Fellow, IMANI Africa & former Country Director, Plan International Sierra Leone.
As Sierra Leone prepares for a very tense general election, this paper will examine the background, key electoral concerns and election dynamics.
Sierra Leone’s general elections is due on 7th March 2018. It is a multi-layered electoral processes where electorates will be casting their votes for Presidential, Parliamentary, Mayoral, and Local Council positions (4 divisions of governance) for a 5 year term of office. To win, a candidate must get 55% of valid votes cast. This will be the second time that democratic transition is expected to take place since the end of the civil war. The first transition was when President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah of the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) handed over to President Ernest Koroma of the All Peoples Congress (APC) in 2007. After two terms of office, President Koroma is constitutionally barred from a further term of office as President. Contending for the presidential position are several political parties; the traditional front runners being the ruling APC and main opposition SLPP parties.
Recent political developments however, have brought two new outsiders into the race. Together, they have the potential to cause an upset either directly or indirectly by becoming “Kingmakers”. They are the National Grand Coalition (NGC), a splinter group from the SLPP, led by former UNIDO boss Dr. Kandeh Yumkellah and the Coalition for Change (C4C) led by erstwhile Vice President Alhaji Chief Sam Sam-Sumana – obviously a splinter from the APC. Sam Sumana was fired by President Koroma for “abandoning his duties” after he sought asylum at the US embassy for concerns over his personal safety. He subsequently sent a petition to the ECOWAS Court which made a ruling that his removal was illegal, the government rejected the decision of the Court citing its lack of jurisdiction over the matter.
Key Electorate Concerns:
Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world hence there is no shortage of issues electorates want addressed by the next government. However the overriding concerns of electorates can be summed up in two broad areas:
- Demonstrable poverty reduction: This has been a perennial campaign issue but can the incoming government reduce the overly dependence on international aid? What innovations are they bringing to the planning of the country’s economic growth in order to achieve realistic poverty reduction across the country?
- Shared prosperity: with UNDP rated indices of 48% literacy rate, 77% living in poverty with 43.9% in EXTREME poverty, 70% of the population are made up of the youth, and a GDP per capita of $650, the real question of the electorates is “how to provide fair opportunities to improve the lot of everyone regardless of circumstances”. The rich/poor divide is more visible than 10 years ago hence the issue of boosting shared prosperity is at the root of every voter’s concerns.
Three key factors have the highest possibility of impacting the outcome of the election namely identity, rented power and messaging.
Identity: Hitherto the contest was clearly a two horse race between APC and SLPP where, up to 70% of the electorates were equally split along ethnic/tribal, personal networks, and party lines. This arithmetically means there is a remaining 30% votes considered “swing votes”. However, the entrance of NGC and C4C introduces a new level of complication for the electorate. The ethnic makeup of the presidential tickets of the 4 contenders have the potential of making this a“horses and camels” race. Dr. Yumkellah, originally an SLPP member, is from the North. His running mate Andrew Keili, a stalwart SLPP is from the South/East, and both have strong identity with the youth in the West. The NGC ticket brings together a combined professional experience in economics, engineering and management locally and internationally. The 2 gentlemen also come from 2 ruling chieftancy houses. The NGC could potentially take away some of the core votes of the SLPP. Another interesting dynamics is the most notoriously swing district called Kono in the East. Kono is a mining area and has been a “swing district” in the last two elections. However the entrance of a prominent chieftain (Sam-Sumana), will potentially also open up the area for C4C and challenge the support base of the APC in the district. The APC’s Presidential candidate is perceived by most as a newcomer in partisan politics but at the sametime very experienced politician. His running mate and current deputy speaker of Parliament Chernor Bah, is a hugely admired member of the youth community and a Fullah with extra-ordinary mobilization skills. The fullas are spread across the country with significant financial and political influence. Thus the electorates have to resolve multiple levels of complexities which have not existed since independence.
Rented power: British colonial governance of the provinces was conducted from their base in Freetown through the institution of an indirect rule over the protectorates. The structure held the traditional authorities accountable for “proper” administration of their chiefdoms. Independence only diluted the structure and did not eliminate it. Thus central government depend on paramount chiefs for execution of administrative power at the grassroots in the provinces in return for central government support. Traditional leaders wield socio-political influence over their people thus, the extent to which the contenders convince the traditional authorities to vote for them in return for access to power and resources can greatly influence the outcome of the election despite perceived popularity of the other opponents.
Messaging: The APC government has suffered from a fair degree of public discontent against it. Perception fueling these emotions include corruption, dominance of the chairman of the party (President Koroma), disconnection from the electorates, and extreme poverty. Any party or contender that is able to articulate a clear theory of transformation that becomes a believable message of poverty reduction and creating shared prosperity could potentially be on a pathway to success and win a significant share of the votes and through that leverage this to become a “Kingmaker” in the widely expected second round, since it will be virtually impossible for any of the main contenders to win outright in the first round on 7th March 2017 especially if Dr. Yumkella(NGC) is able to translate his widely acclaimed presidential debate victory into votes on election day.
This is the most complex election in the history of Sierra Leone. Several factors which hitherto were not relevant in an election in Sierra Leone have suddenly become potential game changers and show stoppers critical for electoral success.. Nonetheless, the current outlook points to a very close contest with a slight advantage for the ruling APC government, not the least because of the undoubtedly solid party loyalty that the APC is noted within its ranks. However whether that loyalty can stand the determined resolve of an equally divided opposition remains to be seen within the context of the very complex influence and role of the traditional establishments. It is hoped that the electoral commission will conduct the elections in a very transparent manner so the outcome is accepted by all parties. Good luck to Mama Salone!