OPINION: Sierra Leone elections amidst a polarized nation

By Faith Berewa

With Sierra Leoneans going to the polls, all eyes are on the West African Coastal Nation as months of campaigning by the political parties culminate in elections to elect a President and members of parliament. The elections pitch incumbent, President Julius Maada Bio of the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party, SLPP against main opposition leader Samura Kamara of the All Peoples Congress, APC. Both men squared off in 2018 with Mr. Maada Bio holding off the challenge. Mr. Bio is no stranger at occupying the highest office in the land. He was a key member of the military Junta in 1992, and took over power after a palace coup in 1996 and endeared himself to Sierra Leoneans by conducting the elections that brought in Ahmed Tejan Kabba as President just 3 months in power as military Head of State.

This election will be the fifth conducted in the country since the end of a decade’s long brutal civil war in 2002 that left about 70,000 people dead, many maimed and displaced. Whoever wins the race faces daunting challenges. While Sierra Leone is still perceived as a post-conflict recovery nation, I am of the opinion that 20 years after the end of the civil war, the beautiful West Coast nation should have been able to emerge from the debris of that brutal war with a sense of destiny to flourish as a people shepherded by responsible leadership.

Like some other Third World countries, Sierra Leone is still manifesting its post-conflict attributes of high youth unemployment, corruption and weak governance which have been exacerbated by the Ebola crisis of 2014, the Covid-19 pandemic, and what is considered as 10 years of unprecedented economic mismanagement, nepotism, and corruption by the Ernest Bai Koroma’s government, the regime that preceded Maada Bio’s government. Evidently President Maada Bio has tried to change the narrative with quite a number of landmark initiatives and programmes, notably the free quality education which is a ‘radical inclusion policy’ which seeks to provide free education for all, including pregnant girls and disabled children, access to electricity for district headquarter towns aimed at kick starting the economy.

However, many expected President Maada Bio to have anchored most of his lofty initiatives and programmes on a deliberate nation building agenda aimed at uniting Sierra Leoneans and fostering cohesion, especially breaking the Mende-Temne dichotomy that has ripped the country apart politically for decades.

Now Sierra Leoneans go to the polls deeply polarized along regional and tribal lines between the same old political foes – the Mendes who are predominantly from the Southern and Eastern provinces, and the Temnes who are predominant from the Northern Province. The main opposition APC has the Northern Province and the Temnes as their stronghold with a traditional strong support base in the Western Area and the Capital Freetown, which over the decades has produced the Freetown City Mayor for the APC. The ruling party’s SLPP has its strongholds among the Mendes in the Southern and Eastern Provinces, with claims of serious inroads in the some part of the Northern Province, which can only be confirmed with the results of the June 24, 2023 elections.

This election is seen by many pundits as too close to call because more than ever before Sierra Leone is deeply divided politically along regional and tribal lines, which has been exacerbated by what the opposition APC has called highhandedness, human right abuses, economic hardship, rising cost of living and general poverty in the land. The opposition accuses incumbent President Maada Bio of so many issues around him and his wife, his handling of the nation’s economy and his affinity with foreign travels in the guise of attracting foreign investments. But a major challenge for the APC is the age of its candidate Dr. Samura Kamara who is now is his 70s. His long involvement with public service and the corrupt practices of the Bai Koroma regime do not paint a good picture of a credible leader. He is seen as part of a generation that has benefited so much from government, paying themselves too much for too little they are doing for the masses.

However, incumbent president Maada Bio too has not been a saint in his 5 year tenure. There are allegations of corruption and abuse of office against him, the First Lady and other some government officials. Sierra Leoneans have had their own share of the pains and economic hardship in the wake of recent global economic crisis, the Russian war in Ukraine and the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. The recent World Bank report of 2022 states that the country’s economic development has been constrained by concurrent domestic and external shocks, exacerbating existing macro – fiscal vulnerabilities.

This election is actually a referendum on the president and his government. Whether he and his government will allow the electoral umpire to conduct a credible election is now dependent on how the entire conduct of the election turns out.

However, beyond the outcome of these elections, Sierra Leone is at a crossroad, a moment of destiny is upon that tiny nation of 8 million people. The regional and tribal division between the Mendes and the Temnes is now dangerously entrenched. These two main tribes have a sense of entitlement to political power that has divided the country with devastating consequences predating the present political actors, a generational problem that has bedeviled and undone the development of Sierra Leone as a nation.

Whatever the outcome of this election, the next president must be able and willing to unite Sierra Leoneans and govern as the true leader and president of all Sierra Leoneans.

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