By Jamie Hitchen…….
On April 27, in his Independence Day address to the nation, Sierra Leone’s president, Ernest Bai Koroma, gave the clearest and most public assertion yet of his intention to leave office in March 2018. “My fellow citizens,” he declared, “in just a little over a year, my tenure will come to an end and I will graciously hand over power to my successor in a democratic transition.” Having served two terms as leader, Koroma is constitutionally ineligible to stand for a third. Despite his public remarks to the contrary, there remains a degree of skepticism in Sierra Leone that the president means what he says.
Talk of an extension to Koroma’s tenure first began in 2013, when Balogun Koroma—then the campaign coordinator of the president’s All People’s Congress party, or APC, and now the minister of transport and aviation—described the president as a “transformational leader” who deserved a third term. The issue resurfaced in October 2015, when Bai Mamoud Bangura, leader of the APC Youth League in the president’s hometown of Makeni, voiced his support for “more time” for Koroma. Bangura argued that the 18-month-long Ebola outbreak had interrupted the implementation of the president’s “Agenda for Prosperity” enough to warrant an extension to Koroma’s mandate so that he could finish what he had started.
Sierra Leone’s constitution, passed in 1991—the year its 11-year civil war began—does permit a president’s term to be extended, but only if the country is in a “state of war or emergency.” Although no formal announcement has been made, the state of emergency declared by the government in July 2014 to tackle Ebola appears to no longer be in place. Unless they are renewed, such measures lapse after one year, according to the constitution, so the opportunity to exploit this legal loophole may have expired. However, Karim Bah, the secretary-general of the Movement for Social Progress, a grassroots, pro-democracy group, notes that “the constitution was flouted when the vice president was sacked in 2015.” That suggests that the issue of extending Koroma’s term might not be an open-and-shut case for a government that has defied the constitution before.
The government’s initial response to calls to give Koroma “more time” was to acknowledge the constitutional right of the people of Sierra Leone to express themselves. But the government’s unwillingness to rule out the possibility of an extension of Koroma’s term, preferring instead to say that it would act within the constitutional framework, has led some observers to suspect that allies of Koroma within the APC were seeking to test public support for such a move.
Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai, a lawyer and democracy activist, is certain that “Koroma’s people provided financial assistance to the youth league in Makeni in an attempt to build a popular base for the agenda.” That is a view shared by Bah, who points to the fact that “some of the leading advocates of ‘more time’ have since been incorporated into the government as full-time ministers.” But Abdulai believes factions within the APC have already derailed any such plan, since they have their own sights set on the presidency. Increasingly, he says, “there is no unanimous voice pushing for ‘more time’ [for Koroma] within the party.”
The issue of extending Koroma’s term might not be an open-and-shut case for a government that has defied the constitution before.
Nevertheless, Koroma has already been successful in securing a short extension. According to the Public Elections Act passed in 2012, polls should be held no later than three months after the expiration of his five-year term; Koroma was sworn in on Nov. 23, 2012. Many expected the election to be scheduled as close as possible to the Feb. 23, 2018 deadline, so it came as a surprise when March 7 was announced as the date for the local, parliamentary and presidential vote. An 11-day extension may appear inconsequential, but its wider implications are concerning. The choice of the election date, whose validity is disputed, has led some observers to suspect that the government was gauging the strength of opposition to constitutional chicanery. Although civil society pushed back against the move, no legal challenge has been filed.
In addition to legal loopholes that Koroma and his inner circle may be looking to exploit, the failure so far to endorse a successor, either public or privately, has also fueled suspicions. It may, of course, simply be that Koroma is aware of the tactical importance of a party uniting behind its chosen candidate before going public, rather than an indication of his intention to maintain a grip on power. In the 2007 elections, he benefited from splits in the rival Sierra Leone People’s Party as it sought to manage an internal party succession. According to local media outlets, there are several potential frontrunners in the APC, including Vice President Victor Foh; the former CEO of Sierra Rutile, a major mineral sands company, John Sisay—who is also the president’s cousin; and Attorney General Joseph Kamara. Strong support exists among different factions for all three.
While Koroma’s possible scheme to hold onto power raises concerns, other worries center on ongoing plans for a constitutional referendum that would change the 1991 basic law. After consultations that were hampered by the outbreak of Ebola, a referendum is now expected to take place in September. But the final white paper setting out amendments to the 1991 basic law is yet to be published.
The abridged draft report, which was released in February, did not recommend changes to the provision on presidential term limits. But the last two constitutional referendums in Sierra Leone have led to major changes in the country’s political system. The 1991 constitution paved the way for a return to multiparty democracy; the preceding constitution of 1978 had formalized a one-party state. Even if another systemic overhaul is unexpectedly proposed and approved by voters this fall, though, it is hard to see how changes could be ratified by parliament before March 2018 to allow Koroma to run again.
After the Ebola outbreak, which highlighted the lack of trust between citizens and the state, and with a contentious census recently completed and a constitutional review process still underway, this is a critical juncture for democracy in Sierra Leone. Abdulai, the lawyer and democracy activist, is convinced that while “there were clear signals Koroma was intending to try and stay in power, events have overtaken him and stymied his ambitions.” Whether that is proved right will become much clearer in the next few months.
Jamie Hitchen is a policy researcher at Africa Research Institute. He tweets @jchitchen.