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President Koroma’s planned tenure elongation: Lessons from the Past

By Abu-bakarr Sheriff

The 53rd Independence anniversary celebrations could not have come at the right time for those calling for an extended term for President Ernest Bai Koroma. Less than two years into his second and final presidential term, courtesy of section 46(1) of the country’s constitution, apologists of the ruling party have begun chorusing “After U Na U’, a dress rehearsal for a full campaign frenzy calling on the president to extend his tenure, albeit by a canny constitutional means – the review and amendment of the 1991 constitution, which stipulates a definite term limit.

This latest undemocratic tactics was first mumbled by Leonard Balogun Koroma, Minister of Transportation, before he was compensated with a ministerial post by the president. Next in line is Robin Falay, a political maverick in search of relevance and survival, who was defeated in the 2012 parliamentary elections, shortly after he left the SLPP, the party that thrust him into the national political space immediately he returned from his prodigal journey in the United Kingdom.

The characteristics of both men are unsurprisingly similar: both had spent time abroad, came back to join politics, with a penchant for recognition, no matter how they get one.

Enough with those two for now. Back to the vociferous shouts for an extension of term for our president. I have listened to the early debates and can’t help but ask: Have Sierra Leoneans forgotten so soon?

I ask this because just 12 years ago, the country was a failed state, to quote President Koroma during his recent Independence speech. What the president failed to elucidate on is the antecedent of our journey to being a failed state, and how we toiled with blood and iron to bring the country back to acclaim.

Sierra Leone had so much promise in 1961 when the British granted us Independence: schools, public schools, were highly functional, roads were tarred, hospitals were kept clean and full of essential drugs, electricity was regular, other essential services were working. The press was vibrant and independent; the citizenry were happy, enlightened and progressive, etc. In short the country was a model of a stable parliamentary democracy, epitomized by the leadership of Sir Milton Margai.

But our tragedy as a nation was he died sooner than we would have expected. His brother Sir Albert Maigai succeeded him and attempted to impose a one-party regime, but had to contend with a robust opposition by a vibrant press and a determined intelligentsia. To his credit though, he allowed the democratic process to take its course.

Then came Siaka Stevens, who torpedoed the democratic ship Sierra Leone was sailing, and set into motion a period of dictatorship, characterized by appeasement, graft, threats, violence, and killings.

He would later circumvent his party’s constitution to anoint Joseph Saidu Momoh, a military man with less political astuteness, unlike Stevens, as leader of the APC and putative head of state. He was perhaps unfairly blamed for the mess his predecessor had left, as the current crop of APC are quick to dismiss the Momoh era as an aberration.

The question which continues to preoccupy me though is, how was Stevens able to emasculate the formidable opposition – the press, university, public – against one-party dictatorship, few years after he and the APC campaigned against a similar move by Sir Albert?

Invariably, through persuasion, bullying, co-optation of opposition members, judges, teachers/lecturers, and being at the helm of a formidable system which rewarded brawn instead of brain, espoused materialism over education and skills.

That strategy worked well, as he was able to control the ‘lumpen youth’ and had a stranglehold on every facet of government. Emboldened, he changed the constitution, not once, but twice, by way of rigged referenda, with violence and intimidation being a key part of his tactics.

Evil begets evils, so the result was a civil war which was fought for eleven years, with its hallmark being violence and destruction. But for the resilience, determination and patriotism of our war time president, we will still be wallowing in that cycle of violence.

Fast forward to 2007. Kabbah had served his two terms as the constitution mandates and was in a hurry to quit the stage, a persona of a true democrat and statesman. He allowed the process to be free, fair and transparent, even incurring the wrath of his party members who felt he kept too aloof during the fierce battle to retain power.

That is mark of a true statesman, they put country before self, irrespective of what sycophants and flatterers say. Accordingly, Kabbah rejected any talk about a third term, which was within his reach as he had pulled more than 70% of votes in 2002, making him the most popular president in the recent history of the country!

It makes for even remarkable reading that the late former president had no shortage of praise singers who urged him to stay on and continue his rebuilding process, but he respected the mandate of the people and the constitution he had sworn to.

So, gracefully he went, and on came our current president, perhaps the greatest beneficiary of that respect for democratic values, and by extension his party members, many of whom were either languishing abroad or living on the very last loot of the Stevens and Momoh era respectively.

Therefore, to see and hear these supporters and members calling for another term for the president is not only disingenuous, but disrespectful to the electorate. Remember, the campaign platform in 2012 was to give President Koroma another term to complete his work, which he got. No doubt he has embarked on, and still is going commendable strides to move the country forward. But, he should not continue beyond his mandate, under any guise of a constitutional amendment, not withstanding his great efforts.

And the reasons are simple. The state and government exist in perpetuity. So what is done now by the state or government under any form or style is just a continuation from the previous, as leaders or servants of the state come and go.

In that regard, to serve two terms, as stipulated by the 1991 constitution, should be enough, as continuing under a new constitution, in the guise of a new mandate, only demonstrates a crude, undemocratic way of retaining power beyond one’s mandate.

That is what Kenya sought to prevent in their new constitution, by barring President Moi Kibaki from coming back under any guise, after serving two terms. Accordingly, under the Sixth Schedule, “National Government”, 12(3): “A person who was elected President before the effective date [the constitution came into force] is not eligible to stand for election as President under this Constitution.” [P. 184]. By expressly stating the above in our new constitution, as Kenya has done, any diabolical plans for two more terms under the new constitution, in reliance of a faulty section (178(2) in the 1991 constitution, which was added so as to ensure late President Momoh started on a clean slate in 1992, will put to rest this third term nonsense.

But the question is, why do you need one man to continue heading a party until God knows when? Is it that that party, despite public pronouncements, is to all intents and purposes undemocratic and bereft of strong, clean candidates? Or is that party members are afraid that without the current president the ‘neutral’ electorate would reject them?

The fact is that no one man can rule indefinitely! Siaka Stevens tried it and lasted for seventeen years; Mobutu attempted it and was disgracefully ousted. So too other dictators around the world. And the so-called people urged them on, although when the day of reckoning came, it was the self same citizens who said enough was enough!

I hope our current leaders will learn those harsh lessons from the past, and commit to memory the words of O.J. Simpson: ‘Fame is a vapour; popularity an accident. Those who adore you today will curse you tomorrow. The only thing which endures is your character’.

A word for the wise….