Sierra Leone presidential election run-off – dilemma for Yumkella NGC

Author: Yusuf Bangura: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 19 March 2018:

The presidential candidate of the National Grand Coalition (NGC) – Kandeh Yumkella, last week announced that his party is engaged in consultations with its supporters, on the position it should adopt for the presidential run-off election, scheduled for next Tuesday, March 27.

If the results released by the National Electoral Commission are credible, the NGC posted a distant third, scoring 6.9% of the votes in the first round.

But the question that now dominate the country’s political discourse, is quite stark: Should the NGC endorse any of the two run-off parties – the All People’s Congress (APC) or the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP); or, should it concentrate on building its young party and leave the choice to its voters when they cast their ballots on March 27?

Any decision the party takes will not be risk-free and is likely to offend some of its voters, who are a very heterogeneous group.

APC versus SLPP: Is there a lesser evil?

Throughout the campaign, the NGC tagged the two run-off parties as outfits that have passed their sell-by dates—two sides of the same coin that has been flipped repeatedly for 56 years, but producing the same results – bad governance, ethnocentrism, limited and truncated services, a weak and undiversified economy, poor living conditions, limited job opportunities and corruption.

Should the NGC now choose between these two parties, that it has branded as unproductive and divisive?

Some argue that politics is about compromises and that the NGC cannot afford to stay on the side-lines, as one of the parties is a ‘lesser evil’ than the other in the current political juncture. Those who make this argument identify the APC as a greater enemy to the NGC and the nation than the SLPP.

From ‘a change at all cost’ perspective, a good case can be made that the NGC should not even consider endorsing the APC. The main issue should be whether an NGC endorsement of the SLPP will advance the NGC’s interests. The arguments can be summarised in five ways.

The first is that the APC has been nasty to the NGC. They have been very determined to disqualify Yumkella from the presidential race by challenging his citizenship rights, with the case still pending at the Supreme Court.

Second, as an incumbent party, the APC is primarily responsible for most of the problems the NGC seeks to correct–corruption, nepotism, lack of justice, a blighted economy, poor services and deteriorating living conditions.

Third, Samura Kamara, the APC’s candidate, is likely to be President Koroma’s puppet, since he was chosen by the former; Koroma retains the title of Chairman and Leader of the party and can end Kamara’s presidency by causing his expulsion from the party if he wins.

Sierra Leoneans cannot afford to go through such constitutional crisis, which the SLPP has promised to fix by accepting the recommendations of the Constitutional Review Committee.

Fourth, the APC has become too complacent, arrogant and indifferent to public demands, after more than 10 years in power. This necessitates a change of government in order to move the country forward.

If the NGC accepts these arguments as a basis for endorsing the SLPP, it will be rejecting its characterisation of the SLPP as unreformable or the flip side of the APC.

Indeed, a fifth argument of those who want an endorsement of the SLPP is that Sierra Leone’s two-party system is unlikely to change any time soon; so it is better for the NGC to enter into an alliance with the SLPP and influence its policies from within. Angling for jobs, resources and influence seems to be the motivating factor for many of those who advance this argument.

And since the NGC grew out of the SLPP, there seems to be many within the NGC who want to return to the SLPP and enjoy the benefits of government.

Others take a different view. They argue that the SLPP is not very different from the APC. There are five equally compelling arguments that make the case for endorsing Julius Maada Bio and the SLPP problematic.

The first is that it will confirm one of the APC’s campaign slogans that the NGC is an extension or Part II of the SLPP, which was created primarily to get the APC out of power.

The second is that Bio’s faction that has taken over the SLPP was equally nasty to Yumkella and hounded him out of the SLPP during the struggle to determine the party’s standard bearer. And the SLPP adopted a very opportunistic posture when the APC was witch-hunting Yumkella by refusing to condemn the practice. In other words, both parties wanted Yumkella out of the race.

Third, the APC is the mirror image of the SLPP in terms of the authoritarian way both parties are governed. Bio’s Paopa faction, like Ernest Koroma in the APC, reigns supreme. It has used unsavoury and undemocratic practices to exclude competitors, and only accepts elections that it wins.

Fourth, Ahmad Tejan-Kabbah’s SLPP government and Bio’s NPRC were highly corrupt. During the presidential debate, the APC’s Samura Kamara, who was Financial Secretary under the NPRC, revealed that $18 million were illegally withdrawn from the treasury, for which Bio provided no rebuttal. Ex-president Kabbah also made serious corruption allegations against Bio in 1996.

And fifth, the SLPP is just as ethno-regional as the APC. Indeed, the SLPP encouraged ethnic block voting in the six Mende-speaking districts where it scored 83% of the votes; the NGC could only manage 2% – its lowest in the country.

Those who make these arguments believe that an NGC endorsement of the SLPP will be business as usual, with politicians angling for jobs and resources – in other words, it will not usher in a new kind of politics.

The limits of endorsement

The NGC campaigned on a change message with three important dimensions. The first is its articulation of a new type of politics, which rejected ethno-regionalism as the organising framework for winning elections and governing the state.

The second is its commitment to a governance system that is not beholden to patronage and corruption, and which is grounded in transparency, justice and inclusion.

And the third is its quest to create a jobs-generating and diversified economy, as well as improved services for everyone.

During the campaign, it was not always easy to differentiate most of the main parties on these three issues.

But the NGC’s advantage in advancing trans-ethnic politics was evident in its lack of an ethno-regional base in contesting the March 7 elections.

While the other parties shared the NGC’s vision on control of corruption, justice, job-creation, a diversified economy and service provision, it was clear that only the NGC’s leader, Yumkella, understood these issues very well and could discuss them with honesty, commitment and passion.

Politics is essentially about interests, values and power. The first issue that should guide the NGC in its deliberation is how to ensure that its three core interests, which I assume are based on values of solidarity or a compact with common people, permeate the public sphere, become public policy and change people’s lives for the better.

The second is about power—i.e. whether the NGC as it is currently constituted and based on its performance in the first round of elections can compel any of the two parties to honour run-off deals that will advance its core interests when they win elections.

I want to advance three arguments why an NGC endorsement of any party is not likely to serve the NGC well. The first relates to interests and power. Our presidential system of government makes it difficult to construct coalition government that serves the interests of minority parties, especially when the government has an absolute majority in parliament.

Coalition governments work well in Western democracies because they are mostly based on parliamentary systems where minor parties in a coalition can end the lives of governments that betray coalition deals.

In our presidential system, endorsements or run-off deals are a blank cheque, which the winning party can cash without any control from the giver or minority party.

Kabbah’s SLPP entered into an alliance with the People’s Democratic Party in the 1996 run-off election and offered the latter a few cabinet and ambassadorial posts. However, within a few years, most of the PDP members had either been absorbed by the SLPP or lost their cabinet positions. Today, the PDP could not even put up a candidate in the elections, and has a comedian, Salone Trump, as leader.

Similarly, Charles Margai’s People’s Movement for Democratic Change entered into a run-off alliance with Koromas’ APC in 2007 and also received a few government appointments.

The PMDC suffered PDP’s fate of losing the government jobs and some of its top members to the APC within a very short time. Today, the party cannot even get half a percentage point in the presidential election. (Photo: Margai and Koroma striking an unholy alliance in 2007).

The Revolutionary United Front Party, the offspring of the Revolutionary United Front, which brutalised Sierra Leoneans in the 1990s civil war, commands more votes than the PMDC both nationally and in the South-East.

The president has a popular mandate, which can only be overturned by parliamentary impeachment for gross crimes. Once elected, he/she cannot be held in check or removed from office by any party in a run-off deal. A minority party in a coalition can make life difficult for the president in parliament by refusing to support the president’s bills, but this can only happen if there is a hung parliament, forcing the president to work constructively with small parties.

We do not have the results of the parliamentary elections, but unofficial sources suggest that the APC is likely to have a majority in parliament. This indicates that the NGC will not have the power to compel a government it has endorsed in a run-off to honour a deal.

The second argument against endorsement is the threat posed by both parties to the survival of the NGC in an ethnically bifurcated electorate. If any of the parties wins, the NGC will face tremendous pressure for survival in the ethnic region of the winning party, which will command state resources to woo NGC supporters or disorganise the party in specific localities. This is a problem the NGC has to contend with whether it endorses a winner or not.

However, if the APC loses, there is a high probability that it will be weakened, and its long awaited implosion will occur, offering opportunities to the NGC to make further in-roads in the North. Similarly, if the SLPP loses, it will drive home the point that the party cannot win elections by playing the ethnic card, which does not favour the party because of the lopsided nature of the electorate in ethno-regional terms. This might encourage South-East voters and the SLPP to be more flexible in trying out new arrangements, which the NGC will be able to exploit in order to grow in those regions.

These scenarios suggest that the NGC should not entangle itself in the slippery politics of endorsement. It should leave the decision to its voters, who in any case may not necessarily follow the party’s endorsement.

There is a third problem that the NGC needs to consider. Sierra Leone’s party system is not policy-based or ideological. This means that parties may overestimate their power of endorsement, which may not necessarily be accepted by the membership, unless in situations where the party’s endorsement reflects the preferences of the voters.

In Kono, for instance, there is a strong protest wave against the APC based on a number of grievances, including the sacking of the vice president and their elected mayor, disaffection with government-supported mining companies, and unfulfilled promises by the government.

Sam Sumana is riding on the crest of this protest wave. In such a situation, Sumana can only endorse the SLPP or stay neutral if he wants his voters to follow his lead; he cannot order his Kono voters to vote APC because voter-leader interests will be misaligned, and most may not follow him if he does.

The NGC has the largest number of votes in Kambia, Yumkella’s home base. Many of these votes may have been ethnic, but they are only 27% of the NGC’s national votes. The Kambia voters do not like the way the APC has treated Yumkella, their ‘son’.

If he endorses the SLPP, perhaps many might follow his decision to vote SLPP because these voters dislike the APC’s anti-Yumkella stance. Voter-leader interests may be aligned in such a scenario.

However, the danger for the NGC is that if most NGC Kambia voters support the endorsement, but other NGC voters in other regions do not, the NGC may risk becoming an ethnic party—something that is alien to its DNA.

Furthermore, if the NGC endorses the SLPP and an SLPP government becomes ethnically discriminatory like the APC’s, there could be a backlash against the NGC in the North—a fate suffered by the PMDC in the South after its endorsement of Koroma’s APC in 2007. This suggests that the best strategy for the NGC is to leave the choice to its diverse voters who may not speak with one voice.

Conclusion

Non-endorsement of parties in the run-off does not mean the NGC will be side-lined. Indeed, it has its work cut out if it seriously believes in the kind of change that it propagates. Perhaps, expectations were too high that Sierra Leone’s ethno-regional divide will be broken in one election cycle by a party that is barely five months old.

The NGC’s message of change is now in the public domain and more than 170,000 voters embraced it. It seems to have won a few parliamentary seats and local councils. Parliament offers the party a platform to actively promote its change message.

And if it ends up controlling or having representation in a few councils, it may have the opportunity to implement its new kind of politics at the local level and ensure that service delivery benefits the poor. This might help to debunk the allegation that the NGC is all talk and no action.

The NGC’s biggest challenge is to open up the South-East and gain reasonable representation in that region. This is important for its mission of inclusive, non-ethnic politics. The party also needs to work on its identity, based on its three core interests, and its social base, which remains to be properly defined.

The NGC cannot beat the two parties in ethnic politics, so it needs to carve out a strategy that will make it easier for a coalition of working people across regions to readily identify with it as their party of choice, based on their interests.

Finally, the run-off election may depressingly turn out to be the mother of all ethnic battles in Sierra Leone. The only way the APC can win is to aggressively push the ethnic card because of the advantage it enjoys in the ethno-regional distribution of registered voters. This is why many of its supporters seem to have gone nuclear on WhatsApp in telling voters that an SLPP victory will be a nightmare for Northerners.

Similarly, the only way the SLPP can win is to tell its South-East voters to remain solidly loyal on ethnic grounds and to urge Northern voters to eschew ethnicity. WhatsApp propaganda messages from SLPP supporters largely focus on the North, with stories of APC atrocities against smaller ethnic groups or SLPP supporters.

There are no saints in this game of ethnic politics. Yumkella stated in his post-election address that ‘whatever the position of the NGC, the party will be in the run-off’. The most honourable and civic role NGC can play in the run-off is to denounce the ethnic scaremongering tactics of both parties, and lead the rising public demand for the down-grading, if not elimination, of ethnicity in our politics. This, after all, is one of the core interests of the NGC.

Author: Yusuf Bangura: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 19 March 2018

5 Comments

  1. I must say this is a great article and a great read. well put together and very factual in all indications. Bravo to whoever put this piece of work together. The analyses are on point and true to the current political climate hanging over our beloved Sierra Leone.

    The Cocorioko seem to be very biased and one-sided in all its political and national analyses of the issues affecting the country. The Sierra Leone Telegraph – please keep up the great work.

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