A possible huge protest awaits Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Bio in New York this week, in his maiden attendance of the UN General Assembly as head of state.
The demonstration is being organised by supporters of the main opposition All Peoples Congress (APC), who say they were defending democracy, which was under threat by the new administration.
Mr Bio’s election did not only raise the bar in Sierra Leone’s democratisation journey, but also rekindled hope among many citizens who had grown fed-up with some of the policies of the APC administration, which dominated politics for the past 10 years.
When APC, under Ernest Bai Koroma, took over from the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) in 2007, it was the first time in the country’s history for a peaceful transfer of power from one civilian leader to another.
During his first five-year term, President Koroma attracted praises for major reforms, including the fight against graft. He was also credited for improving the infrastructure, which was almost entirely destroyed during the civil war.
But things began taking a downward trend during his second term, following his re-election in 2012. By the time President Koroma left office, civil liberty had suffered greatly. Corruption had become rampant, and a number of his actions raised questions about his commitment to the rule of law. A notable example was his sacking of his vice-president, which prompted a constitutional crisis.
Bio, a former military man, won the presidency at his second attempt. As an opposition candidate, he promised a new path, notably to instil discipline in governance and fight graft. He also spoke against nepotism, which was deepening the ethnic divisions.
But the last five months of the new administration have left many wondering about the ‘New Direction’. The new president wasted no time to institute measures towards his goals. And there have been signs of positive outcome.
Between April and September, the government says its budget has been funded 100 per cent on locally generated resources. That has been possible only because of a robust revenue generation strategy, backed by prudent spending.
Some of those measures have, however, placed the new government on the path it had promised to end – nepotism and regionalism. Hundreds of public officials have been dismissed in the name of cleansing the civil service and saving the public purse.
In an apparent desperation to replace officials in key positions with his allies, President Bio has been accused of disregarding the law. Two good illustrations were the replacement of the head of the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) and the Central
Bank Governor, offices crucial in determining his success. Both offices have security of tenue, yet the officials were given marching orders regardless.
In an attempt to right the wrongs created by alleged nepotistic appointments, many of the new appointees have come from the southeast, SLPP’s support base. Given Sierra Leone’s geopolitical divide, that means one ethnic group looks more favoured than the others.
There was still uncertainty about the fate of parliament amidst a threat of opposition boycott over a planned commission of enquiry. This new parliament was unique in that for the first time, it is dominated by the opposition. APC controls 68 seats against SLPP’s 49. There were 12 other seats occupied by two smaller opposition parties and three Independent seats.
Even though no party holds an absolute majority, APC’s votes were enough to prevent a smooth governance for SLPP. Perhaps that is why the ruling party appears bent on violating every rule to get its way, as was witnessed in the controversial election of the Speaker of the House and the parliamentary approval of the ACC boss. Dr Abass Bundu was practically imposed on the lawmakers as Speaker. During his election, the SLPP government made another history with the storming of of parliament by armed police officers, who ejected opposition MPs who had stood their grounds in questioning the process.
Like the case of the approval of the ACC head, that came and passed.
But what does not seem to pass yet is the constitutional instrument that should pave the way for the creation of the commission of enquiry. APC accused SLPP of violating the parliamentary Standing Order in a bid to prevent any debate on the bill. While a debate cannot prevent the constitution of the commission, analysts say it can shine the spot on the many anomalies that characterise the Government Transition Team (GTT) report.
GTT was a presidential committee to look into the activities of the former government. Its findings, which exposed massive alleged corruption in the Koroma administration, informed the formation of the enquiry commission. APC says the committee members deliberately targeted people they wanted and left out others with well-known dark past.
And again, there were compelling proofs for that claim. The current Trade minister, Mr Peter Bayuku Conteh, served as Tourism minister under the Koroma administration until he was sacked amidst corruption allegation. An even more controversial figure is Mr Musaa Tarawallie. He served in the Koroma government for many years, holding key offices that included Lands and the Environment ministry.
Mr Tarawallie was also sacked amidst allegations of corruption, and later formed his own political party under whose ticket he ran for the presidency. He was the first to back opposition candidate Bio after the first round of voting.
While Mr Tarawallie has not been named to any formal state position, his level of interaction with the government has left many, even within the ruling party itself, uncomfortable.
In a very recent incident, Mr Tarawallie turned up as a delegate at the China-Africa Summit in Beijing. The government was forced to deny that he was on the official state delegates' list. Still, some wonder how Mr Tarawallie managed to travel to China in the first place, despite a blanket ban on former government officials.
Another discrepancy the Bio administration has not been able to explain is how those two men managed to not make it to the GTT report.
The ever questioning media had its first awakening lesson last week when the Speaker of Parliament ordered a leading privately owned TV station to retract a report deemed as critical of the House. Mr Bundu threatened unspecified action against AYV.
And that came as a slap in the face of media rights campaigners, who were hoping for a fulfilment of President Bio’s election promises of repealing the criminal libel law.
It followed an announcement by the police in July, warning the public against publicly criticising the government’s policies. Since then, the police have demonstrated the seriousness in their threat with the arrest of a civil society activist, Mr Edmund Abu, for attempting to stage a protest over harsh economic conditions.
The firebrand opposition leader, Mr Mohamed Kamaraimba Mansaray, was also detained for criticising the government.
The New York demonstrations were being organised against the backdrop of an international campaign spearheaded by a lone British MP. Mr Neil Coyle, a member of the Labour Party, has mounted an online petition titled: ‘the campaign to uphold human rights and the constitution in Sierra Leone'.
A delegation from the British Parliament last week visited Freetown and held a meeting with President Bio. The headlines of reports from the meeting were hard to miss.
"British Parliamentarians commend President Bio on initial steps," screamed one.
"Not all British MPs take information from social media," the second one said, quoting one of the visiting MPs.
All what the public knows about the highly publicised meeting is what the State House Communications people released and the reports on the pro-government outlets that cover the presidency. So, it was not clear how the issue of Mr Coyle’s campaign came up for discussion at the meeting. But the fact that it did, shows that it was a concern for someone.
President Bio was quoted saying he was determined to pursue his reforms and anti-graft crusade, and he assured that whatever he did, would be in line with the law.
The relations between the new government and its international partners, particularly UK and US, so far remain cordial. But the next few months will be crucial in determining the direction of the relationship. That was so especially in light of China’s domineering influence on the West African country.
President Bio earlier this month made his maiden visit to China. That came following rumours of shaky relationship between the two governments, given China’s alleged interference in the Sierra Leonean election.
There were still crucial decisions to be made about some controversial Chinese investments, notably the toll road and the new airport projects. As opposition, SLPP criticised the terms of the agreement for the –Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) arrangement on the toll road, which was costing the taxpayer over $160 million.
An even more controversial deal is the planned new airport. The former APC government disregarded all opposition from the West, particularly the IMF, against that project. The Bio government has already said it would review it. But that was before the president’s recent trip to China, which appears to have changed the tone of the government.
A crucial meeting was slated between the Sierra Leone’s Finance minister and the head of the IMF this week in London. On the agenda is the outstanding issue of a suspended loan to the government. Some of those Chinese projects were also likely to feature.