that said, citizens must be able to exercise their rights where they are.

For educational reform, the man from Kychum told us that we needed more schools.

He said there is need to get our private / public partnership enterprises to provide water and sanitation to schools; and that government must train more doctors.

Ironically, the” man from Kychum” seeks to become our own African Robin Hood.

I don’t agree with him that it is fair to increase the  water  rate on the rich to subsidise the cost of providing water  to the poor. After all, we all get one vote, and it is just not right. As an alternative, I propose that you can subsidise water costs to the poor, using revenue from our collective mineral resources and cut back on Government spending on Presidential motorcades and allowances, etc.

But you are right on the money that we must  eradicate  slum dwelling.

Of course I agree with Yumkella that we can raise revenue to fund his proposals, by reducing leakages in Government expenditure, currently characterised by over bloated payrolls, expensive travelling trips of public officials, and unnecessary duty waivers.

Yumkella believes that we can stimulate economic growth and create jobs by public/ private sector partnerships.

Dr Samura Kamara buckled under the pressure of being the poster child for the present Government. The Doctor (PhD) from Kamalo was forced to admit that his government was responsible for the deplorable living conditions of  its citizenry.

He admitted that his Government would revisit ‘the drawing board’. Such a display of candour on the floor of a debate was ill-conceived. Everything went ‘south’ afterwards. He apologised on behalf of his Government.

After half- time, Dr Samura came back swinging personal jabs at his opponents, especially Dr Kandeh Yumkella and Retired Brigadier General Maada Bio. He displayed emotion and confessed to being “hurt” by the impression given  by the others that  economic  growth was achievable overnight.

He clearly had been affected by Yumkella’s swift and hardly noticeable jab that – what we presently have is ‘Ranka-economics’.

Like a child on a playground, Samura challenged his contender. He said that that he was more knowledgeable in economics than the other Doctor (PhD) from Kychum.

Samura took a belly punch from the retired general, when the latter gave a tongue – in – cheek testimonial that Dr Samura was one “who needed supervision”.

Dr Samura would not be outdone, he was ready to spill the beans on corruption in the NPRC government. And to this end, he swung a left jab at the retired army general, only to get a serious nose bleeder in return – that he was as complicit as every other member of the NPRC Government.  And I kept thinking “yes O …ee bin for resign”.

I truly felt sorry for Dr Samura Kamara. He was not having a good day and the moderator did not help at all, when he kept throwing in the towel on Dr Samura’s behalf.

The retired Brigadier-General Maada Bio, came prepared for a debate – and a fight, it seemed. I am sure he knew that he would have a Herculean task ahead. And so, he was the only candidate to bring on to the floor – his laptop and some sheets of paper. He did not take chances. He wanted his record of service to count. But did it?

The Soja from Tihum’s maths did not add up, when he attempted to put a figure on the budget to finance his free-education policy. Sir, Le 380,000 x 2,000,000 is not Le 1.5 billion. But that said, he struck a chord in the audience when he emphasized the need for discipline.

Maada Bio did say that the law should not be used to exclude others from the democratic process, and that he would review the toll road project. He stated that the airport project at Mamamah was “a sham”.

Maada stated that laws must be put in place to protect communities from investors. He didn’t detract from his campaign. In my view, not at all. Even Yumkella was not shy on proclaiming that he and the Brigadier agreed on some points.

Chief Sam Sumana was a cool player. He put his points across well. Actually, he tried to, but didn’t quite successfully distance himself from the present Government. He succeeded in sending a message that he was law abiding and peace loving.

He wanted us to believe that had he permitted it, the country might have been ablaze by his impeachment. He was somewhat reserved in his delivery. He didn’t t lose points, but he didn’t send sparks flying either.

Mr Mohamed Kamaraimba came on the debate floor with a confidence that didn’t quite match his debating skills. He got timed out frequently but was right on one score; that he was the only candidate that hadn’t served in one or other of the successive Governments. His exuberance was infectious. But he seemed prone to hyperbole and superlatives.

Alhaji Musa Tarawally had some good points to sell, but he himself got timed out frequently. He just couldn’t convince the audience within the time slot for the event, that we were better off when education  was controlled and regulated by religious groups. I believe he mentioned Harvard before he got timed out again…and yet again.

His proposals to do geographical surveys as an audit for our mineral potential didn’t send sparks flying across the room.

In conclusion, I am glad I went to the debate. The elections are a couple of weeks away. I have been offered a role in the democratic  process, and I will be getting out of bed on elections  day it seems. To vote or not to vote? One candidate put on a good show yesterday. But debates are really what they are…

The Sierra Leone Telegraph  asked Dr Kandeh Yumkella his thoughts about the debate. And this is what he said:

“I really enjoyed the debate. It was the beginning of the change we all desire.  This one event already gave an opportunity for us to face the people unaided by handlers. I wish we were allowed to have some direct verbal combat and rebuttals; how I wish we could have had three debates on (a) the economy, (b) health and education, and (c) leadership and governance. I guess that’s for the future.”

You can watch a recording of the debate here – if you missed it:



1 Comment

  1. Very good analysis by Lawyer Emeka Taylor. You know, I watched a huge part of the debate at a rented church hall in London by AYV TV. I’m indeed very proud that Sierra Leone is moving towards a democratic process full of would be leaders professing what they would do if elected President. Hope this continues.

    Here in the UK there was mediocrity on the part of the participants and a very mild criticism of how the debate was organised. The hall was packed full with limited seating arrangement. There was food and drinks all over the place with little supervision. And of course, our fellow Sierra Leoneans were overawed by the presence of their candidates rather than the content of their characters.

    Just before I left the hall, my analyses to some spectators were exactly the same as my erudite lawyer commented. I cannot agree more to his observations and verdict on each of the participants. Thanks Lawyer Taylor!! At least I’m happy that someone shares similar views.

    Long may the excitement of our coming election continue. This is regarded as the dawn of a new political era, and I encourage all Sierra leoneans to bask in it.

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