Re-run likely in tight Sierra Leone election

Monday March 12 2018

Sierra Leone’s outgoing president, Mr Ernest

Sierra Leone’s outgoing president, Mr Ernest Bai Koroma. PHOTO | FILE 

By Ciugu Mwagiru

With last Wednesday’s general election in Sierra Leone finally over, there are questions about whether there will be a re-run between the two frontrunners in the presidential race.

In such an eventuality, it would be some time before the country can produce the latest new head of state on the continent following in the footsteps of Angola, Liberia and South Africa.

In the meantime, the new leaders in those states are struggling to deal with the challenges of charting new courses for their countries, even as Ethiopia pursues the quest for a new prime minister.

In Ethiopia, the issue is whether an Oromo PM will be chosen so as to partly meet long-standing expectations in a country dogged by major ethnic rifts.

Regarding Sierra Leone, the battle for the country’s presidency eventually narrowed down to two candidates, the ruling All Peoples’ Congress (APC) party’s Samura Kamara and the main opposition Sierra Leone Peoples Party’s (SLPP) Julius Maada Bio.

As a pointer to their dominance in Sierra Leone politics, the two top parties have alternately ruled the country since independence from Britain in 1961 and seem set to continue doing so after engaging in Titanic battles over the decades.

Sadly, though, the country is still among the poorest in the world, and the economy is in a dire state following an Ebola crisis and a commodity price slump that drove away foreign investors.

In the meantime, during the poll the ruling party candidate, a former central bank governor turned politician, was reportedly the anointed successor of incumbent president Ernest Bai Koroma.

Between 2009 and 2017, he was prominent in the country’s governance, having served as the Minister of Finance and Economic Development and later in the Foreign Affairs portfolio.

During the Wednesday poll, the trained economist – born on April 30, 1951 – was making his first shot at the presidency, having been nominated by the ruling party on October 2017 to lead its quest for a third straight term in office.

The opposition candidate, 53-year-old Mr Bio, served as a military head of state for about three months when he led the National Provisional Ruling Council military junta government that held sway in the country from January 16 to March 29 1996.

Evidently quite a character, he had played a role in an earlier coup in 1992, but his sojourn at the apex of power came after he had toppled the flamboyant captain Valentine Strasser, his erstwhile boss in the NPRC junta, on January 1996.

To his credit, Mr Bio handed over to the democratically elected leader Ahmed Tejan Kabbah of the SLPP after the 1996 presidential poll and later retired from the military to pursue further studies in the US.

Under the banner of the formidable opposition party, Mr Kabbah won two terms between 1996 and 2006, although his tenure was disrupted by a military takeover in 1997.

Mr Bio later returned from the US and challenged Mr Koroma during the last presidential election in 2012, still as the SLPP candidate, but he lost to the incumbent.

The recent presidential contest, then, was clearly one between two formidable frontrunners seeking to replace President Koroma, with the tight race between them already predicted by many observers.

Despite the heightened anxieties and episodes of violence surrounding the elections, the Ecowas observer mission described them as “largely peaceful, free and fair”.

While adding that the few shortcomings “did not diminish the transparency, fairness or credibility of the electoral process”, the regional body’s mission pointed out some challenges relating to such matters as the restriction of vehicular movement on election day.

As predicted by opposition leaders, the restriction is said to have frustrated some voters, even as the heavy presence of security forces at polling stations intimidated others.

Another incident involved police raiding an election collation centre of the main opposition party amid claims of election hacking.

That aside, the polls constituted a milestone in Sierra Leone’s recent history and covered broad areas of the country’s political landscape.

Apart from the presidential election, the country’s 3.7 million registered voters were also choosing new members of parliament as well as mayoral and local level officials.

While in many countries only over 50 per cent is required to win the first round, in Sierra Leone a presidential aspirant needs 55 per cent of the votes cast to win a first round victory.

Given the very tight competition in the presidential contest, the prospect of a re-run was a real one all along.