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Sierra Leone: On the verge of West Africa’s most dramatic democratic upset yet

Lindsay Barrett

The relentless march towards democratic credibility for the governments of the West African region has unveiled a number of dramatic signposts over the last few years. The first ever democratic defeat of an incumbent President in Nigeria in 2015 heralded a changing era for the entire continent even though it was not the first time that an incumbent party had lost a presidential election in the region. Sierra Leone’s venerable Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) had achieved that dubious distinction in 2007. However, at that time, the SLPP’s President Tejan Kabbah was outgoing and the defeat of the party’s candidate, who was seeking to succeed him, by Ernest Bai Koroma of the All Peoples Congress (APC) had been widely predicted. President Koroma has served the full constitutional tenure of two terms and managed to avoid the fate of either Goodluck Jonathan in Nigeria or John Mahama in Ghana, both of whom were denied their second term bids by the voters in their nations. However, the presidential election that took place in Sierra Leone on March 7 has resulted in a stalemate that is replete with symptoms of what could be the makings of an even more dramatic electoral upset. This is because the front-runner in the outcome as announced by the National Elections Commission  (NEC), albeit by a narrow margin, is a former military head of state, the SLPP’s Julius Maada Bio.

The inability of any one of the 16 candidates who stood in the election to achieve a majority of not less than 55 per cent as stipulated by the country’s electoral law means that the top two candidates will  contest a run-off in less than a week. Julius Maada Bio, who has been attempting to take the mantle of leadership for the last decade or more, has performed even beyond expectations this time around by emerging as the most popular contestant in the crowded field, and if he does not eventually emerge as the overall victor, that in itself would be a dramatic upset. The APC leadership and their followers have been extremely militant in their campaigning and regimented in their organising. After the polls, they displayed a potential for violent behaviour that led members of the illustrious observer team, including the aforementioned Jonathan and Mahama, to step in to smooth over a dangerous face-off between them and Maada Bio’s supporters during the counting of ballots.

What these symptoms indicate is that in Sierra Leone, where two of the oldest political parties in West Africa still hold sway, the potential for obstacles to be placed on the pathway to democratic change has not been completely expunged. However, the conduct of the election and the stature of the regional observers also indicate that the process has become the concern of a much broader constituency than the confines of the ambitions of local or domestic aspirants to power. The importance of holding successful elections where genuinely popular leaders eventually emerge as the triumphant contestants has now become the concern of regional rather than national audiences. It is not just the electorate of Sierra Leone that is concerned about what the eventual outcome will be, but citizens of the entire West African community feel that they have a stake in Sierra Leone’s ability to choose a leader that is genuinely elected by the majority of its people. To this end, the emergence of Maada Bio as front-runner in the first round is a consequence that many West Africans are curious to understand in the most profound and analytic terms in order to comprehend the true state of affairs in that small but very important nation.

For Nigerians in particular, the emergence of a former military leader will echo with recognisable familiarity but the circumstances surrounding the resurgence of the Sierra Leonean leader are totally unlike those that brought President Muhammadu Buhari to his present occupancy of the presidential saddle. Maada Bio did not overthrow an elected government when he took the reins of power as a military leader. Instead, he replaced a military leader that he had served under when it seemed that a commitment to return power to civilian authority was about to be reneged upon and he duly managed a voluntary handover. He remained discreetly incognito for many years as he changed his career and profile from that of a former military officer to that of a social activist, scholar and private businessman. When he returned to public life he did so by joining the party that formed Sierra Leone’s first independent government and portrayed himself as a nationalist seeking to unify a fundamentally divided polity. His frontrunner status in the latest poll has essentially vindicated his years of struggling to rebuild bridges of communality, especially between Sierra Leone’s south-eastern and northern provinces. In the run-off, his success in achieving this will be put to its most dire test yet.

The APC has ruled with an iron fist for the last 10 years but, in spite of its seemingly impregnable grip on power, the polls have shown that the SLPP continues to provide a haven for those who wish to challenge the ruling party’s conduct of its term in office. An important component of disenchantment in the polity was provoked because President Koroma has actually overstepped the bounds of constitutional probity by staying on beyond November 2017, which should have been the end of his 10-year two-term tenure. At the same time, ethno-regional divisions along party lines have remained sufficiently entrenched in the society to affect the outcome of the voting. Many observers are worried that strategies based on appeals to primordial sentiments will come into play as supporters of the contestants, now forced to divide themselves into two camps rather than to seek a broad spread of support, might revive the violence of Sierra Leone’s recent past. Maada Bio has shown moral elevation above such fears in his campaign strategy and style so far, but if the APC’s well-oiled machinery of enforcers begins to run riot, the retaliation from SLPP loyalists could also escalate. All West Africans are anxiously hoping that this will not set the tone of the forthcoming run-off scheduled for March 27.

So far, it appears that even though the race is likely to be a close one, the signals sent by the voters in the first round are indicative of the mood of the Sierra Leonean public at large. The need for change and the restoration of the values that the SLPP’s candidate kept emphasizing throughout his campaign has apparently caught the imagination of a new generation of supporters. It is also clear that a majority of members of the long list of fellow travellers who formed the first roll call of aspirants were flag-bearers of similar sentiments of disenchantment with the incumbent. If these former aspirants now prove to be genuinely committed to the sentiments they expressed in the first round, then the SLPP’s frontrunner status can hardly be overturned. As we have noted before, if such an overturn occurs, it will be an upset of monumental proportions for the expressed wishes of a large proportion of the voters who have already given him a victory. However, if the opposite happens and Maada Bio eventually wins, that, too, would seal one of West Africa’s most historic and dramatic democratic upsets so far.

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