From the Editor’s Keyboard

One country, different colours

28 October 2019 at 18:59 | 707 views

By Fayia Sellu, Special Contributor, USA

The current protagonist of the presidency of Sierra Leone, Julius Maada Bio, had the very much overdue meeting with his predecessor Ernest Bai Koroma at Sate Lodge back on the 12th of September 2019.

Skeptics were quick to deride it as merely perfunctory, impressing the monumental, gnawing, divide along the Green and Red party color lines. It has been called symbolic. But symbolism goes a long way. Especially in a political space where party and personality project the cult-like image, worshipped by many, if not most. Politics has turned into war, a life or death matter, literally. And transitions of power, a very messy, costly, process.

One would have loved the, sadly hackneyed, Bintumani 3 to have been the venue and time for such a meeting. It is never too late, though, to move in the right direction of unifying the country and sending a clear message: It is okay to belong to different political stripes or colours and all work for the betterment of one Mama Salone.

Everywhere, but especially in the media, both social and traditional, the proclivity toward viewing everything through the tinted lenses of party coloration is so rife, it stirs disconsolation. While it is totally within one’s rights and liberties to support whatever party of choice, and however vociferously we want to, it should not be at the expense of the national interest, I argue, because we do not carry party-colored passports, don’t identify as party members when asked; “Where are you from?” (a question some of us in the diaspora know too well) or any other respect in which the referent, nation-state, of origin is concerned. We are Sierra Leoneans first, and then something else later. In that order.

Duopoly and Dysfunction
Any which way we dice it, there are two parties that have ruled Salone since independence (Dr. John Kerefa-Smart, of blessed memory, almost changed that in 1996, but fell short) the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) and the All People’s Congress (APC). Why then didn’t I just title this piece: “One Country, Two Colours”? It is my fervent hope that plurality of political options is (must be) providing the alternative in outfits like the National Grand Coalition (NGC) and Coalition For Change (C4C), etcetera, to break the stranglehold of duopoly in our political arena. It is not an accident that the only other two parties to make the above list and parliament have ‘coalition’ in their names. It speaks to a need I cannot do justice to in the current piece. However, duopoly is still verily in vogue, alive and stumping, in our time.

From the US House of Congress to the British House of Commons, from Mexico City to Nairobi, the Global North and its South, duopolies reign, and alloy in hyper-partisan politics of division and dysfunction, flagrantly. More than likely, even in the more advanced so-called model democracies, the inclination is to shift focus from national progress, advancement, to the more narrow alley of populist nationalism, one-upmanship, petty bickering, trying to outdo, undo, the other’s legacy; whether we are talking about Trump undoing the Obama legacy of Affordable Healthcare or Victor Orban in Hungary touting his “Christian Europe” spiel, or their viler strongman, populist cognates in Africa and elsewhere. There is so much malevolence in the tone and tenor of politics/discourse that bipartisanship in the national interest nears impossibility, an issue I will return to, presently. It is like two contestants in a music-and-chair who no longer listen to the music, focusing on just the chair and each other. Lots of false and wrong moves! As there are not a ton of good examples on the world stage to copy from, let us look inward.

During Ahmed Tejan Kabbah’s tenure, it was not quite an SLPP-APC, head-on duopoly as today, but Kabbah also had to rally his party and a splintering opposition behind him as he negotiated a fairly unpopular ceasefire and peace process as the prime challenge of his presidency. When Kabbah embarked on his project of National Unity Government, some of us were quick to see it disintegrating the opposition. One needs to only look at what happened to Kerefa-Smart and his party (UNPP) MPs or PDP, from Thaimu Bangura to Osman Kamara, to know that we were not spewing fiction. However, to his credit, he was able to unite the country behind the peace process and his national agenda of building institutions. He remains the only president in the Second Republic to have won elections with over 60% of the votes cast—his Wutehteh re-election bid. The bedevilling dysfunction in duopolies arise from the fact that one does not have to have the best policies or programs, one had to just beat the opponent at the next elections.

Sharing Elections Spoils, Whataboutism
When elections turn primitive as war, spoils-sharing becomes an imperative. In this vein, there is a lot of bad blood and blame to throw around starting with the entrance of Ernest Bai Koroma as protagonist in 2007 to the current dispensation. We know the difference. Kabbah was president for two terms also, yet people found themselves hard-pressed to talk about tribalism or regionalism as they do today, and they could have. Kabbah is from Kambia in the north, but also skillfully connected to his maternal lineage in Kailahun district. He appointed more northerners into his cabinet than southerners and easterners combined. The SLPP is supposed to be of South-Eastern base or stronghold, yet even when the ACC was formative and toothless, Kabbah let it ruffle the feathers of the Harry Wills and Momoh Pujehs of this world, South-Eastern members of his cabinet, maybe to say ‘charity begins at home’ or for whatever reason(s). Save a couple of muffled gripes in cranny quarters, nobody laid the blame of regionalism or tribalism on him and there was no need for a North-West alliance (complete with a province so designated) against the South-East or vice versa.

Like war, elections are expensive and people make sacrifices, everywhere. In the high tide of an election victory, some expect to be compensated—share the spoils. In form, spoils may be government jobs, contracts or programs, policies and legislation that benefit supporters and backers. In theory, the Executive Presidency in Salone can hire and fire anyone working for government and affiliated agencies and organs. In practice, it is a bit more complicated and some considerations are to be made. In a country like ours lacking a robust private sector investment and base, the National Cake, public sector jobs and contracts, are the biggest, for most, the only game in town. Expectations are normally high, but the fact is not every staunch or material supporter is going to get a job, contract or favors of any type in the term of a presidency. Ideally, the president appoints his cabinet and heads of strategic public agencies and the normal ‘jobs for the boys (and girls!)’ on oversight boards of parastatals and such.

But that’s the ideal. With the ascent to power of Koroma, a slow purge ensued that went down the food chain. Bio has responded in like manner on taking over State Lodge. Tit for Tat.

Crucially, when Solomon Berewa chose to call Ernest Bai Koroma and congratulate him (even before official results) from a vantage Veep and heir apparent position, he set the tone for a smooth transition and for his supporters to gracefully yield to a new dispensation. Fast forward: 2018. One side: “ Intimidating attacks or threats on our supporters in Kono, Kailahun, elsewhere. The Government Transition Report was presented with bias and prejudice, look at the body language of the Attorney General in launching the Commissions of Inquiry...Look at…” You get the sense of Transgressive Entrance. Other side: “They are contesting our victory. No congratulatory messages. They are hiding... taking vehicles out of the country...they are...You feel there is Recalcitrance in Exit. Transgressiveness and Recalcitrance are two sides to the Messy Transition Coin. And then there is the noxious Whataboutism.

For every act of perceived or actual transgression by Bio’s operatives or supporters, there is never a lack of parallels to point at during the Koroma era. “How about sackings of people who are down the food chain, with term contracts and so on?” Koroma did that too. See?

Sierra Leone is such a small, gregarious, country and we are all connected somehow. When you win elections and send your opponents into the wilderness, cut their supply to the National Cake, they remember, always! And wait their turn for revenge. An eye for an eye leaves no one with vision to lead by example. Plus, we could use all our best and brightest professionals that have the requisite training in specialized areas relating to developmental programs despite their party affiliation. But again, minus those irredeemably thieving ones, and the threat of sabotage is also real! When Kabbah said: “Salone get bad heart”(in his Englishized accent) he must have known the ‘pressures from sideways’ that provide the ‘orders from above’ to, for example, refuse Ernest Bai Koroma the courtesies of an ex-president at Lungi Airport or diplomatic posts. And what would those who fled Kono and other places, post-elections, have done had the tables turned their way?

Toward Better Transition, Progress
A lot of water has passed, some under, some over, the bridge since the 2018 elections. One thing is sure: we have not bettered the transition that we saw between Kabbah and Koroma. And it is very costly. Too, we have to be able to down our party-colored lenses when viewing matters of national interest, where it serves little or no purpose and actually retards progress. If President Bio has a good relationship with Ex-President Koroma, that does/should not by any means suggest that he is bed with the APC or is now pliable on matters that involve corruption cases before the reinvigorated Anti-Corruption Commission or Commissions of Inquiry. The two should not be allowed to be mutually exclusive. Bio made a commitment to the citizenry that he would fight corruption which most agree is a cancer to development and progress. We want to see his current good scores in that area continue to climb, get over the top, because he slaughters the metaphoric Hindu cattle in his bosom.

Two things: First, it is not extravagant at this point to call for an Elections Transition Commission (ETC) considering the cost of transitions, and stifled as they can become. There is a Political Parties Registration Commission, so heck, why not? We can avoid the issues of incumbencies not understanding that every election is a 50-50 chance of staying in, or leaving power. And for goodness sake, nobody wants to see in-coming governments chasing vehicles or any government property, handing over notes, ET CETERA around.

Second, when the Bio administration purposefully centres human development, free education, as the fulcrum of its development agenda, they are doing at least two things: First they are taking a risk to invest in human capital which is not offering a return in the form of travellers’ check or money order type of votes in elections cycle turnover time; it is more long-term and far-reaching investment. Also, every child gets to benefit from fee waivers, school materials, feeding program, and recently, bus service, irrespective or party color or region. So, what is it I heard about the Free Quality Education program being stifled in some parts of the country?

Really?

But again, President Kabbah said it: “Salone man get BAD HEART.”

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