Yusuf Bangura: Reflections on the SLPP Convention 2011

Dark Clouds on the Horizon? Reflections on the SLPP Convention of 2011

By Yusuf Bangura

The election of ex-junta leader Julius Maada Bio as flag bearer of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) for the 2012 presidential elections has sent shock waves around the country and in the Diaspora. Although Bio was one of the front-runners among a motley crowd of 19 aspirants, people with less partisan attachments had hoped that the delegates would settle for a less controversial figure with no history of violence and elect an executive that is inclusive. Unfortunately, it seems that the party has decided to narrow its political appeal to its core support base, which is the South and East of the country, and adopt a candidate with a troubling background.

Before addressing the political implications of this choice, it is worth noting that the SLPP has always distinguished itself from the ruling All People’s Congress (APC) on the basis of its aversion to violence, respect for the law and regional inclusiveness under its catchy and all-embracing slogan “One Country, One People”. The APC was indisputably a by-word for violence when it ruled the country from 1968 to 1992.

There are also more Northern elites in the SLPP than there are Southern elites in the APC. Part of the reason for this lopsidedness was Ahmed Tejan Kabbah’s (the first post war president) policy of inclusiveness, the political fragmentation of the North into multiple parties after the collapse of the APC in 1992, and the calculations by Northern elites that association with the ruling party would yield real material benefits. It is, indeed, a great credit to the SLPP that about half of the contestants for its presidential ticket claim to have Northern roots.

The current APC started off badly by creating a highly skewed Northern-dominated cabinet. The SLPP chairman John Benjamin’s characterization of the first APC cabinet as Wusum Stars was spot on. Benjamin promised the nation that the SLPP will not create its Southern equivalent, Kambui Eagles. Sadly, this has happened with the new SLPP executive. Public pressure and protests have nudged the APC government towards a trajectory of inclusiveness, even though more needs to be done. It has also tried to remake its image of a violent party by having as leader a charismatic personality with roots in the business sector and who was not part of the political class of the 1970s and 1980s that wrecked the country.

We thus have the unbelievably strange irony that just when the APC is trying to be inclusive, the SLPP has decided to waste its political asset of inclusivity by having a Southern-dominated executive and leader; and just when the APC has a leader with no history of violence and who enjoys considerable respect at home and abroad, the SLPP has decided to impose upon itself a leader with a lot to account for in the field of violence.

Why did the SLPP decide to field a warrior from its own base? I offer three insights, all of which bode ill for the country. The first is that the choice is a gut reaction from a hard core of party chauvinists who believe that since the APC government has alienated Southern elites, Northerners have no business occupying top posts in the SLPP. This may have the unfortunate effect of locking the country into a tight bipolar ethnic polity with dire consequences for those who want to straddle and dilute the ethno-regional divide.

The second explanation is that the party may have calculated that it does not stand a chance of winning the 2012 elections given the development record of the current government and the power of incumbency. Its preference therefore is to unify its base, which was seriously fractured when Charles Margai failed to get the party ticket for the 2007 elections and decided to form a rival party, the People’s Movement for Democratic Change, and urged his supporters to vote for Ernest Koroma, the APC leader, in the runoff of the presidential election. The reported speech of one of the party elders, Sama Banya, to the delegates urging them to listen to the voices of the “people” massed outside of the voting centre is instructive in this regard. At the party’s Makeni convention in 2005, delegates ignored the voices of the “people” clamouring for Margai and paid a heavy price in the 2007 elections. A generous reading of the 2011 delegates’ view is that the real election for a presidential change of guard is 2017, when the APC will not enjoy the power of incumbency and its members are likely to fight over Koroma’s crown. The SLPP will then behave rationally and field a more electable candidate.

The third explanation is that the SLPP intends to play ugly by injecting uncontrollable violence in the electoral process, forcing a stalemate that would lead to a government of national unity. Some would argue that the ground work for this scenario has been crafted by the party’s refusal to recognize the authority of the head of the National Electoral Commission, Christiana Thorpe, who was first appointed to the job by the SLPP government of Tejan Kabbah. There are many in the party who believe that Solomon Berewa, the SLPP’s presidential candidate, should not have conceded defeat in 2007; and that the international community would have had no choice but to urge both parties to form a government of national unity as they did in Kenya. Indeed, the reason Tejan-Kabbah is unpopular today in the party is because of the pressure he exerted on Berewa to accept defeat. It is important to point out that after the Kenyan experience, and as events in Cote d’Ivoire have shown, the international community has become weary of governments of national unity.

However, the danger of increased electoral violence should not be minimized. During the 2007 elections, both parties used ex-combatants as security insurance, and individuals with previous links to military and rebel outfits, such as the National Provisional Ruling Council, the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, and the Revolutionary United Front, are members of both parties. The implications of having a presidential candidate that was part of a group that used violence to sack two governments and engaged in extra-judicial killing of 24 citizens should not be taken lightly.

What can be done? Here I offer three suggestions, two short-term and the other long-term. The first is the need for vigilance by the public, the international community and the political parties themselves. The SLPP as a party and Maada Bio as leader now have an enormous burden to prove their critics wrong. This assumes that the relations of the citizens murdered without trial will not make life difficult for Bio by pursuing him in the courts to account for the murders, especially if he travels overseas. So the SLPP has inflicted on Sierra Leone a political leader who is likely to encounter problems overseas and make it difficult to redeem the country’s image that has been associated with violence and horrendous crimes against humanity.

In his acceptance speech, Bio has already started the process of cleaning up his image as a violent man. A public apology for the crimes of the NPRC is also in order. But speeches are not enough. He needs to be seen to be controlling his supporters and eschewing violence in all its forms. There have been widespread and persistent reports about the unruly behaviour of his core supporters during the process leading to his victory at the conference. Even Sama Banya reported in his column in the Global Times on 26 July 2011 that “A gang of unruly young people two of who wore Maada Bio T-shirts were openly defiant outside the Party headquarters last Wednesday where they rained invectives at National Chairman Benjamin and the National Women’s Leader Isata Kabbah. The scene was absolutely disgusting”.

The SLPP has a large number of decent people who now have the herculean and patriotic task of holding their leader to account and disciplining him if the party is to regain its image as a party of decency and win support across the ethno-regional divide. The use of ex-combatants in the electoral process should also be discouraged, even outlawed. This applies to both the SLPP and the APC. And public debate on the need to end political violence needs to be sustained. It ought to be stressed that in a mineral rich economy, such as ours, elite conflicts to control rents and other spinoffs are likely to be rife and destabilizing. Our recent history suggests that it is very easy to sustain warfare and the livelihoods of combatants from mineral resources.

The second suggestion is for both parties to reassert their commitment towards inclusive parties and government. The immediate task of the SLPP in this regard is to ensure that it does not experience Northern flight as happened in 1964 when our first prime minister, Sir Milton Margai, died and power was transferred to his brother, Sir Albert Margai, instead of to John Karefa-Smart, a Northerner, who was more senior in the government. The public interest requires that the SLPP remains multi-ethnic and improves on the representation of Northerners and Westerners in the party hierarchy. The government of Ernest Koroma also needs to accelerate the recruitment of Southerners into the APC and the government. Part of the reason the SLPP has turned inwards and to its base is because of the perceived lopsidedness of government appointments. Northern hegemonists who want to grab all public posts need to be checked.

The third suggestion is long term, which involves changes in rules governing election of political representatives. It seems from the SLPP flag bearer election results that only 39.5% of the delegates wanted Bio to lead them. It is not clear what would have happened if last placed candidates were eliminated and their votes shared among the top candidates. Again, if 60.5% of delegates did not really want Bio, the outcome is a commentary on the SLPP's propensity to produce electoral rules that act against its interests.

The other time the party inflicted this problem upon itself was when it changed the voting rules from the list system of proportional representation to single-member, first-past-the-post constituency rules. If voting is ethnic, as it tends to be in Sierra Leone's elections, then it is difficult for the SLPP to win seats in the Western area even though it has about 30% of the votes in that region. This means that unless ethnicity is transcended, the SLPP will always be deprived of a majority in parliament even if it wins the presidency. The combined seats of the North and Western Area are much more than those of the South and East.

In terms of long term strategies, there are a number of rules that can be adopted, including primaries of the US type and the alternative vote that ranks candidates, both of which are likely to force candidates out of their ethnic cocoons in order to win elections; power alternation among the key ethno-regional clusters; and flexible rules on proportionality in the staffing of government jobs. Linking political parties to the aspirations of popular classes can also be a strong anti-dote to ethnicity- based politics, especially when underpinned by other rules, such as those above. When parties become rooted in popular aspirations, development and public service delivery are bound to take centre stage and the power of ethnic entrepreneurs across regions weakened. A public debate is needed on these issues. Sierra Leone needs to grow out of the prism of ethnicity-based parties and political violence.

Yusuf Bangura, 42C Chemin de Prélaz 1260 Nyon, Switzerland

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