opinionBy Lindsay Barrett
In 2007, barely a month after the end of the Nigerian elections that brought his successor Umaru Musa Yar'adua to power, former President Obasanjo flew into Sierra Leone on the May 26 to dedicate the Olusegun Obasanjo Youth Centre at the town of Koya.
That same day he publicly endorsed the then presidential candidate of the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP), Solomon Ekuma Berewa with words later published in a local paper, the Awareness Times in their edition of 28 May 2007; "Insha Allah, vice president Berewa will be the next president of Sierra Leone. I say things as I see it". Unfortunately for President Obasanjo's reputation as a political soothsayer Solomon Berewa never became the President of Sierra Leone. Instead the major opposition party at the time, the All Peoples Congress (APC), won the elections in November of that year and its leader, the urbane and calm Ernest Bai Koroma, became President.
Koroma's five year tenure commenced under a cloud of accusations of electoral fraud but eventually the SLPP hierarchy conceded defeat and the APC Government has held sway since then. Now however as a new election approaches many Sierra Leoneans were surprised to see President Obasanjo's name surfacing again this time as a supporter of the incumbent President. A report following a visit that he made to the country barely a fortnight to the forthcoming polls scheduled for November 17 this year indicated that "former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo has endorsed President Koroma for a second term in Kabala". This report stemmed from a flash visit that the former President made to Sierra Leone as part of what has been described as a "business delegation"
This incident has left a bitter taste in the mouth of most objective observers of the political processes of the West African sub-region. In the first place the former President's exalted status as an elder statesman has been subjected to the scurrilous verbal and printed abuse that often characterises political exchange in the media in Sierra Leone. The country has one of the freest and most vibrant press communities in Africa and anyone who ventures into the political arena there can expect to find themselves targeted for fearless commentary. Ex-president Obasanjo was not spared last week.
One of the most incisive comments on the Obasanjo endorsement in the Sierra Leonean media was written by one Yusuf Kekema Sandi who opined that "if former president Obasanjo endorses any presidential candidate in an election, that election will ultimately be marred with fraud; rampant irregularities; political intimidation; political violence; snatching and theft of ballot boxes and election materials; stuffing of ballot boxes and most of all the killing of opposition members. A typical case in point of such election was the April 2007 presidential election of the late Umaru Musa Yar'adua whom the then sitting President Obasanjo endorsed to succeed him in the very elections he conducted. Even the late President Yar'adua was honest enough to admit to UN's Ban Ki Moon that the process through which he became president of Nigeria was FAULTY.
So the question many Sierra Leoneans should be asking is whether that is the election game plan former president Obasanjo has given to the APC Presidential Candidate? If yes then let me remind former president Obasanjo that Nigeria is not Sierra Leone because for us we do not bargain for anything less than FREE, FAIR and TRANSPARENT ELECTIONS"
It is particularly disheartening that the former President should have compromised not only his personal stature but also Nigeria's reputation as the guarantor of democratic values in the sub-region by his expressions of personal political bias. He has already been named to lead the ECOWAS Observer Mission to the forthcoming elections in Ghana in December. With events unfolding in Sierra Leone now his neutrality in any such operation with which he is associated in the sub-region in future could be questioned. It can of course be assumed that the most vehement expressions of dissent over President Obasanjo's alleged endorsement of President Koroma will come from the highly vocal SLPP opposition, but the situation in Sierra Leone today is such that no serious analyst or monitor of the political process in the nation can afford to ignore the need for genuine neutrality. The rallies of both parties have been exciting and volatile and the undoubted popularity of the opposition candidates, former Head of State Julius Maada Bio, and his female Vice Presidential aspirant Alhaja Kadi Sesay is hard to discountenance. When the American Ambassador said recently that the Nov 17 "elections [could] go into a run-off as no candidate was strong enough to win at first ballot", the APC party managers warned him that a "foreigner should not meddle in the national politics of a sovereign nation". Several commentators in the Sierra Leone press have since reminded them of this warning in relation to President Obasanjo's "endorsement" of President Koroma.
Barrett is a veteran journalist. He's based in Abuja