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Sierra Leone: A Changing Political Phenomenon

Karamoh Kabba, April 8, 2007

Map of Sierra Leone. (Source: C.I.A. World Factbook)

Take a snap look at the upcoming 2007 presidential election in Sierra Leone and it appears to be leaning toward the Sierra Leone Peoples' Party (S.L.P.P.). Although the All Peoples' Congress (A.P.C.) is reclaiming its political stature with alacrity, for now, the political scales seem to be tipping in favor of the S.L.P.P. … But this may change quickly if Charles Margai launches a new political party.

The above paragraph is an excerpt from an analysis I wrote on November 5, 2005. That was before Charles Francis Margai launched the now popular People's Movement for Democratic Change (P.M.D.C.).

The chief electoral commissioner, Christiana Thorpe, has just published the results of the recently completed voter registration process for the upcoming July 28 presidential and parliamentary elections in Sierra Leone. Thorpe's figures, for the most part, will play well in Sierra Leonean traditional voting habit by region if they do not abandon that paternalistic tradition.

The graph below, however, shows that the speculation that the elections were tipping toward the S.L.P.P. is changing quickly in accord with the conditional statement that " this may change quickly if Charles Margai launches a new political party." Indeed, Charles Margai launched his P.M.D.C., and as the graph indicates, the political "winds of change" is blowing in favor of the P.M.D.C.'s "positive change" political philosophy fiercer than any analyst could have predicted.

As a factor in the great political divide in Sierra Leone between the north and the south, the P.M.D.C. is most likely to change the traditional voting habit of the people of Sierra Leone for the first time since independence.

But the P.M.D.C. must take advantage of the political awareness that seems to be putting the final nails into the coffin of the parochial and hegemonic voting habit in that nation. The P.M.D.C. must have a clear message that it has come to cut through the regional and ethnic political sphere of influence in Sierra Leone. It must be a statement that makes clear the P.M.D.C. knows no region, tribe, or ethnicity in Sierra Leone.

Meanwhile, there are indicators that the P.M.D.C. has hurt the S.L.P.P. very badly in the southeast. This is especially true in the south where Margai hails from and practiced law for many years. To win the elections with the needed 55 percent and emerge as an inclusive, decisive, and unifying pluralist party with an equal mandate from the people of the south and the north, the P.M.D.C. must hurt the A.P.C. of the north by an equal magnitude like the one it inflicted on the S.L.P.P. of the south and some more in other swing areas. This would be a strange phenomenon in the body politic of that country, but it would also serve as an indicator that the people of Sierra Leone are now, indeed, very ready to run their country beyond regional, parochial, and ethnic lines.

Although we are likely about to witness an emerging new trend and a strange phenomenon with a P.M.D.C. victory, it cannot readily happen in the absence of a strong northerner and a Muslim to show a thoroughgoing readiness for an inclusive government under the P.M.D.C. Evidently, the other two main political parties are sensing this changing trend and are leaning toward having a northerner running mate for the S.L.P.P. and a southerner running mate for the A.P.C. But the P.M.D.C. being the new kid on the block has a better chance of taking advantage of this new phenomenon.

In this great north and south political divide of the past, Kono district and the Western area have always been the scrambling ground for the A.P.C. and the S.L.P.P., the two main actors then. It goes without saying that the Kono district does not quite fit into the southeast quarter of the great political divide theory as the other two eastern districts of Kenema and Kailahun. Kono is the most volatile voting block in the nation. In 1967, when the S.L.P.P. least expected it, the Kono people delivered that election to the APC, then the newcomer party.

If the P.M.D.C. must hurt the A.P.C and the S.L.P.P. in Kono as well, it must tailor its political strategies to many years of observable trends to induce into its campaign that thing that arouses the Kono people to a newcomer. There is a saying among Sierra Leoneans that the Kono people love strangers more than they love themselves. How else do we explain that many Kono people remain poor amid diamonds while many of their strangers come in poor and go out very rich diamond magnates? That strange voting behavior of the Kono people has even become worse in the absence of a strongman to lead them, as in the times of Tamba M'briwa and Abu Koroma. Kono is one for all; it will surely be an interesting political playground once more in the coming elections.

The S.L.P.P. presence in Freetown is ebbing away very fast. The estranged relationship was further ticked off by an ongoing disagreement between the A.P.C.'s Freetown city mayor and the S.L.P.P.-led government over how to run the city. The P.M.D.C.'s presence is surfacing even faster than the S.L.P.P.'s ebbing presence is washing off this coastal city.

One thing that is worth noting, whereas the P.M.D.C. has a presence in the north, the A.P.C.'s presence in the south is very challenging. This brings us back to the assertion that Kono does not fit well in the great political divide of Sierra Leone. The A.P.C. seems to maintain the strongest presence in the Kono district among the three main political parties so far. We know of the high shift in the population of the Kono district that is for the most part caused by migration from the north—the Temnes, Fullas, Mandingoes, Korankos, Limbas, and Yalunkas, who are mostly also Muslims. This could be the reason behind the voting pattern in the district, especially with the strong financial security of these immigrants. If so, does it mean then that a strong northerner and a Muslim running mate may tip the Kono people's political scale?

For better understanding, Thorpe's figures clearly reflect the analysis above: Eastern region registered voters, 633,438; Western area registered voters, 605,375; Northern region registered voters, 846,557; and Southern region registered voters, 536,943. It must be noted that winning all the votes in the southeast will not give any political party the needed 55 percent to win, which is 144,172,215 votes. But winning the entire northwest votes will meet that demand, and the A.P.C. is counting on that very highly to win. The S.L.P.P. seems to becoming the most endangered political party of the three.

Because the P.M.D.C. is hurting both the S.L.P.P. and the A.P.C. in their strongholds, 55 percent is most likely not going to be attainable by any of the political parties in the first rounds. In other words, the P.M.D.C. needs an aggressive strategy to penetrate the north as it has done in the south to go into the second rounds to win the elections. This is because the A.P.C. and the S.L.P.P. bear a strong abhorrence for each other, and once the P.M.D.C. makes it to the second rounds, the A.P.C. or the S.L.P.P. that fails to go to the second rounds would vote with the P.M.D.C.

But to achieve that, the P.M.D.C. must now study the voter registration figures and pour resources in the north and Kono district, and choose a strong northerner and a Muslim running mate, who will pull off the task of winning the hearts and minds of the people of the north and the Kono district. In this election, no political party seems to have a decisive stronghold.

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