Sierra Leone runoff election – Time to vote for change

Dr. Lans Gberie: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 29 March 2018:

It is a sure sign of its remarkable transformation that presidential election in Sierra Leone on March 7, 2018, went almost unnoticed elsewhere. Less than two decades ago, Sierra Leone often appeared in headlines about blood diamonds and child soldiers.

An election there during its war-wracked period was marked by the crude amputation of the hands of would-be voters, who were then told by the Revolutionary United Front rebels to go report them to the elected (and largely powerless) president, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. That gruesome war was ended only after the intervention of Nigerian, British and United Nations troops.

The election in early March featured over a dozen candidates contesting to replace President Ernest Bai Koroma, who has served out his constitutionally mandated two terms. As might be expected, none of them secured the 55% of the votes required to win outright.

So, the next president will now be decided by a runoff vote on March 31, after an unnecessary legal action by Mr. Koroma’s All Peoples Congress (APC) party disrupted the previous plan to hold it on March 27.

Apart from concerns about the influence of China over the ruling APC’s candidate, as well as the inevitable allegations of vote rigging, the event has not earned any headlines in the world’s media.

However, the impression that democratic elections have now become routine, and therefore the world needs not worry that things might go wrong in Sierra Leone, is misleading. The majority of the voters, some 57% of them, indicated that they no longer want Mr. Koroma’s scandal-prone All Peoples Congress party, which came to power 10 years ago.

That’s the percentage that voted against its candidate, Samura Kamara, who President Koroma handpicked to succeed him.

Mr. Kamara managed to get only 42.7% of the votes, trailing Julius Maada Bio, the candidate of the Sierra Leone Peoples Party, who polled 43.3%.

Since all the other candidates were united in their opposition to continuing APC rule, Bio is a clear favourite to win.

Mr. Koroma and his party dread that possibility, in part because losing power in Africa, where most livelihoods depend on government, is always traumatic.

But Mr. Koroma has other reasons to worry. His rule has been characterised by allegations of massive corruption, including the misuse or theft of funds meant for the response to the deadly Ebola epidemic in 2014. This was detailed in the government’s own auditor general’s report.

The president, an apparently genial and self-adoring man, was also accused of abusing his power, including unconstitutionally sacking his elected Vice President, Samuel Sam Sumana, and replacing him with a reputedly venal old ruling party operative, Victor Foh.

The Economic Community of West African States’ Court of Justice deplored this latter decision in a landmark judgment in November, and the same court is considering a case brought by civil society activists relating to Mr. Koroma’s alleged misuse of the Ebola response funds.

Weeks before the elections, President Koroma signed a controversial loan agreement with China worth US$318 million to build a new airport, a project that has been condemned as a white elephant by a feasibility study his government funded, as well as by the International Monetary Fund, which two months ago suspended loans to Sierra Leone, and by the World Bank.

There is a near consensus among the country’s educated class that Mr. Koroma’s government has become an embarrassment.

However, Mr. Koroma and his party have spared no effort to try and derail the runoff vote, and appear determined to rig it in favour of the unappealing Mr. Kamara.

If they succeed, this will very likely result in mass protests that may lead to violence and instability. In a still-volatile country and region, that can trigger more destabilization.

There are many reasons why the world must not tolerate this risk. Responding to the last political and security crisis in Sierra Leone – the so-called rebel war of the 1990s and 2000s – cost many foreign lives and billions of dollars in foreign money.

Hundreds of Nigerian troops died in the effort, and Britain in May 2000 deployed troops, warships, and helicopter gunships in one of its biggest show of military strength since the Falklands War to rescue the war-wracked country from rampaging rebels.

A crisis of that nature may now seem far fetched, but an irresponsible government trying to prolong its stay in power can still trigger it.

Mr. Koroma came to power because his predecessor ensured a level playing field in elections he conducted, after serving his mandated two terms in 2007. Yet, he is actively trying to undermine that elementary democratic principle, through the misuse of the judiciary and undue pressure on the national elections commission, which is conducting the polls.

The international community has not found a coherent or reliable way of preventing emerging conflict, and its response to actual conflict is often slow.

In the ethnically diverse societies of Africa, elections tend to trigger conflict because politicians find it useful to use ethnic baiting and demonization in order to win power or retain it.

This tendency, largely absent before, has been regrettably marked in this electoral cycle in Sierra Leone – the desperate fall back option of a ruling party that is aware it is losing power.

As it heads to a runoff in less than a week, there is anxiety that things might get out of hands. The international community should make known to Mr. Koroma that it his responsibility to make sure this does not happen.

About the author

Dr. Lans Gberie is the author of ‘A Dirty War in Sierra Leone: the RUF and the Destruction of Sierra Leone’ (London, Hurst 2005).

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