By Cooper Inveen……..
March elections prefaced by misgiving as Ernest Bai Koroma’s failure to put party leadership to vote rekindles memories of former dictator Siaka Stevens
A unilateral decision by the president of Sierra Leone to choose his successor as leader of the ruling All People’s Congress has raised fears about the future of democracy in the country.
Civil society organisations, including the government watchdog group Institute for Governance Reform (IGR), have voiced concerns that Ernest Bai Koroma’s failure to allow party members to vote for their new leader echoes the actions of former dictator Siaka Stevens, who on standing down in 1985 ushered Joseph Momoh into office.
The nomination of Samura Kamara, Sierra Leone’s foreign minister, was announced on Sunday, a few hours before Julius Maada Bio – former leader of the military junta that ruled Sierra Leone at the dawn of its 11-year civil war – was chosen to lead the country’s main opposition party, the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP).
Both appointments have rekindled memories of past authoritarianism, with some questioning the integrity of what is to be Sierra Leone’s fifth presidential race since the country reclaimed democratic status more than 20 years ago.
“Koroma came to power by promising a new APC, whereas the reality has been a clear reversal back to the old ways of thinking,” said Andrew Lavali, the IGR’s executive director. “At the convention we had delegates that, in reality, had no authority. The decision was ultimately the president’s.”
Having taken office in 2007, Koroma is nearing the end of his second and last five-year term. The ruling party’s constitution allows the president the option to call a delegate election to choose his successor, but Koroma took matters firmly into his own hands.
“In the end, the party is bigger than everyone,” the president told a crowded convention hall in his hometown of Makeni. “People say I am a nice man, that I am a gentleman, and I agree. But do not cross my path after I have made a decision.”
Maada Bio, who ran against Koroma in 2012 and vied for the SLPP leadership in 2007, has long been the anticipated opposition candidate, despite claims from opponents within the party that he has used intimidation to secure votes.
He has maintained a strong cult of personality in Sierra Leone’s southern provinces since his military rule, and has even erected signs across the country proclaiming himself Sierra Leone’s “Father of Democracy”.
It was under Maadia Bio’s military regime that Kamara was first appointed to government. A long-time supporter of the president, he was installed as governor of Sierra Leone’s central bank in 2007 and promoted to finance minister two years later. When Koroma was re-elected in 2012, Kamara became foreign minister, a role in which he has drawn criticism for his perceived inaction towards the country’s growing human trafficking problem.
Kamara, who has been at the forefront of Koroma’s push to strengthen the country’s economic ties with China, claims to hold a PhD in economics from Bangor University. According to the Welsh institution’s website, however, his 1986 graduate thesis was never accepted.
More than 25 people declared an intention to run under the APC symbol, creating an air of uncertainty around Koroma’s selection. The APC convention was twice postponed, and leaks to local press ahead of the convention suggested Koroma’s preference was at odds with that of certain party members.
Kamara, a largely unknown figure in both the public and political spheres, came as a surprise choice to many supporters of the ruling party. Among the most popular candidates were John Bonoh Sisay, former CEO of the country’s largest rutile mine, and John Fitzgerald Kamara, justice minister and head of the country’s anti-corruption commission. Both ran exuberant and expensive campaigns, whereas Kamara did not publicly campaign for the position until September.
“I would like to congratulate Dr Samura Kamara,” Sisay said on Facebook following the announcement. “I assure you that [my supporters] and I will do all within our power to give [him] the utmost support for the betterment of our party and Sierra Leone in general.”
Other camps were more disgruntled, but most voiced support for Koroma’s decision. The president’s supporters encouraged party members to back his judgment regardless of the outcome. Sisay has been haunted by a bribery scandal since August, and Fitzgerald Kamara has long been accused by his opponents of running a corrupt Anti-Corruption commission.
“I never heard of him before but I’ll always stand with the president,” said Abraham Bangura, a supporter from Freetown. “[Samura Kamara] has a clean record, which I like, and we were expecting [Koroma] to give us someone from the north. But it could have easily been someone from somewhere else. We have a problem with tribalism and there should be a kind of balance I think.”
Kamara and Koroma are both of the same tribe and hail from the country’s Bombali district, of which Makeni is the capital. Makeni underwent rapid development over Koroma’s 10-year presidency and now boasts the country’s only 24-hour electricity supply. Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, still suffers from power outages.
“Koroma has been somewhat of a lame duck president,” Lavali said, “and so we see him hiding behind a character that is weaker than him, that is tribal, as opposed to a strong personality that can drive the election himself. That’s why he went for someone less known, so that even after he’s gone he can keep everything about himself. He couldn’t do this with a strong or established personality like John Sisay or Fitzgerald Kamara. This way, Koroma himself is the ticket.”
Sierra Leone’s presidential election is scheduled for 7 March 2018.