Sierra Leone reaches a turning point: Will it turn?

Tuesday March 13 2018

Sierra Leone election official counts votes at a polling station in Freetown on March 7, 2018.

Sierra Leone election official counts votes at a polling station in Freetown on March 7, 2018, following voting in the country's general elections. AFP PHOTO | ISSOUF SANOGO 

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In Sierra Leone, a post-conflict country devastated by the Ebola virus from 2014 to 2016, a sharply contested presidential election was held on March 7.

Last year President Ernest Bai Koroma – who is ineligible for a third term — arm-twisted the ruling party, the All People’s Congress, APC, to nominate Samura Kamara, the foreign minister as the party’s presidential candidate over vice president Samuel Sam-Sumana.

Mr Sam-Sumana, whose sacking was illegal according to the Ecowas Court, is the candidate of the Coalition for Change, a new party.

The form-book would say that the battle is between Samura and Brig-Gen Julius Maada Bio, former military leader and candidate of the Sierra Leone People’s Party, SLPP, the main opposition party.

However, politics in Sierra Leone has changed. The SLPP is in decline and the APC is more worried by Dr Kandeh Yumkella, the urbane, technocratic candidate of the National Grand Coalition (NGC), a breakaway faction of SLPP.

Mr Yumkella is a former United Nations under-secretary-general and a two-term former director-general of the UNIDO. Like Sirleaf Johnson next door in Liberia, Dr Yumkella has formidable diplomatic skills and connections. The NGC is energetic and bristles with ideas and technocrats.

Mr Yumkella’s running mate is Andrew Keillie, a mechanical engineer. The chairman is Dr Dennis Bright, a former cabinet minister with a PhD in French.

The APC had filed a suit to knock out Dr Yumkella on dual citizenship grounds. It backfired. Should the Supreme Court have barred Dr Yumkella, a disgusted public might have voted for the opposition in sympathy. Nor does APC’s own practice bear scrutiny. Nearly 50 of its MPs in the just dissolved parliament had dual citizenship.

The technical issue was whether Yumkella — as with Miguna Miguna in Kenya — lost his citizenship on becoming an American citizen. It seems not. America allows its citizens to become foreign nationals without losing US citizenship and does not require foreigners to renounce their old nationality when they naturalise as Americans.

The opposition’s best strategy is to force a run-off. A candidate can only win outright if he gets at least 55 per cent of the vote. Bar rigging, none of the top candidates is likely to win in the first round. In the run-off, the winner needs 50 per cent plus one, meaning that a united opposition can unseat the APC in the second round.

Public confidence in the National Electoral Commission is reasonably high. But the country has a youthful population: 60.1 per cent are below 25 and many of those who are of working age are jobless, an easy group to draft into violence.

The Sierra Leone police are not seen as neutral but the country has had a peaceful transition before. In 2007 Ahmad Tejan Kabbah lost the election and still handed over, peacefully, to Ernest Bai Koroma. The question is whether Sierra Leone has left its violent past behind. Well-wishers hope that it has.

Early results released on Sunday showed the opposition SLPP candidate Mr Bio in the lead with 43.4 per cent of the vote to 42.6 per cent for Mr Kamara.