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Can a unique political coalition win elections in Sierra Leone?

July 31, 2017 By Alusine Sesay

I am inspired to be part of the debate around whether a unique political coalition can win the March 2018 multitier elections in Sierra Leone. I deliberately used the word ‘unique’ because we have had several political coalitions and the terminology is not a peculiar one in the political landscape of the country. There have been several coalitions dated back from 1967 when the then All Peoples Congress (APC) under the leadership of Dr. Siaka Stevens defeated the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP). Of course, the aftermath of the said election is boldly written in history and it gave birth to the first military coup in Sierra Leone headed by Brigadier David Lanasana.The tussle continued with coup after coup until in 1968 when Siaka Stevens finally assumed the office of Prime Minister.

Although the outcome of the elections was largely determined by an utter opposition to a one party system of government proposed by Albert Margai, the APC won because some independent candidates, mainly from the SLPP, pinched tent with Siaka Stevens. They never formed a coalition outside the old political establishment-the SLPP and APC. Interestingly though, Siaka Stevens who had vehemently opposed to one party system of government, adopted it and made use of it to the fullest, bringing onboard people from all nook and cranny of the country. Despite proponents of a one party system believe that the system could enhance national unity and development, the one party rule under the leadership of President Siaka Steven was the contrary.

The Siaka Stevens’ APC one party rule, which was later inherited by Joseph Saidu Momoh, was characterised with massive corruption, mismanagement, bad governance and all the odds one could imagine. The spate of bad governance under the one party rule nurtured discontent among citizens, thus creating room for the eleven years rebel war that ravaged the entire country until 2002 when it was declared over. The APC rule was overthrown by some young military officers of the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) headed by Captain Valentine Strasser. Fortunately, the NPRC ushered in civilian rule in 1996 when the country conducted it first general elections after one party rule.

Thirteen (13) political parties participated in the said elections which brought the SLPP to power after 29 years in opposition. Although thirteen political parties participated in the process, the election was hotly contested between the Tejan Kabbah SLPP and the Kerefa Smart United National People’s Party (UNPP), but late Alhaji Ahmed Tejan Kabbah finally defeated his opponent. While the APC was so unpopular then, securing only 5.14% in the elections, the Thaimu Bangura Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which secured third position in the elections, pinched tent with the SLPP in the run-off and gave Tejan Kabbah the upper hand to win the Presidential election with 59.50%. As a result, Thaimu Bangura was rewarded with a ministerial position by President Kabbah. He was the Minister of Finance and later Minister of Works until his demise in 1998.

There came again the 2002 elections. This time round, late President Kabbah had gained enormous popularity, while the APC was still struggling to gain foothold in the political landscape of the country. While the SLPP maintained its south eastern stronghold, the APC absolutely had little grip over the north west, with the PDP serving as a barrier- the only formidable party that wielded enormous  political support in the north West. Prior to the 2002 elections, Osman Kamara, who headed the party after the death of Thaimu Bangura, was appointed Minister of Trade and Industry. As a way of pay back, Kamara surrendered the PDP’s presidential vote to the SLPP, asking all his supporters and party loyalists to vote Tejan Kabbah  for president. It was a done deal! And the SLPP won the elections with a historic 70.1%, while the APC headed by Ernest Bai Koroma secured 22.4%. Sadly though; Osman Kamara was sacked immediately after the 2002 elections with his life ending in misery.

President Kabbah’s term of office came to an end in 2007 and ushered in one of Sierra Leone’s most decisive transitional elections. The SLPP held its national delegates’ conference in Makeni in 2005, in which former Vice President Solomon Berewa emerged as flagbearer to contest the 2007 presidential elections. The outcome of the said convention left the SLPP with a big scare that is yet to be erased. The party was in a total disarray and  Charles Francis Margai, who was undoubtedly the most popular choice among grass root supporters of the party formed his own political party-the Peoples Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC). The PMDC attracted a huge chunk of support in the south east and largely divided loyalty in the SLPP traditional strongholds.

Charles Margai was prepared and determined to go into all out political warfare with the SLPP to prove his haters wrong. Yes, he succeeded in bringing his paternal SLPP to its knees in the 2007 polls. In the first round of the 2007 elections, the PMDC secured a third place with 13.89%, the SLPP secured second place with 38.28%, while the APC secured a first place with 44.34%. As per constitutional provision, none of the political parties secured the required percentage to be declared winner, hence the need for a run-off.

That was an opportunity for Charles Margai to take his pound of flesh. He surrendered his support to the APC in the run-off and campaigned round the clock to see the SLPP down. He succeeded and the Ernest Bai Koroma led APC defeated the SLPP, securing 54.62%. Like Osman Kamara of PDP, the marriage between Margai and President Koroma became sour, albeit some of his key men in the PMDC were given ministerial positions.

The relationship became more bitter prior to the 2012 elections. But the said election, like the 2002 polls in which Tejan Kabbah won with a historic percentage, also happened to be a smooth sale for the APC as incumbent President Koroma won without a run-off, securing 58.7 while the Julius Maada Bio’s SLPP secured 37.4%.

Having served for two consecutive terms, President Koroma is expected to hand over power to whosoever emerges as winner in the 2018 polls. Again, like the 2002 elections, the 2018 polls would be a decisive one. The election itself would be a litmus test for the country’s democratic credentials. It would also determine the stability of the country-both politically and economically.

We have seen the emergence of a unique political coalition that is determine to get rid of the old establishment-the APC and SLPP. But the question that comes to mind is that, can a political coalition succeed in winning the 2018 polls without merging with any of the old establishment? Many would base their arguments on the outcome of elections in The Gambia and other countries where opposition coalitions have won elections. But the case might however be different in Sierra Leone. In The Gambia, the coalition succeeded because people voted against a 22 –year dictatorship championed by former President Yahya Jammeh. They were tired of the system, hence formed a united force to get rid of the Jammeh regime.

Interestingly, Dr.Kandeh Yumkella, who recently suspended his bid for the flagbearer position of the SLPP, is yet to be clear as to whether he would either return to the party or continue with his ‘grand coalition of progressives’. Also, Mohamed Kamarainba Mansaray of the Alliance Democratic Party (ADP) has a state matter hanging over his head and the possibility for him to contest the 2018 poll is still in doubt. Although it would largely be looked at as a politically correct statement, Kamarainba has times without number, vowed that he would not merge with any of the old establishments. He has undoubtedly gained the hearts and minds of first time voters, but majority of his followers are supporters of the APC and could do anything at any time. It is possible that they could desert him the time he would need them most.

Yumkella on the other hand is optimistic that he could effect change with his grand coalition of progressives. Although he might standout in other areas like in the field of academia and diplomacy, but his political pedigree in Sierra Leone is still questionable. In the first place, he has never voted for anybody and that would seriously militate against him, should he vie under any umbrella order than the SLPP. Also, he is from a minority tribe-the Susus, who do not even constitute a significant proportion of the country’s voter population. Dr.Yumkella is yet to make inroads into the SLPP stronghold in the south east, because the people have learnt their lessons from Charles Margai and would not want such to repeat again. They are fully behind Julius Maada Bio, who they describe as their own. In his home district of Kambia, he is yet to create any significant impact to defeat the APC, because he could not contest politicians like Alimamy P.Koroma, among others.

Therefore, I am of the strong view that no coalition would succeed in winning the 2018 election without a merger with one of the old establishments-the APC or  SLPP.They are the only political parties with strongholds and traditional voters. Unlike in other countries where people vote on issues, in the case of Sierra Leone, some people would vote even if there is no food on their table. The country has gone through hard times under the two old establishments, but sadly though, people are still blind to see reasons and make the necessary change. I have never been a pessimist, but I hope to see that happens in Sierra Leone.