In early last year, Sierra Leonean politics underwent a historic change. A change that seems to reverberate around the youths and especially the Diasporans. From a country that revered the two traditional parties such as the All Peoples Congress and the Sierra Leone Peoples Party, the emergence of KKY has signaled a change in not only Sierra Leonean politics but also in traditional voting patterns. KKY has trumpeted his campaign on ‘Hope, Transformation and Opportunities’. This narrative has signaled a cultural and political shift similar to Charles Margai’s infamous defection from the SLPP.
This is not the first case in history of a so called ‘outsider’ vying and captivating the minds and hearts of the young. The late Thaimu Bangura of Peoples Democratic Party and Charles Margai of People Movement for Democratic Change shook the entire country with their message of Change. Like Charles Margai, his limited experience of national politics made his election more remarkable. Sierra Leone has seen prominent politicians jumping into the political ring for a period of time and fading away after losing woefully in their election pursuit. To his credit, Charles Margai captured significant seats in the legislative arm of the government during his first election.
Yumkella’s entrance into the political theater has left pundits with many unanswered questions: What if he loses the elections, will he still stay in Sierra Leone and participate in politics? What if there is a run off, will he align with the party that he has castigated and smeared? Will his party go into oblivion after failing to create an impact in politics? Politics, as pundits say, is completely different from talking policy.
When one considers the history of the Sierra Leone Peoples Party, Yumkella’s decision to run for nomination can be seen as providing Maada with an advantage, whilst there had been a small number of outside politicians, notably late Tejan Kabbah who had entered the political scene with power placed on a platter. Candidly, no one needs to be a rocket Scientist to know that, Maada is hugely influential and popular within the grassroot structure of the SLPP.
Yumkella’s sojourn into the politics of Sierra Leone is being compared to Barack Obama’s Keynote Address at the Democratic Convention in Boston. As for Obama, the convention has been described as ‘the day America met Barack Obama’. Unlike Yumkella, his mastery of policies, eloquence, charisma and his tenure at the United Nations has truncated his popularity scale above some of his peers. In some of KKY’s lyrical speeches, he has romanticized the Sierra Leonean dream of old, the ideas of freedom and opportunity which has sent his audience into hysteria as they have hung on every of his word. What has propelled Yumkella is his declaration that it is HOPE and the insistence of small empowerment that will unite and prosper Sierra Leone and not the aspect of Red party , Green or Pink party. He has instilled a message of certainty over uncertainty, hope over hopelessness and that the country is bound to achieve success, a powerful statement renewing the hope and faith which is to have a profound effect on his audience.
Will KKY succeed in his political journey? Will he be one of the only Presidents in Africa that will win the Presidency of a country but lacks majority in the legislature? His popularity is soaring, his message seems to resonate with first time voters and his decision to distance himself from the traditional parties has earned him accolade from his supporters. His decision to defect (?) from his parent’s party (as he claimed) to form his own party is being described as a key to his early success. He has chosen to cite cultural backgrounds in his address, enabling himself to come across as an untainted, clean and visionary leader. KKY has allowed himself to appeal to new voters, typically working and unemployed voters to perceive him differently from the caboodle of old politicians. He has discussed traditional issues like jobs, health care, education and unemployment and this has given him mass appeal. The speeches of Yumkella over the course of a year had gone from a political novice to a hot potato. The addresses and town hall meetings are so important to Yumkella that he has shown people that he is a different politician, which has played a large part in making him so nationally likeable and interesting. As my learned friend in Philadelphia, Musa Jah will say,” When Yumkella runs for the presidency, he is running not as a former United Nations Diplomat but as a candidate for everyone”. And thus many people of diverse backgrounds across the country have begun considering whether Yumkella might become their next President.
THE YUMKELLA FACTOR
One of the main areas that would seemingly separate the three major candidates, and arguably one of the most important over the course of the electioneering process will be the Yumkella brand. Social Psychologists have recognized a link between appearance and impression formation. Upon meeting someone or seeing someone, within seconds we have already formed a conclusion about people or person, simply based on their physical and most importantly facial appearance. Yumkella offers a striking contrast to other politicians as he seems to appeal to the younger vote, a demographic that all candidates would heavily target.
Yumkella is new, different and handsome which makes it seemingly effortless to build a powerful brand around him. But politics is a different ball game in Africa. Yumkella has still not named his running mate. Vice presidential candidates also have major influence in the Sierra Leonean context. The APC has selected a youthful and popular Vice President, he has youth on his side and his tribe in the national politics will contribute hugely towards the block vote. In the American politics, Obama selected Biden, a six term senator from Delaware, best known for his expertise on foreign affairs. Although Biden was a veteran of the Senate, having being elected in 1973, Obama’s choice in Biden was critical as it shows Obama’s understanding of his weaknesses with regard foreign policy. Obama was never afraid to have stronger people around him.
On the surface, Yumkella has never been tested in the political battle and the test is yet to come. His initial scuffle with ardent supporters of Maada Bio at the party’s headquarter was one of the reasons he cited for his defection (suspension) (really?). Well, some may argue, if you cite a minor incident as your standpoint of abandoning your parent’s party, what happens when youths start chanting invectives at you? Will you resign? President Koroma was once named ‘World Best Messi’, now, after the infamous Makeni selection, his name has been transformed from ‘Messi’ to’ Messy’. As my friend, Serry will say, all politics is local.
Yumkella should not allow his political infancy blight his brand or his ego shroud his political mirror. Like Obama ,he used his position as a new candidate to his advantage. Just as Yumkella didn’t come from an old dynasty, his position as the new candidate will give him a credible edge as the man who wants to put Sierra leone back on track. The efficiency with which he will run his campaign, the timing of the economic crisis and the lack of a strong opposition means that with hope and transformation on his side, he can sweep to victory.
THE WESTERN AREA VOTES
Most SLPP voters will smile at the political landscape that is unfolding in Sierra Leone, especially in the Western Area. Traditionally, since independence, the APC party has always won the western area with resounding victory. Skeptics and Pundits are now of the view that, with the new kid on the block, Yumkella will divide the western vote, thereby shrinking the votes of the APC, which will be at SLPP’s advantage. The political mathematics is simple, if the youths in the Western Area throw their weight behind Yumkella thereby reducing APC’s overwhelming votes, then SLPP only need to gain a fraction votes in the west and score huge votes in their strongholds.
My elder brother, Zozo once told me that, in politics, one day is a long twenty four hours. As the elections draw closer, who knows whether the two brothers from the same family will see reason and reconcile or allow the grass root communist party of the North triumph again?
Sierra Leone, you are on my mind. I love you more than the politicians.