Sierra Leone: Continuity versus change

11 August 2007 at 01:52 | 638 views

By Ishmael Taylor-Kamara

Tomorrow(Saturday) Sierra Leoneans cast their votes in perhaps the most important election in our nation’s history - an election that provides a real choice between “continuity”, on the one hand, and “change”, on the other.

While it is arguable that the 1967 election - itself a watershed election — serves as a historical precedent, this year’s election is different in one significant respect. Putting aside the historical APC-SLPP (North-South) duel that has featured in all competitive elections since independence, including the 1967 poll as well as the current one, tomorrow, voters must decide who governs Sierra Leone at one of the most critical periods for our nation— a decision with enormous implications for our future.

With the country’s reform- and growth-driven post-conflict recovery reaching a crucial stage, where positive medium- and long-term targets are being met, and significant development projects are close to fruition in the energy, transportation and healthcare sectors, among others, voters surely must be aware that Sierra Leone stands at a crossroads. It is not surprising then, given this scenario, that on the eve of the election, only the most partial observers or super-confident prognosticators can hazard a guess as to the outcome of the poll.

In my mind, the incumbent SLPP government has performed creditably during its two stints in office: in its first term, winning and consolidating the peace in the aftermath of one of the most brutal wars the world has known; and in its second, winning peace “dividends” from the international community that have allowed it to implement a wide ranging poverty reduction and growth strategy as Sierra Leone recovers from the devastating effects of a decade-long conflict.

Paradoxically, what is often missed when Sierra Leoneans discuss the post-conflict record of the SLPP and in particular the party’s prospects for re-election on August 11th , is how far Sierra Leone has come since 1996 when President Kabbah assumed power. Not only has the SLPP consistently achieved solid macroeconomic improvements and results (including real GDP growth upwards of 6% even during the height of the conflict), it has succeeded in reintegrating what was once a fractured if not disintegrated State, and has restored Sierra Leone’s stature in the world community, so much so that it is now attracting tourists and investors alike. Also, not to be overlooked, are the human development successes that the SLPP has achieved: countrywide rebuilding of facilities in the educational and healthcare sectors, for example, as well as significant interventions in rural areas, particularly in the agricultural sector.

Obviously, there are areas where improvements are still needed. Most critical to the masses — and understandably so - are the “bread and butter” issues: employment, water accessibility, availability of electric power, etc. Many believe that the SLPP has not done enough, or is unable, to address these issues because they appear to them to be intractable problems; others have even gone so far as to advocate a change in leadership solely on the basis these admittedly legitimate concerns, dismissing all that the SLPP has achieved in resurrecting the nation. But, one can be sympathetic towards the viewpoints of these fellow citizens. After all, they are merely expressing their frustrations over concerns that most people throughout the world take for granted. In a cruel irony, however, it is the very success that the SLPP has achieved during its tenure, first with the ending of the war, then the attraction of substantial international donor support, that has created what I would refer to as “high but unrealistic expectations” among the citizenry, and fuelled the misperception that things are not going as well as they should.

But as we approach this critical Election Day , I would urge those of you with the awesome responsibility of deciding who will govern Sierra Leone for the next five years to not be disillusioned and fall into the trap of seeking “change” for change sake. I would argue instead for “continuity,” and assert that only the most strident critic would deny that of all the candidates for the presidency, Solomon Berewa stands alone as eminently qualified to lead Sierra Leone at this crossroads. The experience or talents of the other candidates notwithstanding, Solomon Berewa is the only candidate that, without reservation, I would consider to be “presidential material” For this reason alone, the SLPP must be re-elected. The stakes for our country are simply too high.

Furthermore, while the competence and depth of experience of the person who will lead Sierra Leone for the next five years (and possibly beyond) defines the 2007 elections - as it should — a correlative issue is equally as important: that is, which of the candidates has selected a running mate is most qualified to be a heartbeat away from the presidency? I think the answer is clear that Solomon Berewa has chosen that running mate.

As any seasoned political observer knows, the selection process for running mates in most democracies in one that is rife with speculation and uncertainty and is often haphazard. Conventional wisdom suggests that candidates choose their running mates to either balance the ticket or woo a specific voter bloc deemed crucial to victory. Judging from all the speculations and commentaries that I read concerning the selection of running mates for the 2007 elections, we in Sierra Leone are not immune from this “running mate frenzy”. However, when one takes an objective look at the process (that is not only who was chosen, but how they were chosen), it is clear that the SLPP has produced the ticket that would best allow for a seamless succession by the Vice President should that become necessary. In short, the SLPP has selected a winning team.

Solomon Berewa’s selection of Alhaji Momodu Koroma as his running mate had long been predicted by many (though in some instance, not for the reason, the choice is superlative). Consistent with conventional wisdom, many had argued -but without any basis - that the SLPP had predetermined that the nominee would be a Northerner (whatever that means in present-day Sierra Leone), presumably to “balance the ticket”. Others argued, once again, without any credibility, that the outgoing President, Alhaji Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, had strong-armed Solomom Berewa, insisting that he nominate Alhaji Koroma as his running mate. This presumably, as some put it, because Koroma was Kabbah’s “blue-eyed boy”. Leaving aside, the sheer illogic of this line of thinking, it is not hard to hazard a guess that Berewa , in selecting Momodu Koroma, might have recognized in one of our most senior and experienced Ministers, the unassuming intellect, unrivalled competence and prodigious talent that led to his meteoric rise in the Kabbah administration.

Having met and spoken with the Vice Presidential candidate on a number of vexing issues relating to Sierra Leone during several of his recent official trips to the United States and during my recent visit to Sierra Leone last year, I can assure you that Alhaji Koroma has his pulse on what ails our nation; moreover, he possesses the vision and the type of creative mind that will be an asset to Berewa, should he win the presidential election, as the he pursues solutions to continue the alleviation of these very problems as we stay the course of post-conflict of recovery.

On a personal note, during these meetings I also found Alhaji Koroma to be so catholic in his reading (not a surprise considering his academic background) that all my hard questions I had for him led to very spirited but sober debates about governance, policy formation issues and the decision-making process, the sort of discourse that can tell you a lot not only about someone’s leadership qualities and intellect, but also about his love for country and passion for service. Solomon Berewa could not have picked a finer choice for his running mate - a choice that the other candidates vying for the presidency simply have not matched. But what is even more striking is the fact that, any one of the frontrunners for the SLPP vice presidential nod would have been an impressive choice . Moreover, the fact that all of the serious contenders happened to hail from the Northern region of our country should put to bed the lie that the SLPP is a regional party; the fact is, the SLPP is the only truly national party in the country: a party that can elect leaders from the historic divide in our nation-the North and the South in successive keenly contested elections.

Momodu Koroma is clearly the best choice not only for the SLPP, but also the nation. That is, he is most suited, because of his temperament, personal attributes, competence and experience, to serve in a position where he may, at any moment’s notice, be required to step in as President. But his selection also says something about the person who made the choice in the first place - a choice that created a veritable “dream team”. It needs no repeating that Solomon Berewa’s political experience and skill dwarfs that of his opponents. His choice for a running mate and the manner in which the selection was conducted aptly exemplifies the wide gulf between himself and these would-be presidents.

While the other presidential candidates clearly subscribed to the notion that one can select a lackluster or little-known running mate so long as that person either balances the ticket or appeals to a particular voting bloc, Solomon Berewa, on the other hand, by selecting a highly qualified senior Minister from the administration, demonstrated that he is cognizant of the fact that what counts is not so much what the candidate may do for the ticket or the party, but what he can do for the country after the elections.

In another indication of the wide gulf that separates Solomon Berewa from his opponents for the presidency, there could be no clearer contrast in the process each employed to select his running mate. While Berewa presided over an orderly and deliberative process, vetting the relative strengths and unique qualities of his choices, the other candidates conducted chaotic or flawed processes that ultimately led to internal rancour and met with public disfavour. And, in a telling commentary, one of the major criticisms hurled at Berewa by the campaign of one his opponents was the charge that he was taking too long too chose a running mate — ; the implication being that is he is indecisive. On the contrary, Berewa considered his decision seriously and ultimately made the right choice. The fact is, the SLPP has produced a WINNING TEAM: the only ticket that is capable of assuming power following the August 11th poll with the full support and confidence of the international community — bilateral and multilateral development partners that have invested so much in the recovery of our devastated country because the SLPP has demonstrated that it is capable of implementing a successful post-conflict rehabilitation and recovery strategy.

Thus, it is critical that our country continues to be led by experienced and trusted leaders and not untested hands as it moves to the next stages, especially in the poverty reduction and growth planks of the strategy. Only then can we be sure that we can count on the critical donor support our country still requires as it establishes long-term sustainable growth and development. Only then can we have a chance once and for all to slay the twin beast of poverty and deprivation - scourges that have severely hampered the quality of life for Sierra Leoneans for far too long.