5 March 2018

Sierra Leone: Countdown to the Country's Fifth General Election

Photo: J. Patinkin/VOA
Campaign banners hang from the balconies of the Sierra Leone People's Party headquarters in Bo, Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone is headed to the polls and the stakes are high as the country selects a new president, parliament and local councils. Each presidential contender is fighting for a position that has been plagued by corruption and the mismanagement of a staggering Ebola outbreak and devastating mudslides.

The main contenders in Sierra Leone's presidential election on 7 March are Samura Kamara of the ruling All People's Congress (APC) and Julius Maada Bio of the main opposition party, the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP). This is the country's fifth general election since its return to multi-party democracy in 1996 but only the third since it came out of a civil war in 2002. According to procedure, the president of Sierra Leone is elected using a modified two-round system. A candidate must receive more than 55% of the vote in the first round to be elected.

Samura Kamara is the handpicked successor of the outgoing president, Ernest Bai Koroma. On 15 October 2017, President Koroma announced at the APC National Delegates Conference in Makeni that he had chosen Dr Kamara as the presidential flag bearer for the 2018 election.

But politics has changed in Sierra Leone, a post-conflict country that was devastated by the Ebola virus from 2014 to 2016. The SLPP has seen a steady decline and the APC is more worried about Dr Kandeh Yumkella, the urbane, technocratic candidate from the National Grand Coalition (NGC), which is a breakaway faction of the SLPP. Dr Yumkella is a former United Nations Under-Secretary-General and a two-term former Director-General of the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation. He has formidable diplomatic skills and connections.

In a show of fear, and to further secure their place, the APC has filed a shaky and hypocritical suit to knock out Dr Yumkella on the grounds that he holds dual citizenship. This is despite the fact that nearly 50 of its MPs in the just-dissolved parliament are dual citizens. Officially the APC filed for a constitutional interpretation of the rules that govern citizenship and the right to contest elections, not a request for an injunction to stop Dr Yumkella from contesting the elections. According to The Telegraph, the petition has since been brought to a halt, because Dr Yumkella's lawyers raised serious legal questions about the 'fitness' of two of the judges hearing the matter.

In the meantime, the darling of the APC, Dr Kamara, the former Minister of Finance and Economic Planning, is having major problems of his own. After outgoing President Koroma stated that he will remain party chairman after leaving power, the people of Sierra Leone are worried that he will continue to exert a major influence over the APC.

President Koroma has rejected this widely held notion. In a statement, he said: "Some people think that he will be the voice of his master, but this is not his character. [Dr Kamara] will be himself. And thanks to the experience he has gained, he knows exactly what he needs to do to move the country forward."

The APC's past failings are also holding its candidate back. Under the ruling party, Sierra Leone saw extremely high levels of corruption eroding faith in the government, especially after the 2014-2016 Ebola crisis, which killed almost 4 000 people nationwide. In February 2015, government auditors found that 30 percent of the Ebola funds under parliament's control could not be accounted for. This amounts to US$5,7 million, or €4,6 million.

The polls are projected to be sharply divided along regional lines that overlap with ethnicity, with the APC broadly reliant on the Temne and Limba people in its northern strongholds and the SLPP more popular in the south with the Mende ethnic group. With all of this in motion, this general election will be one to watch.

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