Sierra Leone

Kabbah Stays On

On Feb. 13, the Sierra Leone parliament extended President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah’s term of office for six months, ending speculation that the president would form an interim government that would include other political parties.

The six-month extension came against the background of the National Electoral Commission’s refusal to hold elections due to lack of cash and poor security. In order to hold an election, the commission needs $24 million. If an election cannot be held, the constitution states that parliament is able to extend the president’s term for six months.

The reaction to the cancellation was rapid and heated.

“Nobody in his right frame of mind can agitate for elections now, especially since the consensus at the moment is to revert to constituency-type elections,” wrote I.B. Kargbo in Freetown’s conservative New Citizen (Feb. 15). “How can anybody campaign in a rebel-infested area?” Conservative Awoko agreed, noting, “If disarmament and rehabilitation had taken place, then this business of postponing the elections would not have arisen.”

But opposition groups were quick to claim that the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party government was using poor security as an excuse to cling to power. C. James Hughes wrote in the opposition paper Democrat (Feb. 19) that “what [the] government and parliament have done is to postpone anarchy.”

The mainstream press, however, has unanimously declared that there is no provision in Sierra Leone’s constitution for an interim arrangement. Even Omrie Golley, who heads the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF)’s political council (despite his continual denials of RUF membership) has joined the voices opposing an interim government. On March 3, Golley told the independent Concord Times that “an interim government is not good for [Sierra Leone],” much to the displeasure of the RUF, which has been arguing for a caretaker government.

Some observers cited the appointments of notorious RUF rebels Mike Lamin and Borbor Vandi to ministerial positions in 1999 as an argument for power-sharing. “If the government could bend the constitution in order to appease the RUF and share power with them,” wrote Richie Awoonor Gordon in the independent For di People (Feb. 13), “it might be interested in sharing power with the opposition.”

Most worrying to many political observers is that opponents of the extension have been dubbed “obstructionists” and “opportunists.” In parliament, some MPs went as far as to brand advocates of the interim government “coupists.”

Under the current constitutional provision, Kabbah could prolong his term of office every six months on the grounds of poor election security. But in so doing, he might alienate the majority of Sierra Leoneans, who suspect him of playing dirty politics with the war.

The failure to hold a free election would also cost Sierra Leone much-needed financial support from the donor community. As the conservative New Citizen wrote (Feb. 12), “We all know that elections must be held at some stage to give credibility to this country’s democratic practice.”