5 March 2018

Sierra Leone Heads Into Hotly Contested Elections

Photo: J. Patinkin/VOA
Supporters of the ruling All Congress Party ride a truck during a rally in Port Loko, Sierra Leone

Freetown — Sixteen candidates are campaigning to become Sierra Leone's next president. It's the first time more than two candidates have real chances of winning and a chance for a more diversified parliament.

On Wednesday March 7, Sierra Leone is heading to the polls as the second of President Ernest Bai Koroma's constitutionally mandated two terms comes to an end.

The ruling All People's Congress (APC) party and the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) have always dominated politics since Sierra Leone gained independence from Britain in 1961. But two new political parties upset the political dynamics and support bases of the SLPP and APC when they joined the 2018 presidential race.

Former head of the United Nations industrial developer (UNIDO), Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella, broke away after the SLPP refused to part ways with Julius Maada Bio, who had lost the 2012 elections to President Koroma.

The Coalition for Change's (C4C) presidential aspirant, former vice president Samuel Sam-Sumana, took a large chunk of the APC's northeastern voters after he was sacked by Koroma in 2015.

Although Sam-Sumana's chances of winning the presidency are not as high as the APC's Samura Kamara or the SLPP's Bio, but analysts believe his C4C party and Yumkella's NGC could both be kingmakers in these elections.

Electoral violence

Several incidents of violence were reported in three districts in last week's political rallies. The campaign motorcade of opposition SLPP's candidate Bio allegedly came under attack in Kamalo, the home village of the ruling party's presidential candidate Samura Kamara.

Several people were also injured in the ruling APC party's rally in the capital Freetown, when supporters claiming allegiance to the SLPP clashed with APC supporters. The tensions are so high that Commonwealth chief observer, former Ghanaian president John Mahama, was invited to mediate a "peace talk" in Freetown's posh Radisson-Blu hotel resort.

"[Mahama] will lead the discussions in a closed-door high level breakfast meeting between the presidential candidates and their running mates," said Mahama's aide Bawah Mogtari. Mahama arrived in Freetown on Monday.

It's, however, odd to have peace talks now after nearly 17 years of peace and three successful general elections, where power also changed hands between the two bitter rivaling APC and SLPP.

"The battle line has been drawn, it's now time to show them what we are made of," wrote an SLPP supporter on Bio's Facebook page after the alleged attack.

First televised presidential debate

It's also Sierra Leone's first election where several key issues were discussed in a live television debate, in which six of the 16 candidates faced off on February 15.

The candidates discussed issues related to unemployment, lack of water and electricity, fighting corruption, etc. Although their ideas weren't as radical as some had hoped, many Sierra Leoneans saw the debate as a success because it's the first time that party candidates met to discuss real issues on television.

Key issues in the elections

Change or continuity is a major topic in the campaigns. The ruling APC is advocating for reelection where as the others including SLPP, C4C, and NGC are calling for change.

Extremely high levels of corruption, especially with the funds set up to fight Ebola, which killed almost 4,000 people between 2014 and 2016, is another campaign issue haunting the ruling APC.

The Accountant General had found that 5.7 million dollars had not been accounted for after an audit on the Ebola fund. This issue also came up in the presidential debate and the other presidential aspirants went on the offensive against the APC's Kamara.

Only two of the presidential candidates are women. But the two are not running for any of the three major parties - SLPP, APC and NGC.

The government also banned initiation ceremonies during the election period by the traditional "Bondo societies." These ceremonies often include the cutting of the clitoris in young girls, also known as female genital mutilation (FGM) or female circumcision. The Sierra Leone police, which issued the ban, claimed that candidates were paying for the traditional ceremonies in return for votes.

But supporters of the practice said the ban targets southeastern regions, where the practice is very common and where the opposition SLPP and NGC have their main support bases.

The APC's two main government projects are funded by Chinese companies and include the new airport and a toll road project linking Freetown to the provinces. They were heavily criticized for being too costly. The APC's presidential candidate shrugged off the criticism highlighting the party's decade of experience in power.

One SIM versus two SIM cards

What do SIM cards have to do with the elections in Sierra Leone? Well, President Koroma evoked a hidden clause in the constitution that bars Sierra Leoneans holding citizenship of another country from taking public offices.

Yumkella, the UN diplomat turned firebrand politician, held US citizenship when he registered as a presidential candidate. He had since renounced his American citizenship but still faces a court challenge lodged by the APC. The local media dubbed this constitutional controversy over dual citizenship as "two SIM" in reference to mobile phones with two SIM cards.

Critics said Koroma was going after Yumkella, who has very high chances of winning the polls. "Gleaning over our party's obsession to oust [Yumkella] from the March 2018 elections have always left me with mixed feelings," wrote APC stalwart in the US, Yahya Kaloko.

"I personally feel the strategy so far has proven not only ineffective but counter-productive as well. We have the ability to create and use more potent propaganda against the opposition, unlike the current strategy so far that has only helped to elevate [Yumkella], creating sympathies on his behalf in some circles," Kaloko added.

The C4C and NGC will compete in all 132 constituencies. If they manage to pull off what the People's Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC) did in 2007, when it broke off from the SLPP and won 10 seats in parliament, they will change the entire political landscape.

The arrival of the NGC and C4C in parliament would change the political discourse in a cournty where parliament has until now effectively functioned at the behest of the president. Should the election enter into a runoff, the NGC and C4C would have a disproportionate say in who is going to become the next president.

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