Sierra Leone makes history again- of the right type this time. The country has engineered a second turn-over of government, in its young democratic life- with a bit of a twist. Different political parties won the presidency and majority in parliament. The All Peoples Congress won the lion’s share of seats in parliament and the Sierra Leone People’s Party won the presidential election. Without a parliamentary majority, the presidency has a peculiar challenge of pushing through its legislative, financial and recruitment programmes. With a parliamentary majority, the former ruling party has the numbers to go for broke and become plainly obstructive. If both sides become dug in and allow ego to overcome reason, then the next 5 years will be a nightmare for a country that has suffered through war, epidemics and natural disasters. If handled right, however, this could be the start of a new era of “cooperative but accountable governance” in which the overwhelmingly impoverished population becomes the deserved beneficiary.
In my view, there is a particular logic to the 2018 elections outcome which may not be obvious to those flushed with victory or reeling in disappointment. Since 1996, we have had periodic multi-party elections for two of the three arms of government. Normally a single political party would claim victory in both the presidential and parliamentary contests. This obviously made life a lot less stressful for the president who could count on a compliant parliament to push through his legislative agenda. Nevertheless, and especially over the last 5 years, this double success created a monster- an overly dominant governing party in a multi-party landscape. In effect, a de facto one-party state. Aided by a constitutional provision that compels “towing the party line”, parliament lost the ability to effectively check the excesses of the executive. The opposition was so emaciated that the ruling party could get things done by simply relying on its substantial majority. And the executive did get away with many things—from pushing through important mining and loan agreements without serious vetting to vetoing bills that garnered broad consensus. The climax of this high-handedness was demonstrated in December 2017 when the executive branch attempted to controversially amend provisions of the 1991 constitution relating to the election and removal of the president. The people arguably became fed-up with this state of affairs.
This time around voters have split the mandate- one party controls the executive and another parliament. Put simply, they approved of the development plans of one party and wish to see that executed over the next five years but then gave the mandate to oversee and scrutinise how those plans will be implemented to another.
So instead of digging heels in and assuming offensive and defensive postures, both parties should embrace the realities of their respective mandates from the electorate and make the best of the new situation. This would require thoughtfulness and considerable maturity, especially in reaching out and finding common ground. Based on the content of their manifestos which are essentially similar in their development aspirations, finding such commonality through genuine dialogue, shouldn’t be very difficult.
Cooperation however does not mean co-opting. Both parties must remain true to their received job descriptions and not resort, especially for the party with the executive mandate, to insalubrious means, such as offering financial incentives or intimidation, to influence the other. Similarly, the majority party in parliament should not adopt a scorched earth policy and unnecessarily stymie the legislative agenda of the executive. The notion of checks and balances espoused by the constitution should now be brought to life positively. Unlike in other places, Sierra Leone can ill afford political brinkmanship at this critical time.
Now that the lengthy and admittedly divisive electoral process is at an end, there is little time for backslapping or commiseration. Pressing issues remain to be addressed. For example, many want to see quick and decisive action on corruption. Over the past 9 years, the Auditor General’s annual reports have consistently shown that funds have been routinely mismanaged or stolen and have recommended ways of plugging public sector leaks. No meaningful action has so far been taken. The country’s last remaining forests are under threat from constant logging by Chinese companies and chainsaw-wielding freelancers. Infant and maternal mortality remain stubbornly high and access to basic health care for everyone is still a pipe dream. Unemployment is rife, and a drug epidemic is engulfing the youthful population. Most people don’t have access to clean water or improved sanitation and the natural environment is suffering from some of the worst forms of degradation. There is serious work to be done and the newly installed leaders better begin to earn their stripes- their employers are impatient for result.