Othman SheriffI arrived in Berlin, Germany few hours ago after 9 hectic but very successful weeks in Kenema, eastern Sierra Leone. We now know that the war on Ebola is winnable but many aspects of it remain unfair and unbearable for the ordinary citizens. The most notorious one, for example, is the lockdown/stay-at-home method used by the central government as a means of cubing the virus. I spent the last three days lockdown at YAD’s newly established Multipurpose Youth Resource Centre, 16 Duawoh Street in central Kenema. The exercise forced every innocent citizen – including farmers in the far forests, artisanal workers in city slums and business women/men in the crowded markets, to stay home awaiting nothing but a cube of soap and words of advice against Ebola. Many people waited in vain. Unfortunately, most of the evangelists recruited by the government are less informed about health issues and need to be sensitized by someone else. The million dollar questions which I hoped someone from the above could answer are: if the ordinary citizen is staying home only to receive the Ebola preventive message, why not simply send it through community radio stations or motorcades of PA system? Majority of Sierra Leoneans are living below the global poverty line and they work laboriously for daily survival, how does the government expect them to get their daily breads during the Ebola lockdowns? In fact, after witnessing the merciless killing of innocent and decent compatriots by the killer virus, every Sierra Leonean is now aware of the true existence of Ebola, which is why the infection rate has decreased to single digit. Is it not a waste of fund to recruit thousands of Ebola evangelists and deploy them across the country including cities that had been declared Ebola free by health experts? By the way, in case you don’t know, the lockdown is enforced by armed personnel with shoot on sight orders.
With the help of foreign partners, we have almost conquered Ebola after losing thousands of innocent lives mainly youths, women and children. The next challenges which are going to last for years are post-outbreak rehabilitations, economic resuscitation and livelihood recovery. The virus has crippled the country’s unstable economy leaving many business enterprises and educational institutions completely shut down and the gap between the rich and poor widely open. What remain unchanged for some of us however, is the fact that there is no place like home and life must go on – no matter the circumstance.
Meanwhile, the main purpose of this piece is not to discuss Ebola but to close my eyes and block my ears to discuss our country’s political landscape in general and the way forward for our main opposition group, the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) in particular. I need to do so because I have learnt from my brothers and sisters in the SLPP camp that they have horrible dreams and dangerous conjectures for the future of our fledgling democracy. It seemed that they have reduced their opinions about the country’s politics into a mere household business. While some think I’m APC agent, others are calling me a betrayer of the Mende ethnic which I hailed from. But that cannot shake me for an inch because I know that I’m doing the right thing by saying the right words at the right time. I’m not a blind loyalist to anyone. Most importantly, my daily survival doesn’t depend on the success of any individual politician. I have never benefited from any political appointment or assistance and I’m not hopping for one. So I deserve the moral ground to discuss the Sierra Leonean political landscape in every form or shape, especially at this moment when the opposition is dying speedily as a result of selfishness, greed and avarices amongst its hierarchy.
APC and SLPP: the ugly choices by default
Since political independence about 53 years ago, the country’s political power has been and still is reciprocating between the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) and All Peoples Congress (APC) both of which have metamorphosed over the years into a mare ethnic and regional associations. Even the rebel war and successive military putsches which burnt the country down to ashes were caused by the two parties. While the ruling (APC) has its stronghold in the northwest with the Temne ethnic as the custodians, the opposition (SLPP) belongs to the southeast which is Mende predominant. Beside the differences in local dialects, the two ethnics share many things in common, yet they are generally opposed to each other in every scope of life as they vie to claim supremacy over each other. Power thirsty politicians have taken advantage of this natural disagreement between the two ethnics to sway the grassroots voters during electioneering process. Consequently, even student Union Elections at secondary schools, training colleges and Universities are now influenced by the tribalistic ideologies of the two parties. Public appointments, government contracts, bilateral development projects, foreign scholarships are now channelled on ethnic and regional lines. Thus, ethnic and regional detestations have rapidly grown over the years in all spheres of life and they have become the greatest enemies of progress in post-colonial Sierra Leone, as the average voters continue to cast their votes for ethnic identities instead of viable policies. Undemocratic and anti-peace slogans such as ekutay, kuku jumuku, wootete, 4 for 4, paopa, whuee whuee, after you na you, after Bagbo na you etc. are all generated by the two ethnic based parties (APC, SLPP). This has made it easier for public servants to perpetrate corruption with impunity hence they depend on their ethnic and regional identities. A president elected on ethnic identity would definitely appoint ministers, commissioners and directors on ethnic lines; the ethnically appointed ministers, commissioners and directors would award government contracts to their kin and kith who would connive with them to pocket the contract funds with impunity, thereby concretizing the gap of poverty between the rich and poor.
Sadly enough, the two ethnically inclined parties still remain by default, the only options for our own generation hence they have become so powerful in their so-called strongholds that no other political party can survive in such territories without their blessings. We have witnessed it over the years where a common alliance between the two parties and other growing political forces led to the utter destruction of the latter. Political parties such as PDP Sorbeh, NUP, PMDC etc. have died naturally after joining alliance with APC and SLPP. Our only chance as a nation would be a spiritual intervention from heaven to either transform APC and SLPP into honest and true saviours or extinguish them once and forever.
The impotent opposition
The United Nations declared Sierra Leone few years ago its first success story in peacekeeping and restoring democracy after years of failure in many countries including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Darfur – Sudan, Rwanda, Somalia etc. but the lack of unity and selflessness among the hierarchy of the Sierra Leonean opposition has grossly undermined that success. Since it went into opposition in the year 2007, the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) has bent on betraying the Sierra Leonean voters by placing personal egos, tribal and individual interests above the nation. Though the party bagged the credibility for ending the 11 years long civil war under the leadership of late President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, but the current pace at which it’s working while in opposition is a speedy reversal of the hard won peace, as it has prepared the enabling environment for the ruling All People Congress (APC) to run the country as a one-party state. Every reader may agree with me that the impotence of SLPP has given APC the chance and power to hammer home every policy, no matter how draconian it might be. It’s a known fact that democracy without a functional opposition is a misplaced trust. The SLPP leaders, instead of remobilizing and properly preparing to win future elections, have embarked on an intraparty dispute that has thrown the party into unimaginable fragmentation. They have thorn the party into pieces of individual interest deeply damped by tribal and regional blood. If things remain unchanged, the party might remain in opposition for endless time.
The Paopa Syndrome and Bio’s candidature
In November 2010, I published in this column an article titled “The SLPP Flagbearership Might Become a Golden Apple of Discord – May the Lord Forbid“, which many blind loyalists and diehard supporters of the party dismissed as baseless. The Roman goddess Erisa is said to had avenged her anger at not being invited to a wedding, by throwing among the guest a golden apple on which was written “for the most beautiful one”. The scrum for the title (most beautiful one) eventually led to the Trojan War that lasted for years.
In another piece published few days before the convention, I forecasted the possible consequence of tribalism and regionalism on SLPP and the emergence of the former military leader, Ret. Brig. Julius Maada Bio as its flagbearer. Sadly enough, only few level headed politicians understood my conjectures. Here we are today, since Bio grabbed the SLPP flag, things have changed dramatically. Many core members cross carpeted along with their own followers to the ruling APC. Bio’s failure to reunite the party led to his abysmal performance in the last elections. Even if all votes from the Mende speaking territories, which we consider to be SLPP’s stronghold, were casted for Bio, he wouldn’t have won the last election. This is simply because he failed to put up a formidable challenge in Kono, Northern Province and Freetown Western Area. He confronted too many opposing forces at the same time: the ruling incumbent, intra-party enemies, the international community, foreign miners and the northerners in general.
Bio’s failure to disassociate himself with the Paopa camp, an internal party group that is synonymous with intra-party violence and intimidations against non-Bio supporters, makes him a bad choice for many core party members; his Mende identity makes him an ugly choice for the entire Northern Province and Freetown Western Area; his promise to review mining contracts makes him dangerous for all foreign miners; his NPRC identity makes him a constant reminder of the gloomy years for the international community.
The Paopa syndrome has gradually turned into a religion for many people in the east and southern regions. Paopa has become the Sierra Leonean version of George Bush’s theory of war on global terror. When Al-Qaida stroke America on 9/11, George Bush singlehandedly attacked Iraq and Afghanistan using the slogan: “you are either with us or with them”.
Similarly, the Paopa group believe that every SLPP member should support Maada Bio or else he/she would be labelled as APC. The group has intimidated, molested and shamed countless noble men and women who supposed to be the backbones of SLPP. They have tarnished and labelled many party dignitaries as APC moles. People like John Benjamin, Somano Kapen, Bernadette Lahai, Kande Yumukella etc. are all chastised and molested simply because they are either critical to Bio or have been seen smiling to Ernest Bai Koroma.
They think the best way they can regain power is by putting Maada Bio as their flagbearer. The Paopa campaigners are bent on brainwashing people with the falsehood that APC is planning to retain power by force and that only a military strongman like Maada Bio can challenge the motion. They also believe that they can be only assured of getting a share of the national cake by electing their own clansman as the custodian.
It’s no secret that many SLPP executives at constituency level are coerced into becoming pro Bios. For example, even though Bio awfully lost the last election, there have been intraparty fights over his photographs and campaign billboards which are still displayed in the party offices, which clearly signify their readiness to re-elect him by hook or crock. What remains worrisome for many however, is the fact that Bio was and still he is well placed as SLPP flagbearer, but is the flagbearer position for Bio all what the party need? What about winning the precedency? It’s barely three years to next elections and the clock is thinking…
Greeting with a clenched fist
In the same piece captioned “ The SLPP Flagbearer Contest, Bio is Leading” and published in this column few days before the last convention, I warned about political timing for Maada Bio and the possible impact of his candidature. It was no secret that President Koroma was going to explore all possible chances and resources in order to secure his second term. Which means there was no need for Maada Bio to have exposed himself so quickly to the harsh political wind had it not because of unquenchable thirst for power. I strongly believed that if Bio had waited for next elections he wouldn’t have lost so awfully and he wouldn’t have become part and parcel of the ongoing intraparty fracas.
Not long ago, some hasty attempts were made by some diaspora members of SLPP to forester peace among the party hierarchy. John Benjamin and Maada Bio tentatively posed for a snapshot in London which was published as a camouflage of peace between them. But wait a minute, let’s start thinking rationally: how can you forester peace without identifying and addressing the underlying causes of the dispute? Are John Benjamin and Maada Bio the only core SLPP members who have been at loggerhead? We know that two forces can only unite against a common enemy. In the case of Bio/Benjamin’s London accord, such enemy should literally be APC. But I strongly doubt that. I think if the London accord was anything to tell home about, the enemies are other flagbearer opponents and perceived APC moles who were never invited or welcomed to the negotiation table. What about all the countless innocent toes which have been, and still being, stepped upon by sympathisers of Bio and Benjamin, do we expect them to forgive and forget, just like that?
Ironically, few minutes after the London accord was announced in the cyber space, countless vindictives and malicious words were expressed against it in black and white by no other persons but SLPP supporters. This was a clear prove that once someone becomes a party to a conflict, he/she loses the moral ground to solve it without sacrificing personal egos and prides. Bio and Benjamin are icons of the problem, they cannot solve it at the same time without unequivocally confessing and admitting their individual sins in an open forum. Unfortunately, that was not the case in London.
Solo B, the missed opportunity
Another reason why many Mende people have resolute their minds against a non-Mende candidate is that they think they are highly educated, rich in natural minerals and exportable products, but the highest post a typical Mende has ever held in postcolonial Sierra Leone after Sir Milton Magai is Vice Presidency. The Temne ethnic has the same sentiment but they can always walk around it easily. All the Limba’s and Loko’s who have ruled the country after the colonial era had window-dressed their CV’s using the Temne identity as subterfuge.
Former Vice President Solomon Berewa (Solo B) who lost power to the ruling APC in the year 2007 almost broke the record after he was brought forward to succeed late President Kabba. Had it not because of intraparty abhorrence and selfishness which gave birth to the Peoples Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC) led by beleaguered and disgruntled Charles Margai, Solo B would have become the first Mende elected President of postcolonial Sierra Leone. This is so because SLPP was on the seat of power, in charged all state resources including the security forces.
Many people think opportunity comes but once. But I don’t think so at all. Opportunity can come more than once and in different forms. What we shouldn’t do nevertheless, is putting God at test by misusing our opportunities and then sit-down with the hands between the legs awaiting another one. Solo B’s failure to recognize family grudge and domestic abhorrence as a threat to everyone’s success led to his failure to succeed Sir Milton Margai as the first democratically elected Mende President of our postcolonial republic. If that opportunity is going to come again, many sacrifices need to be made.
Perhaps allowing a non-Mende candidate to lead first could create the enabling environment for a typical Mende man/woman to break the record.
The Way Out for SLPP
After 7 years in opposition full of intraparty fracas, intimidation, discrimination and marginalization, if SLPP wants to regain power, its leadership needs to summon a national reunification convention which would serve as an open platform for resolving their individual differences. All stakeholders – particularly those who are considered to be the causers of or reasons to the ongoing intraparty dispute, should be involved without exception. A peace mediation body comprising of selected party members, representatives of Interreligious Council of Sierra Leone, some civil society groups and democracy oriented donors should be established to mediate the ongoing dispute in the opposition camp.
After a peace has been achieved, the second but very bitter pill to swallow should be for John Benjamin and Maada Bio to unequivocally apologise on behalf of their supporters for whatever they might have said or done wrong in their quest to lead SLPP. And the final but noble step should be for the two gentlemen to withdraw from the flagbearer race for 2017/2018 elections. No matter what the peace mediation body might do, the participation of Maada Bio and John Benjamin in the next elections could lead to a wider crack in SLPP. A massive post-convention defection would be an underestimation.
What I want Maada Bio and John Benjamin and all their vociferous hailers to understand is the fact that the average Sierra Leonean voter does not vote for policy issues or promises outlined in party manifestos. They simply vote for identity: ethnicity and party symbol. Therefore, by allowing any typical Mende/easterner/southerner to lead SLPP at the moment would be a presentation of double identity of the same value to the voters. It’s a known fact that the average Mende farmer will always vote SLPP, no matter who is bearing the symbol. So what is the sense in giving it to a typical Mende man when the party desperately need to find an inroad in the northwest? You think about it…
To chase away decent dignitaries such as Kande Yumukella and others from the flagbearer race can only concretize the Mende man’s grip on the SLPP fag, but that cannot assure you of winning the presidency. You maybe also mistaking to capitalize on the Ebola outbreak as a campaign tool against APC. Because if APC was a culprit to the outbreak, I would like to know why the virus is claiming more lives in the northern region than any other part of the country? APC leadership may have mismanaged the outbreak from the very onset but it’s suffering from it as well. APC might be stammering and staggering to answer questions regarding Ebola funds, the unconstitutional removal of VP Sam Sumana and who might eventually replace Ernest Bai Koroma. But the SLPP as an opposition shouldn’t depend on unrealistic conjectures and prayers for misfortunes to happen in the ruling APC as a strategy to regain power. The opposition needs solid election plans and winning strategies. They should understand that there are still 3 solid years to next elections and that is enough for the ruling party to clear its messes and strategize for next elections. Most important of all, the ruling APC has access to all state logistics, security and finances and it shall be the soul supervisor of the electoral process.
If SLPP is going to regain power, it should start planning now before it’s too late. A word for a wise is enough! Remember, even a broken clock can show the right time twice a day…