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The Power Game in Freetown

With this year’s election pitching Bio and Kamara against each other again, it was always going to be a grudge match.

By Olusegun Adeniyi 

The Lungi International Airport in Sierra Leone is constructed across an estuary, so most passengers access the capital city of Freetown through the ocean in a journey that takes between 35 minutes to an hour. Seated by my side last Friday evening was the YIAGA Africa Executive Director, Samson Itodo, who married less than a month ago. Perhaps because it is a journey that he has undertaken several times in his sojourn across the continent, observing elections, Itodo seemed more amused than worried by what was happening around him. This despite his sensing that I was as troubled as many other passengers. Chuckling, Itodo said, “I bet most of the people here are worried because they are thinking about the OceanGate tragedy”, in reference to the Titan submersible that claimed the lives of all onboard while on expedition to the Titanic. But we survived! 

I arrived Freetown last Friday for the 2023 general election in Sierra Leone where the presidency, 135 parliamentary seats, 22 Mayor/Chairmen of Council and 493 councilors were to be contested. Not surprisingly, attention was mostly on the presidential election where the incumbent President Julius Maada Bio of the ruling Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) was seeking a second term. Standing in his way were 12 other candidates, including Dr Samura Kamara of the main opposition All People’s Congress (APC).  

Five years ago, President Ernest Bai Koroma was constitutionally ineligible, having served the maximum two-terms of ten years (plus an extraconstitutional year due to delay in conducting the election) in office. He endorsed his Foreign Affairs Minister, Kamara—who had also served as Finance Minister and Central Bank Governor—as candidate of the then ruling APC. No winner emerged at the end of the first round, although Bio led with 43.2 percent of the votes while Kamara secured 42.6 percent. The margin between them was just 14,734 votes. Kandeh Yumkella of the National Grand Coalition (NGC) came third with 6.86 percent of the votes. The remaining ten candidates made no significant impact at the poll. Since no candidate met the Constitutional provision of 55 percent votes to be declared elected in the first round, a runoff poll was subsequently held. Bio won with 51.8% of the votes.  

With this year’s election pitching Bio and Kamara against each other again, it was always going to be a grudge match. And it was. Problems began when the mid-term population and housing census was conducted in December 2021. Prior to the exercise, opposition parties in the country had ganged up to challenge the motivation behind it. They alleged that the real intention of President Bio was political, essentially to redraw constituency boundaries ahead of this year’s general election. At the end, the outcome of the census left more questions than answers.  

That was the background to the distrust of the electoral process that started long before the first ballot was cast last weekend. In his piece in the Sierra Leone Telegraph last September, Andrew Keili wrote that “There is little doubt that the SLPP prefers the use of the 2021 mid-term census results for delineating boundaries and constituencies. The APC prefers the 2015 census results.” Keili then explained how a tool for planning became a weapon in the hands of Sierra Leonean politicians. “The census conducted during the tenure in governance of each party tends to give it an advantage in number of people in party strongholds and accusations of ‘census fixing’ have now become the norm. We don’t seem to agree on how we should be counted and on our numbers.” 

I bet one can say the same thing about Nigeria. Like our country, there is a strong ethno-regional divide in Sierra Leone. The main base of the opposition APC is in the North-west while that of the ruling SLPP is in the Southeast. Going by figures from the 2015 census when the APC was in power, the Northwest had a population of 56.2 to 43.8 for the Southeast. That gap between the two geo-political regions has been closed by the controversial 2021 census figures conducted by the current SLPP government. The Northwest now has 50.01 of the population leaving the Southeast with 49.99 of the population.   

The acrimony and mutual suspicions from the census were carried to the registration of voters and eventually to the general elections last Saturday. Two weeks ago, Kamara called on the international community to intervene. “Enough is enough; we need international commissioners to conduct June 24, 2023 elections,” he said while calling for the resignation of the Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone (ECSL) Chairman, Mohamed Kenewui Konneh. The main grievance of Kamara and his party was that in all previous elections in Sierra Leone, ECSL used to release a comprehensive disaggregated data to all political parties and other important election stakeholders for review. Not this time.  

With the slogan, ‘NO DATA, NO ELECTION’, APC supporters demanded that voting with registration slips should be allowed as against the ECSL position that only those with voter ID card could vote. The allegation was that during the distribution exercise, numerous voters in the Northwest regions (the APC stronghold) could not collect their cards, which could leave them disenfranchised. The APC protesters also called for manual counting of results by districts. Both requests were eventually granted and on the eve of the election, Kamara told protesters who were essentially his supporters: “Go home and prepare to vote on Saturday but you have to protect your votes.”  

The election last Saturday had many of the logistical challenges we grapple with in Nigeria. It was largely peaceful, though the opposition complained about lack of transparency in the manner results were being processed by the ECSL and highhandedness by security officials. On Monday, a top Sierra Leonean official visited me and sought my opinion on the election. I knew it was a tricky question, but I refused to dissemble. “If you are interested in my honest opinion, let me say straightaway that I believe the president is likely to win this election based on my projections from the people I have spoken to. I think he will secure more than half the total votes cast. But I don’t believe he can make the 55 percent mark so the election will go to a runoff…” 

There was a sharp interjection of “No, no, no. We don’t want a runoff and there will not be one. The president will win on the first ballot.” I wasn’t surprised by the reaction. On many of the campaign billboards in Freetown, the inscription was about ‘No runoff poll’. Every government official I spoke to seemed obsessed about winning the election on the first ballot. It was just not about victory for the president, he had to do it without a runoff. Yet my projections tallied with that of the National Election Watch (NEW), a coalition of hundreds of registered civil society and non-governmental organisations, established in 2002 to observe and monitor the fairness, transparency, and credibility of public elections in the country.  

For the 2023 elections, NEW claimed to have deployed 6,000 observers across the country, covering every polling centre. “Out of these observers, 750 were specially trained and deployed to a statistically representative sample of polling stations across all the 5 regions and 16 districts in Sierra Leone using the Process and Results Verification for Transparency (PRVT) methodology.” After a disaggregation of the results data by districts from both the ‘partial’ result released on Monday (which they confirmed to be credible) and the final one released on Tuesday, NEW made this point: “The total valid ballots cast as announced by the ECSL for the first batch of results (representing 60% of polling stations) shows an average of 269 valid voters per polling station, while the second batch (representing 40% of polling stations) has an average of only 188 valid votes per polling station.”  

Using all the parameters to crunch the numbers from the data provided by the ECSL in the two instances, the projection of NEW is that President Bio could not have secured more than 53 percent of the votes while Kamara could not have secured more than 49 percent. The implication therefore is that no candidate would meet the 55 percent threshold required to avoid a runoff. In fact, shortly before the president was declared re-elected on Tuesday, NEW released a statement saying, “Based on our PRVT findings and the ECSL data announced thus far, we are confident that once all votes are counted with integrity, voter turnout will be 77.3% +/- 1.7% (between 75.4% and 79%); and no candidate will reach the constitutional threshold of 55% of votes cast in the first round.” But, going by the ECSL final tally, Bio secured 1,566,932 votes representing 56.17 percent of the total votes cast while Kamara secured 1,148,262 votes, representing 41.16 percent of total votes cast.    

With 2,800,691 voters representing 83 percent national turnout, the total number of valid votes cast last Saturday was put at 2,789,808 while the total number of invalid votes was 10,883. But Kamara, who on Monday described the electoral process as ‘daylight robbery’, has rejected the declaration. “It is a sad day for our beloved country,” he tweeted after the announcement. “It is a frontal attack on our fledgling democracy. These results are NOT credible, and I categorically reject the outcome so announced by the electoral commission. I will rise above this travesty, and I commit myself to continue the fight for a better Sierra Leone.” 

But the president has already been sworn-in for a second term. In his acceptance speech on Tuesday, he extended a hand of fellowship to his “brother and foremost opposition leader”, asking Kamara to join him in the task of nation-building. While responding to the partial result 24 hours earlier he had spoken to the heart of the issue. “For our sakes, we must avoid all provocative and retaliatory actions”, President Bio said while urging Sierra Leoneans to avoid any action capable of inciting violence. “We built our democracy from the embers of war. We should each be resolved to never go back to that dark chapter of our country’s history.”  

Five Election Observation Missions in Sierra Leone played critical roles before, during and after the polls by meeting with stakeholders to ensure peace. President Goodluck Jonathan leads the West African Elders Forum, former Vice President Yemi Osinbajo chairs the Commonwealth Group, former Ethiopian Prime Minister, Hallemariam Desalegne Boshe, is head of the African Union (AU), former Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) president, Mohammed Ibn Chambas chairs its mission and Ms Evin Incir leads that of the European Union.  

Before the release of partial results on Monday, President Jonathan had led these observers to meet with Konneh who assured them that he would release to the parties all disaggregated data before making his announcement. I confirmed that the ECSL chairman was true to his word. While announcing the winner on Tuesday, Konneh also provided the breakdown of results which have been uploaded on the commission’s website.“Any citizen who has lawfully voted in this election may challenge the validity of the said election of the president to the Supreme Court of Sierra Leone within seven days after the declaration of result pursuant to section 54 (1) of the Public Election Act, 2022”, Konneh said. It is my hope that the aggrieved parties will take the legal path to seek redress.   

Yesterday in Freetown, the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Ireland, France and the European Union (EU) Delegation issued a joint statement on the outcome of the election. “We note that significant logistical problems hampered voting on election day in certain areas. We share the concerns of national and international observation missions about the lack of transparency in the tabulation process,” the ambassadors wrote. “Despite these difficulties, we remain committed to supporting democracy and the aspirations of the Sierra Leonean people. We urge everyone to exercise restraints, respect the rule of law and engage in peaceful dialogue to resolve disputes.” 

Meanwhile, I enjoyed my stay in Freetown, thanks to my brother, Anthony Navo Jr., President, and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Africa Young Voices. AYV is the biggest private media conglomerate in Sierra Leone. Not only did he put some of his senior editors at my service, but he also provided me a vehicle to move around and hosted me for lunch on Monday. With the Director General of the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC), Mr Joseph Egbenda Kapuna and an award-winning radio presenter, Ms Asmaa James joining us, I learnt a great deal about Sierra Leone and assured them that I would be back. As an aside, while ARISE Television is a ‘baby’ of THISDAY newspaper, I was confronted with the power of the visuals in Freetown. Navo and his editors chose to introduce me everywhere as “our friend from ARISE Television” which members of the Sierra Leonean elite evidently watch. At some point, I was almost tempted to impersonate Reuben Abati!   

But perhaps the real highlight of my stay in Freetown was the extensive conversation I had with Professor Osinbajo on Monday evening at his hotel, without any prior appointment. Over a plate of chicken wings which we both shared and glasses of fresh pineapple juice, Osinbajo and I spent more than an hour discussing what he had observed in the elections as well as insights into many issues in the Nigerian administration he served and his presidential aspiration.    

Ordinarily, the State House is the abode of secrets in any country. But when the hour of power is over, barriers are often lowered, and barricades disappear as history prepares a ‘yesterday’s man’ for a new chapter. My Freetown conversations with Osinbajo were in strict confidence but as we bid each other goodbye, I could not but reflect on the fact that the encounter would not have happened just a month ago when he was still the number two man in Nigeria. Yes, Osinbajo has always been a very simple and down to earth person but a reporter eating from the same plate with the vice president is almost sacrilegious in a society where people worship power. And not when there are always overzealous security men and ‘protocol’ people around to shield high public officials from being real.  

That encounter also reminded me of the transient nature of political office which, given our interactions, Osinbajo understands quite clearly. Yet, this is a lesson too few imbibe and explains the desperation that makes election for public office a matter of life and death, especially on the continent.    

 I wish all my Muslim readers Eid Mubarak! 

• You can follow me on my Twitter handle, @Olusegunverdict and on www.olusegunadeniyi.com 

ThisDay Newspapers 

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