By Gassim Conteh, London, UK.
Politics is expensive but worth the price. This statement is prima facie cynical to say the least, but it takes only a cursory reflection to appreciate its sad and unfortunate veracity.
In politics the motivation to stand for president or run for parliament should be the laudable desire to provide inspired and progressive leadership that has the latent benefit of leading the country down the path of social, economic and political development. Unfortunately, this noble goal has been dislodged and replaced with greed, self-aggrandizement, pillage and selfishness.
Consequently, in Sierra Leone, it is not uncommon for politicians and political wannabes to spend their last cents in their bid to capture political positions . Some even resort to devilish means such as ritual sacrifices and soliciting the intervention of agents of the devil in order to influence the outcome of elections. Police records are replete with instances of children disappearing, corpses found with missing organs in the run up to elections. In the late ’80s a popular Freetown politician was accused of attempting to kidnap a child just after the end of the school day by impersonating the parents of the child.
It is an open secret, or should I say rumour, that the current vice president spent his way into the position of running mate and eventually the enviable position of vice president. It has to be said that little or nothing was known about him in the sense of being an unflinching supporter of the party. He was an unknown quantity. It was even rumoured also that the delay by president Koroma in picking his running mate was partly due to financial considerations (a case of highest bidder?).
It was also believed that a former High Commissioner to Nigeria during the SLPP era financed his way to a ministerial position by partly bankrolling the party 2002 presidential campaign. As always, part of it was financed by the Treasury.
One of the criteria for selecting parliamentary candidates by at least one of the main parties was the demonstration of commitment and dedication to the development and progress of the constituency they strive to represent in parliament. What amounts to commitment and dedication is not clear. In the main, very few people may quarrel with the merit of these criteria. However, there is a flip side to these criteria; they are subject to abuse by unscrupulous individuals with ulterior motives. Also, they have the danger of sacrificing progressive ideas on the altar of financial considerations.
As a result, political campaigns have been historically characterised by the show of financial muscle at the expense of the battle of ideas. There were claims that during the run up to the last parliamentary elections money changed hands for party symbols. As usual, these claims were quickly dismissed as baseless, unfounded and face-saving.
The question then is: why are politicians prepared to do all it takes (at all costs) to get themselves into public office? As opined inter alia it must be for some reason other than a genuine desire to serve and love of country.
The evidence suggests that getting into a public office in Sierra Leone or even going closer to the corridors of power means increased chances of an imminent change in financial circumstances. Viewed from this angle no amount of effort or sacrifice, including those mentioned above, is too much of a price to pay. This seemingly cynical view is given credence by the fact that individuals have become filthy rich with huge sums of money, accrued by simply occupying a public office, stashed away in foreign bank accounts.
It was rumoured that an SLPP minister bought a house in the US barely few years into him becoming a minister. The most disgusting thing about this is that the political leadership treat public funds as their own.
A case in point is after the restoration of the SLPP government in 1998 following the AFRC/RUF interregnum, the EU donated funds to the government to be used to assist students to relieve the financial burden occasioned by the interregnum. Students in tertiary institutions (including my humble self) were given the meagre sum of 50,000 leones each. Shortly after the government hiked tuition fees. As one would expect in such circumstances the students staged a peaceful demonstration. The then minister of Education made one of the most unfortunate statements ever by a politician. He accused the students of being “ungrateful” as they (the government) had recently doled out money to them. Is that not pathetic?
Like any social phenomenon this practice has had serious negative consequences for the country. Because people trust that their financial situation is guaranteed a boost overnight this has led to violent elections not least the notorious 1977 and 1996 elections. The latter being the effort of the military to perpetuate themselves in power. They had realized what it meant to be in public office.
Also, this unfortunate situation has deprived the people of Sierra Leone of the dividends of democracy where each public official, especially the executive and legislative branches of state, and the government as a whole should put the interest of the country before their individual interests.
Another serious consequence of this culture is the creation of sacred cows as the party will feel indebted to these “financial bombers” and benefactors. Like the monarch in UK, these individuals can do no wrong. What is more unfortunate and an insult to the ordinary people is when the chief executive (president) attempts to provide undue protection for these individuals. A former president is on record for branding all Sierra Leoneans (he actually meant the ordinary people) as having “bad heart” (full of hatred and jealousy). This branding came on the heels of an accusation of impropriety leveled against a public figure that proved, according to the investigations, untrue. As a matter of fact the situation cried for an explanation. In a democracy the public deserves an explanation of a seemingly dodgy action or omission. In mature democracies inquiries and investigations of the actions and omissions of public figures are not uncommon. It is true that ours (democracy) is nascent but this is no excuse for ineptitude and deliberate shutting of eyes against one of the cornerstones of this all important political concept.
Also, a much more serious and devastating effect of this unfortunate situation is that the public has completely lost trust and confidence in the political class. People hate politicians with passion and whoever gets into politics, no matter their good intentions, will be branded a thief and self-serving. As a result good people, and there are some left in the country, have completely eschewed politics as they do not want their hard earned reputation to be thrown to the dogs. Whether this is the best approach is another matter altogether. But one can understand fully where they are coming from.
The million dollar question is how can this canker worm that has eaten into the fabric of the society be removed? Below is a modest attempt to proffer some solutions:
Firstly, there is dire need for moral uprightness. It is evident that the political leadership is bereft of moral values. This goes to the heart of the problem as corruption, by far the biggest problem, is a manifestation of moral impropriety. In this respect religious leaders need to step in and use khutubas on Fridays and sermons on Sundays to re-emphasize the need for moral uprightness. Fortunately, the two main religions; Christianity and Islam, in the main, share similar views on morality.
Secondly, in respect of picking candidates for parliament, political parties should conduct primaries at constituency level and these should be free and fair and free from fear. The party should ensure that there is no financial bullying or bullying of any sort. The usual excuse of lack of funds for not conducting such elections may be used here. However, the overwhelming importance of such primaries clearly demands that the parties should make it a priority. Besides, the envisaged primaries require very little funds. As the financial resources needed are very minimal, candidates can be requested to make modest contributions. It is important to note that democracy dictates that voters are given real chance to vote for the candidate of their choice. Thankfully the country has returned to constituency elections and not the list system characteristic of proportional representation. So why deprive the voters by not giving them free choice?
Should any party fail to heed the call for preliminaries the electorate should refuse to cast their votes for them. The electorate should note that they have more power than they think. They hold political sovereignty which they use to bestow legal sovereignty on the leaders. Like the late erudite philosopher Plato once opined: ’society is divided into three groups: 1. the leaders who rule 2. the military who protect the territorial sanctity of the society and 3. the tillers who till the land. The third group meaning the ordinary people. He said for there to be an “ideal” society each group has to play their role.
Thirdly, the law on declaration of assets upon assumption of public office should be implemented fully and without exception. This entry declaration should be followed by an exit declaration as the former is meaningless without the latter. This seems like stating the obvious. Of course it is obvious, but it is worth saying as history shows that entry declarations have not been followed by exit declarations. In this regard the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), though doing a fairly good job, must be more probing and invasive in forestalling embezzlement and the milking of the system by the most subtle and discreet ways.
Also, parliament should seize the initiative and be the protector of the interest of the people by exposing the excesses of the executive. In this respect the opposition has a much bigger role to play. I can recollect distinctly my initial lessons in government at secondary school where we were taught that one of the roles of the opposition is to keep the government on its toes.
Finally, there should be a members interest register where all MPs register their interests to prevent them from promoting bills just for personal aggrandizement. This will also prevent MPs from serving on committees with oversight responsibility that may conflict with their interests outside parliament. If there is already such register its provisions must be strictly adhered to.
The above suggestions are by no means expected to be silver bullets. However, they are steps in the right direction. For example, parliamentary elections prior to the promulgation of the 1991 constitution were particularly marred by violence principally because winning a seat in parliament was coterminous with securing a ministerial position as the political system was largely modeled on that of the British system where ministers must be members of parliament. Hence the stakes were higher. Thankfully, that provision has been repealed. The effect of this was immediate and there is some evidence to suggest that violence during elections has dramatically subsided.
The status quo cannot be maintained and in order to change the current status of BANANA REPUBLIC all hands must be on deck. Together we can do it.