I cringe every time Jacob Jusu Saffa speaks. The secretary general of the Sierra Leone People's Party, who doubles as the party's spokesman, has a knack for grandstanding- choosing his moments to relay negative political attacks in a style he has made all his own.
Saffa took the party's 2007 presidential and parliamentary election loss so badly; he wrote in a post-election press release that the international community connived in the "stealing of SLPP's happiness." As if that wasn't bad enough, he repeated the same charge on air in September 2007: "It's part of the international conspiracy, but they will not get away with it," Saffa said ominously. Emotive language.
Nine months on, and a few days shy of Sierra Leone's local elections, another sound bite from Saffa has made headlines: President Koroma is behaving like Zimbabwe's Mugabe, he is reported to have said. Saffa has a penchant for sound and fury.
Last week, in the weekly briefing at the Ministry of Information in Freetown, I.B. Kargbo reportedly told journalists the government was deeply disturbed by the level of violence that has characterized the local election process. To prove it wasn't just talk, President Koroma ordered a probe into the Tongo Field clashes between supporters of his party, All People Congress, and opposition SLPP.
The same week, National Election Watch, a coalition of civic and professional groups in Sierra Leone, reportedly condemned the acts in a statement. "The irresponsible behavior by local party officials and their supporters is unacceptable," said NEW officials, as they commended police for arresting seven alleged agitators in Tongo Field and making some arrests in Kono; even though NEW believes the police were not proactive to prevent the violence.
At a press briefing held at 50/50, a non-partisan campaign for more women in politics and public life through training and advocacy, National Democratic Institute consultant Miria Matembe, a former member of the Pan-African Parliament from Uganda and an advocate of women's rights for more than two decades, reported that seven women had stepped down as a result of intimidating action and violence.
Local papers reported that NEW showed particular concern for female and independent candidates, saying they had observed stones being thrown at houses of candidates, tearing down of campaign posters as well as assaults and verbal abuse. They also reported some candidates had even received death threats.
NEW sent a message out to all citizens to denounce the violence occurring in the midst of the election process. "Uncivilized and undemocratic practices should be condemned by every Sierra Leonean," they are reported to have said.
If Sierra Leone is to move up on the world's democracy index that is put together by the Economist Intelligence Unit (the country is ranked an authoritarian regime), the condition of having free and fair competitive elections, and satisfying related aspects of freedom, is clearly the basic requirement of democracy.
There are encouraging signs that democracy promotion is high on the list in Sierra Leone. A nation that once succumbed to what a former editor of the Washington Post calls "the African affliction" has put the past behind it. Sierra Leone has every thing consistent with ECI's definition of democracy: a culture of political activity and civic engagement. And the citizenry is anything but docile.
Moreover, in 2007, when the electoral process divided the population into winners and losers, in a show of just how successful the democratic political culture has become, the SLPP and their supporters (except for JJ Saffa) accepted the judgment of the voters, and allowed for the peaceful transfer of power.
Still on that democracy index:
Today, although both Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe are ranked as authoritarian regimes, Sierra Leone is a far cry from Zimbabwe, where there have been reports of strategic, gruesome killings, thousands of beatings of opposition figures, and thousands of people displaced because of the violence. Robert Mugabe requires his people to take part in the political process and forces hundreds to seek refuge at foreign embassies because they have voted, or tried to vote, his brutal government out of office.
And why many Sierra Leoneans stand shoulder to shoulder with President Koroma in his stance for human rights and democracy on the African stage. President Koroma should be lauded for his condemnation of political violence and intimidation against Zimbabweans for voting their conscience.
Which brings us back to that recent comment of JJ Saffa. Thinking President Koroma is a Mugabe is a far cry from actually saying so. Saffa should be condemned for a "misplaced comparison between the democratically elected and stable government of Koth Ernest to a sadistic government like Mugabe's." according to Kenday Kamara,
a development doctoral candidate based in the United States.
But it's imperative that as we speak out against outbursts of JJ Saffa, we remind the ECI, and Kenday Kamara, who describes the ten years of the previous SLPP-led administration as '10 years of "bloody" misrule equated to what is happening in Zimbabwe today' about the improvements in Sierra Leone's democratic political practices under Tejan-Kabbah's administration. Improvements that saw the nation come through its democratic transition following the war.
Kenday Kamara's verdict on the previous administration are as strident and over the top as Saffa's comparison of President Koroma to tyrannical Mugabe; of Saffa feeling robbed of his happiness because the SLPP lost, and viewing the 2007 elections as an
Nonetheless, Saffa is right to protest the wave of violence that has put Kono, a densely populated mining district, and Tongo Field, on high alert. Saffa is also right to demand (in his own inimitable way) that President Koroma be as unequivocal in his promotion of human rights and democracy in Zimbabwe as on the civil liberties of his own country men and women. This writer wishes Sierra Leone free and fair
competitive elections on Saturday, July 5.