Hardly had anyone drawn any parallel – however minimal - between Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Bio and former Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo. The two men have a military background; fought wars within and out of their countries; served as military leaders after palace coups (albeit different circumstances ;) very religious and handed over power to civilian governments after successful elections and they both came back to power via the ballot box. There may have ended their comparison, at least for now as President Bio has just started a fresh journey.
In Sierra Leone the electoral dust has now settled, or so it seems. This long drawn month-long process that nearly took the country back to the precipice of another catastrophe came to a close when the electoral commissioner, N’fa Alie Conteh, declared Bio the winner in a late night conference at the beachside Radisson Blu, Mammy Yoko Hotel. This was closely followed by the most disorganised swearing-in ceremony I have ever seen. It was to be expected, though. Tensions were at a boiling point. There were alleged threats by the immediate past ruling All People Congress Party to discountenance the results and call for a further recount. What with the police and military brutality that reined during the wait for the announcement? And the shootings outside the residence of Bio which attracted the intervention of members of the international community? And the APC’s constant accusations of the international community of colluding with the NEC to rig the polls in favour of the Sierra Leone People’s Party? The insults reined on former Ghanaian President, John Mahama, who headed the Commonwealth Observatory group and other diplomats in the country including the British High Commissioner? Thanks not only to the presence of the international community but also local civil societies, journalists but more specifically, social media, cheating, though certainly existed from all angles, was minimised.
The APC turned out to be bad losers. Its candidate, Samura Kamara, not only threatened court action to challenge the result for alleged malpractices of all sorts, he had even requested for a delay of the run-off in the face of an imminent defeat. In local parlance there is what is known as APC’s 99 winning or roguery tactics. They utilised all of them and added fresh ones to no avail this time. It was time to go.
They APC lost for a number of reasons, key among which are, over confidence, unimpressive report card, presidential candidate choice, failure to regain the trust of the people from Kono District, focussing on the wrong target, its inability to capture enough votes in opposition strongholds and most of all, poor strategy.
Since independence the country has had a bipolar ethno-regional system of voting and the two principal parties have gone on to win previous elections on this platter. There have been many splinter parties from both parties that have come and went into oblivion, but have not been able to strongly dilute the two. The SLPP has its traditional stronghold in the South and South East (Kono District has always and remains a swing state) while the APC had until now clung on to the North and Western Area where the population is believed to be larger. And in what was seen as a strategic effort to reinforce their northern stronghold, the immediate past government created two more districts to add to the 12 that existed since independence.
This time, however, the changing pattern, voter education, youthful participation and indeed the voting system made it difficult for the ruling party to successfully activate most of the much talked about 99 tactics to its favour. It anything, it dug itself in when doing so.
First they targeted Sierra Leoneans with double nationality with a particular fixation on one presidential candidate, Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella. They went as far as going to court and failed woefully. Kandeh Yumkella’s candidature posed a serious initial threat to both APC and SLPP. He had split from the SLPP when it became apparent he would not get the flagbearer’s ticket. With less than six months to the polls he launched his National Grand Coalition (NGC) which, on paper, and given the vivacity with which its membership embraced it countrywide, was doing extremely well. They traversed the length and breadth of the country but more so the Diaspora. The party received high ratings and expectations were over the heels until the electorate spoke the language they all knew in the ballot box. The NGC came a distant third in the first round with 6.9% of the votes cast and for a four-month old operating party, it was not only an excellent showing it also held the balance of power for the two parties at the runoff.
While the APC thought he was going to be the stumbling block for their return to power and pursuing him with threats of court action, the SLPP hierarchy busied themselves making inroads in areas they usually had poor showings, and entrenching themselves in their traditional fortresses. The APC also made a series of attempts to vilify Maada Bio but it all backfired.
Even as Bio took the lead in the first round, the APC was sure they would clinch the second round with their northern support. It then became an open critical tribal affair that once again attracted calls from both local and international observers and civil society organisations to ease the tension.
Polling day itself was relatively smooth but when it came to the counting and compilation of results- which critics label results manufacturing- it was another story. There were claims and counterclaims but the most ferocious came from the APC. They succeeded in having some recounts after claims of ballot stuffing and over voting. Unfortunately those areas where such malpractices were alleged had tallies that became even more favourable to the SLPP.
They were still not satisfied after the NEC declared Bio the winner as Samura Kamara threatened to contest the results in court. Said N’fa Alie Conteh: “It is his right. It will be a matter for the courts to decide. We have done our bit and we are confident that we did the right thing.” That threat was, however, withdrawn.
An APC delegation made and hour-long visit to Bio’s home two days after he was sworn in during which Samura not only congratulated him but also promised the APC’s support for a peaceful coexistence. This single act appeared to have dispelled information that made the rounds in social media that the president had issued a warrant of arrest for a good number of former ministers, seizure of their passports and prevented any from leaving the country. Such information also saw the former president, Ernest Koroma, reacting angrily (also seen on social media) asking a rhetorical question: “If you make a statement and it cannot be effected on the ground then either you are not in control or maybe the statement is not made with commitment and sincerity.” Koroma also claimed that a good number of the APC supporters are in hiding.
The Catholic Church also played a crucial role in soothing the charged climate. They had both Bio and Kamara worship together. It must be said that they are both Catholic and worship in the same Parish but not usually at the same Mass. But this Sunday they did and it was viewed as a sign of appeasing the already charged atmosphere as they both sat together and exchanged pleasantries
That notwithstanding those who went into hiding, as the former president said, may have done so because they have something to hide. They are also aware that a reprisal may be in the offing given what the APC did to SLPP supporters in the aftermath of past elections that they won.
Bio has now settled in and already has initiated some actions for immediate application. He also set up a transitional team that will take do stock taking and prepare for the setting up of his administration. He has set up a cross party committee to look into alleged violence against political opponents.
To plug leakages, create a healthy fiscal and revenue income for the government, some stringent measures were put into immediate effect on April 9. Among these are the immediate suspension of the export of timber, suspension of duty and tax exemptions for organisations, agencies, companies and contractors, except those bound by the Vienna convention of which the country is a signatory. There is also the implementation of a single treasury account to which all government ministries, departments and agencies that collect and retain revenues should transfer to the consolidated revenue fund in the Bank of Sierra Leone. Commercial banks holding such funds should also transfer them to the Central Bank forthwith.
Such bold steps are said to be necessary if the government is to properly manage both internal and external revenues. But critics have been quick to argue that such decisions should have been made by parliament and not the executive. Not only is parliament not in session but for such decisions to go through they will take nothing less than a month when prospective looters would have smelt the rat and perfected their art. The government does not want to be caught off guard.
Already there are changing signs within the civil service with workers slowly abandoning their apathetic attitude of reporting for duty whenever they liked. Time keeping was among the President’s first message to the nation when he addressed a rally in a packed stadium two days after his inauguration. He followed that up with a press release which, in addition, declared a national cleaning day on the first Saturday of each month from 7 a.m. to noon, the re-introduction of Sunday trading between noon and 5 p.m. and that all ministries, departments and agencies should henceforth host all government-related workshops, seminars and conferences in their premises and not in hotels.
It is the beginning of a long journey ahead of President Bio. His priorities were laid bare for all to see in his manifesto: Education, health, infrastructure, tourism, fiscal discipline, transparency, agriculture and marine resources’ enhancement….. the list is long.
He said of himself: “I love criticism. If you do that I will improve. It will not hurt me.” For the man who critics characterise as non-smiling, perhaps that seriousness, blended with aggressive but humane action, may take the country out of its current marasmic economic and social malaise while at the same time enhance the long lost and challenging political tolerance.
President Julius Maada Bio (Reuters)