By Rafiq Raji, PhD
(Ahead of the run-off poll, my column this week republishes the article I wrote about the presidential election in Sierra Leone for the March 2018 issue of African Business magazine.)
Sierra Leoneans go to the polls on 7 March. Thankfully, President Ernest Bai Koroma would not be on the ballot. This is no mean feat, it is believed. Had there be no opposition, Mr Koroma could have contested, some say. The “more time” campaign started as early as 2012 under various guises. A review of the constitution, which started in July 2013, and would take another four years to complete, was controversial in part because of speculations Mr Koroma might be desirous of staying longer in office. More recently, about a year ago, there were reports of plans by the ruling All People’s Congress (APC) party to tamper with the electoral calendar. About the same time, Mr Koroma was endorsed by the youth wing of his party as “chairman for life”, further fuelling speculations he still planned to hold on to the reins of power; in one form or another. The budgeting of just about half of the $48 million estimated cost of the polls by his administration, supposedly because of strained finances, and a seemingly less than enthusiastic pace of disbursement to the National Electoral Commission (NEC), have been viewed with suspicion by some as well. Mr Koroma’s officials dismiss such insinuations, of course, averring instead that the outgoing president never aspired to staying beyond the constitutionally mandated two 5-year terms.
There is a precedence for the “third-term” phenomenon in West Africa. Former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo was believed to have desired a third term as well; if the ample media coverage of the speculation back then is anything to by, at least. There are interesting parallels. Just like in the Sierra Leonean case years later, there were indicators to suggest Mr Obasanjo might have “tried his luck” if there had not been much resistance. Similarly, Mr Koroma was perenially at loggerheads with his former deputy, Samuel Sam-Sumana, who desired to succeed him; and seemed a little hasty to do so. Accusing him of formenting violence and anti-party activities, Mr Koroma fired him in March 2015. To this day, Mr Sam-Sumana insists it was because he opposed his former principal’s third term agenda. By and large, however, West African countries are proving to be excellent democratic exemplars. Neighbouring Liberia, which had its first successful civilian-to-civilian transition in January, is a sterling example of how better things are becoming, for instance. The trail Liberia just blazed, however, was long trod by Sierra Leone in 2007, when former president, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, passed the baton to the incumbent. Thus, what the Sierra Leonean case proves is that even a powerful president would struggle to usurp the will of the people or flout the law.
New blood tightens race
The ruling APC chose foreign minister Samura Kamara as its presidential flagbearer in October. The other main candidate in the presidential race is Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), who Mr Koroma beat in 2012. Mr Bio could prove formidable for Mr Kamara. Even so, what could potentially make the upcoming polls very interesting is how perhaps none of the two establishment candidates would be able to secure a firm win. Increasingly popular technocratic candidate and former United Nations Under-Secretary-General, Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella, could eat into the support of the SLPP, his former party; under the auspices of the National Grand Coalition, the political party he set up after his defection. Perhaps in recognition of his potential, Mr Yumkella’s candidacy is being challenged in court for allegedly having dual citizenship; which if proven, would disqualify him from running. Alliance Democratic Party’s Mohamed Kamarainba, who was once an APC stalwart, is a potential threat to the ruling party in the north. The trio of Kamara, Bio, and Yumkella are believed to be the real contenders in an expected close vote, though. Some Sierra Leoneans want a full departure from the Koroma era. Thus, the president’s avid support for Mr Kamara may prove to be a disadvantage. The Chinese, who hold great sway in the country, back the ruling party’s candidate, though, freely campaigning for him – much to the discomfort of some locals. For SLPP’s Bio, there is little evidence his popularity has increased since his last attempt at the presidency five years ago. As defectors from the two leading parties, Yumkella and Kamarainba make the poll the tighter; raising the likelihood of rigging and violence.
Economy needs a boost
International prices for iron ore, the country’s key export has been ascendant lately. With one of the two major iron ore mines remaining closed, however – the Marampa mine was a casaulty of London Mining’s troubles – the improved price outlook has not had as much revenue impact as it could have. To shore up its finances, the Koroma administration secured $224.2 million funding from the IMF in July 2017. As part of the conditions, the authorities were forced to cut fuel subsidies; with the effects more painfully felt by the masses as oil prices rose. Never mind that the awful experiences from the Ebola epidemic and more recently, a massive mudslide in the capital, have been greatly dampening for the economy. Together with the mining sector slump, the central bank estimates economic growth likely slowed to 5.6 percent in 2017, from 6.1 percent the year before. Annual consumer inflation rose significantly in 2017; at an average of 18.6 percent (Jan-Nov), from 10.8 percent in 2016. A 25 percent depreciation in the Leone was one reason why. So, “economic conditions heading into the elections leave a largely sour reading”, says Wale Okunrinboye, a fixed income and currency specialist at Ecobank, a pan-African bank. “Set against an uninspiring economic scorecard, amid fractures within the ruling APC, the March 2018 elections look set to be a keenly contested affair”, Mr Okunrinboye adds.
Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays).
See link to original article published by African Business magazine. http://africanbusinessmagazine.com/region/west-africa/sierra-leone-faces-close-election-result/