By Umaru Fofana, SLAJ, BBC, Freetown
2012 is here. The elections are near. Politicians have started greeting people by their name. Absentee and no-do-gooder parliamentarians, council chairmen and councillors have started re-emerging. Pretending to be using crutches even when they can relegate Blade Runner or even Usain Bolt to a spectator status on the track. The voter has all of a sudden become important again. Isn't democracy beautiful!
You may think all attention is focused on the presidential race – obviously it is the most coveted – but make no mistake that the stakes are much higher and more dense and tense especially in the murky waters of Sierra Leonean politics beneath which belies the succour that the country has a vibrant political system. This is evident in its high level of participatory democracy and civic awareness of its citizens. Even if that awareness borders on Ethno-politics which sees certain ethnic groups voting largely for certain political parties.
Beneath the veneer of the generally positive thing that the masses are deeply politically engaged is the flip side that scares off many a people from contributing to national politics – in words or in work and even in worth. The relatively new phenomenon of the use of attack dogs scares even the most intrepid persons. These dogs don't just bark, they bite. And it is a survival thing so they spare no soul that appears to be philosophising the impossibility of their perceived possibility.
But studded boots remain studded boots even when they are unlaced. While you figure that out, figure in, again, the presidential election of less than eleven months from today. I have never stopped asking myself whether there exists any other country in the world where a candidate requires 55% of the votes cast to win outright. The generally accepted trend is 50% plus ONE VOTE. Imagine a candidate gets 52% next year and then there is a run-off in which he will require even less than his first round vote to win. Imagine the feisty political atmosphere the people would need to re-live, the financial cost on the state and the candidates, etc. If that is addressed before next year's election, then I strongly believe that unlike in 2007 when none of the candidates could poll 50% plus, the race can be won in the first round. And it could be any of the two lead candidates – incumbent president Ernest Bai Koroma or lead opposition challenger Julius Maada Bio. And here is why:
Estimates for the number of voters next year would evolve around three million. To spare you too many statistics, the difference in the number of registered voters between the Southeast and the Northwest may be in the range of between 50,000 and 70,000 on the side of the Northwest. With the southeast having voted largely for the SLPP in 2007 and the Northwest having done so for the APC, certain dynamics that hitherto did not exist have come to the fore in the last four years. But before those dynamics how about the crucial third party factor.
In 2007 that role was played by the People's Movement for Democratic Change which ultimately determined the balance of power. This time around, the PMDC is as crucial as it is useless in being able to do that again. It is a generally accepted fact that the marriage between Ernest Bai Koroma and Charles Margai is at a divorce stage while that between their two parties is at a rock bottom. And there is a difference. While Margai has excoriated the current government and referred to it as a failure in all its forms, the PMDC still has ministers who are prepared to take a gun and shoot Margai if only to keep themselves in their powerful positions. NOTHING ELSE!
But with the PMDC sliding into oblivion, the opposition SLPP stands to gain the most even if the APC are campaigning very hard – sparing no Leone/Dollar to get as many of the PMDC votes as possible. However there is a downside for the SLPP which I will return to shortly. Now the other political party that wants us to believe that they are the new third force is the United Democratic Movement. The party has a charismatic young leader but one who lacks depth and barely understands issues of governance and, obviously, has surrendered his party to the ruling APC party even before it was formed this year.
What the UDM provides is a group of people who, including their leader Mohamed Bangura, will vote for Ernest Bai Koroma next year. But they also have a group of former PMDC members, including, again, their leader, whose interest lies in seeing the APC retain power. That is a message that is as clear to all, including southeasters, as the sun is in the West African sky in the month of March. And for that, not many of them will vote either UDM or APC.
Now much as most of the former PMDC voters will vote for the SLPP, at least because one of their tribesmen is leading the party and Charles Margai has apparently thrown his weight behind him, they must address two key things. Margai is a bullish character difficult to keep in one place for a long time. The APC knows that just too well as the SLPP must. If the SLPP and Bio can tame the beast, metaphorically speaking, the APC investment in getting a good chunk of the votes in the southeast will join Freddie Mae in the world of investment bankruptcy.
Another huge flip – FLOP if you prefer – for the SLPP which if not addressed will easily hand the presidency again to Koroma is the internal bickering which seems to be ripping the party apart. Some senior female party officials, for reasons other than substance, do not like their party's running mate, Dr Kadie Sesay. Some refused to call to congratulate her after her announcement as such. Some even, I am told, cussed her. Not because they think she is not competent or fit for the position – what else can anyone ask for in a running mate – but because of petty squalling and jealousy which are serious enough to impact the party at the polls.
Many others, including some at the top echelons of the party, detest their candidate even if they do not want Koroma to return to power. I cannot fathom what their game plan is in all this, but suffice it to say that they are enjoying themselves in all this. One senior party official cited the internal bickering and wrangling within the APC party in the run-up to the 2007 election and said what was happening in his party right now was just a few bumps down the road. I think it is more than just that. And anything to tackle the trend must not wait beyond the first quarter of next year to salvage the situation for a party which is financially bedevilled in these difficult economic times.
These economic times are hitting not only the SLPP. Ordinary people are feeling it aplenty and it may come to hunt the ruling APC party which has made strenuous efforts in trying to make next year's elections not run on the footing of the harsh economic times. That is like Obama running away from joblessness in the US as he faces re-election next year. A waste of time.
Much as President Koroma still has a reasonable command of popularity in the Western Area including Freetown, which voted for him overwhelmingly four years ago, it seems to be waning. Many of the youth population, most of whom voted him in 2007, decry him because, as one told me, he has failed to live up to his promise of jobs and better conditions for them. I can vividly remember an Aljazeera report I helped with in 2007 filmed largely inside the then collapsed City Hall building which still housed dozens of jobless and drug-abusing young people. They derided the then-ruling SLPP party because it could not provide them with badly-needed jobs. Two of them who now squat somewhere around the Maritime Administration building, have similar invectives today against the party they so much looked forward to voting for then – the APC. One of them who said at the time that both presidential candidate and his running mate of the APC were youthful hence they pinned their hopes in them, expressed disgust today at the fact that his condition “has worsened”.
Talking about that presidential running mate now vice president raises the possibility of President Koroma making the same mistake Solomon Berewa made. In one of my interviews with Mr Berewa as we approached the elections then I wanted to know whether his delay in deciding on who would be his running mate would not wreck the party. He shrugged it off. Obviously the situations are different to now, but only slightly. Agreed there was no incumbent vice president seeking to retain his job. Berewa was vice president and presidential candidate. The then foreign minister Momodu Koroma was regarded as the choice of incumbent president Tejan Kabbah. Berewa was believed to have his own preference of Kanja Sesay with Bobson Sesay favoured by many others.
Once the running mate was named close to the election, those who were left out were hardly ever as enthusiastic to see a Berewa president as they did before. With President Koroma almost certain to replace his vice president, Samuel Sam-Sumana, the fallout will be dire in the eastern Kono district. Incidentally Kono voted overwhelmingly for the SLPP in 2007. For it to go APC next year as it did in the local council elections of 2008 even if amidst voter intimidation and harassment of the opposition, it will depend on the political fate of current vice president Samuel Sam-Sumana. However justified the reasons for removing him, and I can give many reasons why he can no longer be used, the majority of voters in his home district may ditch the APC. And their suspicion is contagious. Much as the Aljazeera documentary in which he appears to be suggesting corruption is a killer punch, the signs had looked quite clear that he was not wanted in that position by some conservatives in the party. He is the first VP in an APC government who is NOT the deputy leader of the party. And I was at the party's convention in Makeni and saw how he was humiliatingly got rid of for that position which he had eyed.
Those votes in over 400 polling stations in the SLPP strongholds which were nullified in 2007 will certainly not be nullified this time round. Kambia looks quite steady. During recent trip there a few weeks ago, it looked like quite a good number of them were ready to vote for the SLPP. Largely based on ethnicity as the Susus, Mandingoes and Fullahs tend to lean towards the party, but also because incumbency has a way of destroying. Many people told me they had been left in political wilderness by not being given positions for the party they said they fought very hard for just a few years ago.
So if Kono remains SLPP, nullified votes in Kailahun and other areas count next year, the bickering in the SLPP stops, Kambians live up to what they told me, youth unemployment and financial difficulty persist and voters punish the incumbent, Maada Bio will gain over 50% of the votes.
On the other hand, if the road work going on in the southeast appeases southeasterners, the haemorrhaging in the SLPP persists, the economic hard time ameliorates, and the too many scandals halt, Ernest Bai Koroma will get over 50% of the votes. The third party factor has, for now at least, gone to bed.
A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year