September 8, 2007: A Date with Destiny

10 September 2007 at 11:16 | 536 views

By: Ishmael Taylor-Kamara

On the eve of the August 11 elections I wrote an article in another forum in which I described the 2007 elections as the most important to date in Sierra Leone’s history. Specifically, I had asserted that, on Election Day voters would be presented with a choice between “continuity” and “change”: continuity, on the one hand, represented by the incumbent SLPP administration, and change, on the other, represented by those (especially the APC and PMDC) seeking to end the SLPP’s decade-long stewardship of the nation.

Well, August 11 has come and gone; the resulting runoff has created a clear choice for voters and brought into sharp focus what really is at stake on September 8. Voters must now reflect on what continuity or change, as represented by the SLPP and APC, respectively, might mean for the nation.

But before I give my uncensored views on that, let me first disabuse the APC and others of their misguided notion that the first round voting reflected a vote for change. It did not. As any sober (or even cursory) analysis of the numbers in the first round of the presidential election would show, the SLPP bested both the APC and the PMDC (the putative forces of change) in the combined tally for the 12 districts in the Provinces.

Conversely, in the Western Urban and Rural constituencies — a region that has historically given the SLPP fits at election time due to, among other things, unfavourable demographics and extreme anti-SLPP propaganda (this election included), Solomon Berewa performed surprisingly well. Again an analysis of the numbers would show that he gained more than half the votes won by Ernest Koroma and six times the number of votes cast for Charles Margai. By itself, that is a remarkable feat, considering the fact that the Western Area is a traditional APC stronghold, and currently suffers the brunt of the lingering socio-economic effects of rebel war: overstretched public services; unemployment and overcrowding. But what makes Berewa’s showing even more impressive is the fact that any administration anywhere that has lasted 10 years will inevitably lose support, political and otherwise, not least because the population inevitably become weary of any government over time; that is, at some point, governments simply wear out their welcome and must fight for their very political survival while at the same time tackle the pressing issues of the day. The Opposition meanwhile becomes less cooperative, injects politics into the governing process and begins to focus on a strategy for the next elections. Thus, it should have been no surprise that in the run-up to the 2007 elections, the APC engaged in a barrage of baseless criticism and propaganda against the SLPP, and also made patently false and unsupportable promises about its ability to deliver on some of the hot button issues, such as employment and water and energy supply.

Even Charles Margai at some point claimed that he had made arrangements with an unnamed foreign entity to supply our energy needs once elected President. Obviously, simply saying that Ernest Koroma or Charles Margai will bring water and electricity to Sierra Leone or create jobs for the youth if elected and not providing any concrete details or plans of action as to how that will be accomplished is easy; but not only does that smack of insincerity, it demonstrates naiveté and a superficial understanding of how government works. But of course, that is the sort of dishonest campaigning one would expect from the APC - a party that dare not speak of its dismal record in office; a party so afraid (or embarrassed) of that record that it has invented for itself the sobriquet “New APC”.

In any event, the results in the first round presidential contest actually show that, despite all the withering criticism against the SLPP by two major presidential hopefuls (Margai and Koroma), Sierra Leoneans are very wary of an APC or PMDC presidency. Clearly, the voters did not countenance the lame charge of the APC and PMDC that the “SLPP had failed the nation; ” the electorate thus neither repudiated Solomon Berewa nor endorsed a Koroma presidency (as the APC would have us believe). The fact is, but for the PMDC challenge to the SLPP in its stronghold, Solomon Berewa would have more likely than not, won more votes than Ernest Koroma in the first round. Likewise, it would not be a stretch to assume that the SLPP would have won the bulk if not all of the seats the PMDC gained at the parliamentary level. One doesn’t need to be a Harvard-trained political analyst to conclude that the APC has overestimated the strength of its showing in the first round. The race in the second round is wide open, and it knows it.

As any unbiased analysis of voting patterns on August 11 would acknowledge, had the PMDC not emerged as an alternative to the SLPP in the southeast, the likely scenario at the end of voting would have had the SLPP ahead in (and even tantalizingly close to winning) the presidential election in the first round; plus, it would have racked up an additional 8 - 10 seats in its parliamentary seat column. Could it be that all this talk about the people thirsting for change might be a gross exaggeration, or wishful thinking by a party desperate to walk the corridors of power after an interminably long period in opposition?

Well, this brings me to the question I hinted at earlier: what would a change to an APC government mean for Sierra Leoneans and, conversely, what would continuity with the SLPP entail?

An APC victory will certainly bring about change, but not positive change; nor will a change for the better. With the passage of time and the natural inclination of human beings to erase from their memories particularly painful or traumatic experiences, it is not difficult to see how some have forgotten the dark days of APC rule. And while I do believe that human beings and institutions are capable of reform, the destiny of our nation and the future of our progeny are far to important to risk betting on the rebirth of a party that mismanaged, misruled and oppressed Sierra Leoneans for almost three decades, thereby impoverishing the nation and cultivating the conditions that ultimately led to state breakdown and civil conflict. The peace and political stability we now enjoy courtesy of the SLPP are too fragile to be compromised by a party that has historically produced violent and oppressive regimes

If the recent spate of violence is anything to go by, an APC victory undoubtedly would threaten the unity, peace and security that now prevails. It is no coincidence that the relative peace that Sierra Leone has experienced since the official end of the civil war in 2002 is now being jeopardized by APC supporters in the run-up to the second round. Having initially told their followers that victory is all but certain, APC leaders now recognize that the race is in fact competitive. Accordingly, they have devised a strategy to intimidate potential SLPP voters and scaring them away from voting. This propensity for violence during elections and at other times (ISU and SSD abuses; storming of FBC) is an APC trademark and will certainly return in the event of a Koroma victory.

Another trademark of the APC that it simply cannot escape, although it has tried to do so is corruption. While the SLPP government has attempted to address the scourge of corruption by enacting appropriate legislation and launching an anti-corruption strategy (something the APC could not do in nearly three decades in office), the current APC leaders have only paid lip service to the issue. The very fact that the SLPP has raised awareness about and stigmatized corrupt practices paradoxically gave the APC an opening to use corruption as a campaign weapon against the SLPP; incredibly, the APC sought to paint the SLPP as unable and unwilling to tackle corruption - this despite its lack of credibility on the issue, having essentially institutionalized corruption in Sierra Leone during its three-decade rule. Who can forget the official line on this: “Usai Dem Tie Cow...?” Well, you know the rest. Even leaving aside the APC’s long and well-known history of rampant malfeasance (vouchergate; dieman racket, etc.), one would be hard-pressed to point to any tangible or realistic ideas that its leaders in parliament have offered to deal with corruption. With an APC victory, the personal commitment demonstrated by President Kabbah when he made tackling corruption a high priority early in his tenure will be lost. This resolve will no doubt be replaced by resistance to any reforms by the entrenched party elite and other patrons looking to get their share of the spoils of victory before the well runs dry.

An APC victory would also threaten the viability of the ongoing reform program of the SLPP and will likely lead to retrenchment in the results the SLPP has achieved through sound management of the economy. While the SLPP government has steadily worked to tackle the root causes of the civil war it inherited — years of bad governance and corruption under successive APC regimes - it has succeeded in forging key relationships with donors and gained a thorough understanding of what is required to improve the effectiveness of reformed institutions and ensure that gains are sustainable. The fact is, the SLPP’s incumbency during what must be one of the most trying periods for Sierra Leone has provided it with an opportunity to develop a level of expertise in public management and service delivery that a party in opposition for over a decade can only dream of. The ongoing (and unfinished) reform agenda of the nation simply cannot be entrusted to the APC because it is essentially a spent force, a party that lacks the expertise to take ownership of and effectively manage the reform process.

And speaking of entrust, perhaps what illustrates best that a change to the APC will not be a change for the better is encapsulated in one word: trust. Can we trust the so-called New APC with our future, our destiny? Well an apt analogy comes to mind. Would you change your physician in the middle of critical post-operative care? Of course not; you would instead stay the course with that physician so that the ongoing treatment can result in a full recovery. Yes, sometimes change is welcome, but only if it is a change for the better. Simply put, changing the SLPP for the APC at this time would not be a change for the better.

At this juncture Sierra Leone needs continuity, not change for change sake. The country is at a crossroads. The future of the nation hangs in the balance. Continuity would mean that the SLPP can provide the tested leadership and institutional knowledge necessary to manage the ongoing transition from recovery to sustainable growth, as infrastructure is steadily rebuilt and public services improved. Continuity, thus, would mean that institutions, systems and structures which have been put in place as part of the SLPP reform agenda - decentralization, the ACC , civil service reform, or the PRSP, for instance — will not be assailed by an opposition which has hardly demonstrated the capacity to manage let alone strengthen these institutions or strategies. Establishing or replacing institutions is one thing; but making them effective is quite another. Similarly, adopting strategies or policies is quite different from successfully implementing them.

Finally, continuity would mean that the current administration’s blueprint for improving the quality of life of the people can come to fruition. While the process of rehabilitation and restoration of public services to the population has been slower than we all would like, I don’t think we sufficiently appreciate the level of socio-economic devastation that the APC had visited upon the nation prior to its removal from office by the NPRC. If anyone has any doubts about this one only needs to watch the video documentary “Nightmare in Paradise” by celebrated journalist Hilton Fyle, which documented the horrific conditions the average Sierra Leonean endured under APC rule. Needless to say, the escalation of the RUF rebellion had left the country even more destitute and its mineral and agricultural-based economy in tatters by the time the SLPP took over in 1996. Today, the economy has turned around and real growth averages 6-7% annually: for example, the mining industry is being properly regulated and providing much needed resources to help the Government build its capacity to address the basic needs of the population.

It is understandable that the population is frustrated that the headway the SLPP has made in restoring macro-economic stability and growth has yielded visible improvements in the quality of life for many at a slower pace that we would like. However, this should not be surprising given the population’s high expectations of immediate “peace dividends” at the end of the war and a corresponding failure of the SLPP to caution the people that visible improvements should not be expected to come quickly, on account the scale of the work to be done. Even today much more remains to be done. Because of this unfinished agenda, it is critically important that the SLPP remain at the helm after September 8; and continue the sound economic and fiscal policies that are essential to the gradual improvement of living conditions for all citizens.

So once again, Sierra Leoneans are on the brink of another crucial Election Day. The outcome will undoubtedly determine the destiny of Sierra Leone for the foreseeable future. The choice is clear: a vote for the SLPP is a vote for experienced and tested leadership; a vote to continue on the path of long-term, sustainable peace, security and development. A vote for the APC, on the other hand, would represent a vote for change - but not a change for the better, merely change for change sake. The fact is, the APC has failed to give any compelling reasons why it should be considered a better alternative to the SLPP. Thus, a vote for the APC would be a vote borne out of frustration, impatience, or perhaps confusion. However, this election is far too important for wasted or exotic votes. I am confident that my fellow Sierra Leoneans will vote wisely. They also realize what is at stake.