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The Sad State of Sierra Leone’s Political Parties

February 12, 2015 By Abu-Bakarr Sheriff

On paper Sierra Leone has ten political parties, but in reality only two are functional – the ruling All Peoples Congress (APC) and the opposition Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP). Both parties have survived many years of political struggle in a country still trying to find its feet as a viable liberal democracy, where parties and their ideology/platform help engineer vibrant policy alternatives in the polity.

The cliché that political parties exist to gain “power”, “authority” and entrance legitimacy, if you like, holds true in Sierra Leone, but perhaps even more so, as the plethora of political parties become more visible and audible few months to elections, with the two parties aforesaid being an exception.

What perhaps is baffling is that two parties out of the purported ten parties are active during the lull after or preceding political electioneering period. In the 2012 elections for instance, the following parties added to the cacophony of canvassing for seats: Grand Alliance Party, Peace and Liberation Party, People’s Democratic Party, People’s Movement for Democratic Change, Revolutionary United Front Party, United National People’s Party, Young People’s Party, National Alliance Democratic Party, and of course the APC and SLPP.

No wager, but only the last two had any realistic chance of winning, and did win seats in Parliament and Local Councils. The others, including the People’s Movement for Democratic Change, which scored major gains in the 2007 elections thus ushering in a seismic shift particularly in the south-east, were mere pretenders. Even the garrulous Mohamed Bangura and his United Democratic Movement failed to muster a single seat in any of the nineteen Councils! Forget about him throwing his weight behind the incumbent president at the last minute, despite the printing of ballot papers already, he would still have performed dismally.

Fast forward to 2015, all eight political parties have been deafeningly mute over salient national issues, save for spasmodic forays into issues of public interest by the United Democratic Movement leader, albeit puffing hot and cold without achieving any tangible goal.

That credible and functional political parties should champion the views of the masses is an understatement. Even in opposition they should match government toe-to-toe, critiquing where necessary, and proffering policy alternatives to government policies. In viable democracies, political parties are called “a government in waiting”.

But how many of our so-called political parties can pass the test of vibrant, sober headed and credible political alternative? Even the SLPP, which has almost a third of the 112 seats in Parliament and councillors and chairmen/mayors of Councils, has not fared satisfactorily well in that regard. Indeed the opposition in Parliament has been pliable at best and on fewer occasions, such as the recent debate on the presidential speech in Parliament in December 2014, huffed and puffed. Sound and fury, signifying nothing!

Perhaps it is as a result of such opposition abandonment of its core duty and responsibility that the Political Parties Registration Commission (PPRC) has informed parties it would not be business as usual. Headed by retired Judge Emeric Maitland Tolla-Thompson, the commission has stated its intention of serving as a fair and responsible “referee” in accordance with statutory provisions.

To begin with, the PPRC has vowed to conduct on the spot visits to party offices across the country. It is no secret that many of these parties exist either only in name, or maintain offices only in Freetown, the capital. Some do not even have offices; instead homes of executives serve as party offices.

Because our electoral system is preponderantly skewed in favour of organized parties, such as it does not allow for independent presidential candidates, for example, it is but prudent that we have strong, credible parties. Number does not matter, what is key is substance and character.

A good many mushroom parties are anything but a club of likeminded men and women. Many, if not all, build their very existence around the clout of a leader, usually the founding father. Once that cult-hero fades into political oblivion or dies, the party nosedives into obscurity or better still a state of political comatose.

The above is true of the People’s Democratic Party, United National People’s Party and People’s Movement for Democratic Change. These parties showed great signs of undoing the duopoly of the two ancient parties in the country, only to stagger and relapse into oblivion following the death of their leaders, as is the case with the first two, or with respect to the latter, the political fall from grace of its pioneering leader.

As for the Revolutionary United Front Party, even if their nihilistic leader Foday Sankoh had not died, it would still have struggled to stand on its feet in the political world of suave and persuasion because their very existence was borne out of an inordinate belief in violence as a means to an end. It is no wonder that the likes of Eldred Collins, whose very stature personifies the state of affairs in the decaying party, has been ambushed by series of attempts to impeach him.

Arguably, the most serious challenge to our political parties is financial transparency and accountability. Even the bigger parties are not exempt, but the cancer is even serious within the moribund smaller parties. While dispute over the misappropriation of monies meant for the day-to-day administration of the parties is commonplace, the fact that most of those in hegemony at these parties are broke, inevitably explains the state of financial mess.

Ask many of these parties for an audited financial statement, they would not produce one. Enquire into how they expended monies disbursed by President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria, they would prevaricate. In fact the Jonathan largesse did more harm than good to most of these parties, with the PDP and RUFP taking the matter to the PPRC for arbitration.

In all of these, what is clear is that some smart buffoons are taking advantage of our quest for democratic plurality to unscrupulously make money out of the enterprise of forming political parties. The Electoral Commission doles out money to parties to help in their campaign, while funds could also be sourced from several quarters by parties during peak election season.

But whether these funds come through the right channel or are being spent for the right purpose is the unanswered question. The SLPP hierarchy has been split on the use of campaign funds during the 2012 elections, while some UDM executives last year questioned their leader, Mohamed Bangura, who they accused of imposing his wife as treasurer, of not accounting for monies collected on their behalf during the immediate past elections. The usually talkative Bangura denied the allegations, but not with the gusto and knack of producing evidence to the contrary.

Going forward, what the PPRC should do, over and above refereeing intra-party palaver, is to enforce the law without fear or favour by ensuring these parties serve the interest of the polity and not individuals, as they justify their existence by representing the masses. A thorough audit should be done on all ten political parties to ascertain their continued existence, and to probe their financial compliance in accordance with the PPRC Act, the 1991 Constitution and Anti-Corruption laws.

In Nigeria, for instance, parties are deregistered if they fail to win a seat in the House of Representatives, Senate or Local Government Areas, thus making them ineligible for grants by the Independent National Electoral Commission, non-governmental or governmental agencies, or supranational organizations.

Not sure we should apply same here, but the PPRC ought to find an innovative way of ensuring parties are active and viable – including during non-elections years – and blacklist those who seem to come alive just when elections are around the corner, or some money has been disbursed to parties, including millions for a so-called Ebola monitoring.

In sum, if we are to remedy the sad state of affairs of political parties in our fledgling democracy, serious efforts should be done by the PPRC, as the statutory body mandated to register parties, and the National Elections Commission, to either bring errant parties in line or deregister them.

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