After the recent fiercely contested presidential election in Liberia, world attention has now turned to neighbouring Sierra Leone, which has its own crucial vote on 7 March 2018. Both countries share so much in common, not just political histories, but devastations of symbiotic civil wars. Can the “Lion Mountain” ever roar again after the withdrawal of United Nations troops in 2014?
Following the American Revolutionary War of the 17th century, and Slave Trade abolition initiatives, freed slaves from America and those “rescued” in the West African region settled with the natives of the two geographical locations known today as Liberia and Sierra Leone. While the American Colonisation Society administered pre-independent Liberia, the British Crown held sway in the Sierra Leone Colony until the country gained independence in 1961 with Sir Milton Marghai, the last Acting Governor General as its first Prime Minister.
Much earlier, in the 15th Century, European contacts within West Africa were in the Sierra Leone, with Portuguese explorer Pedro de Sintra, credited with mapping out and naming the Freetown Harbour, Serra da Leoa or Sirra Leoa (Portuguese for Lion Mountains), from which Sierra Leone derived its name.
Like Liberia and many other African countries, Sierra Leone is blessed with natural resources such as diamond, iron-ore, titanium, bauxite, gold, and a vast agricultural land. It rains for much of the year in Sierra Leone, but ironically the country relies on food imports, and as is often the case with many developing African countries, instead being a blessing, diamond became a curse or so-called “blood diamond” for Sierra Leone, during its civil war which started in 1991.The war, which killed more than 50,000 people and displaced some two million others, was notorious for its savagery, ruthlessness and barbarism, involving the engagement of child soldiers and amputation of victims’ limbs among other atrocities.
Thus, Sierra Leone, the home of the famous Fourah Bay College, celebrated as West Africa’s first University and which once had a bragging right as the “bastion of peace and democracy” in the region, lost its glory days. The country today competes in the league of the World’s poorest nations with run down infrastructure and one of the highest rates of infant and youth mortality.
But even without the civil war, Sierra Leone has always been a country of contrasting fortunes. For instance, air travel to the country still terminates at the Lungi Airport. The rest of the journey of less than 30 minutes by sea to the nation’s capital Freetown is completed on a ferry/boat ride across a short stretch of the Sierra Leone River. A helicopter shuttle service started as an alternative was abandoned in 2007 after a terrible air disaster that killed more than 22 passengers. Lungi-Freetown is a laborious six hours by road, so travellers prefer the ferry ride. This is because of the topography of Freetown, a port city on the Atlantic Ocean with undulating hills, mountains and valleys.
But if the difficult terrain is a natural phenomenon, the political instability, military coups, bad governance and corruption, which have characterised Sierra Leone’s chequered political history, are largely man-made. Following Sir Milton Margai’s unexpected death in 1964, his half-brother Sir Albert Maigai succeeded him as Prime Minister. But barely six years after Sierra Leone’s independence from Britain in 1961, and few hours after opposition leader Siaka Stevens was sworn in as Prime Minister after defeating Albert Margai in the 1967 general elections, he was topped in a bloodless military coup. Although Sir Stevens was reinstated a year later, through a counter-coup, the brief military incursion became a benchmark for instability in Sierra Lone, where two political parties, the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) and the now ruling All People’s Congress (APC), have dominated political power.
While the Margais were of the SLPP, Stevens belonged to the APC. To his credit, Stevens initiated some socio-economic reforms and made paramount chiefs and the provinces more prominent. He also tried to bridge the distance between the city and the provinces with the construction of roads and provision of social amenities. It was also under his administration that Sierra Leone became a republic in 1971 and Stevens, as president, was pivotal to the creation of the Mano River Union (MRU), started as two countries, Liberia and Sierra Leone, but has since expanded to include Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire.
President Stevens and his APC went ahead to win the 1972 by-elections, boycotted by the opposition SLPP, over allegations of intimidation and obstruction by APC militia. He survived an alleged coup plot in 1974, and another attempted putsch in 1975, which was followed by the execution of the alleged coup leaders. He went on to win another five-year mandate in 1976, with his APC also victorious in a disputed parliamentary election in 1977, but amid growing discontent and allegations of authoritarianism and dictatorship against the government, which made Sierra Leone a single-party state under the 1978 constitution.
Stevens retired from active politics in 1985 with his anointed candidate Maj.-Gen. Joseph Saidu Momoh installed as his successor. But even with his military background, Momoh faced several coup attempts, but went ahead to become Sierra Leone’s second president following an election in which he was the sole candidate in 1985. President Momoh took a hard stance against corruption with the launch of the code of conduct for political leaders and public servants, but an alleged attempt to overthrow his government in 1987 resulted in mass arrests of suspects including Vice President Francis Minah, who was convicted and executed along with five others in 1989.
Bowing to internal and international pressures the Momoh government initiated what his critics called half-hearted political and economic reforms, including the re-establishment of multi-party system in October 1991. But by then, his administration had outlived its goodwill and with the raging civil war in neighbouring Liberia its days were numbered.
There can be no better illustration of the link between the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone than the fact that Liberia’s ex-warlord and former President Charles Taylor is today serving terms in Britain for war crimes committed, not in his home country, but in Sierra Leone. Taylor as leader of the National Patriotic Front Liberia (NPFL) launched the rebellion against then President Samuel Doe in December 1989. He was also accused of helping the formation of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone led by British trained Corporal Foday Sankoh with the aim of dislodging the military base of Nigerian-led ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) Ceasefire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) in Sierra Leone, which was then fighting Taylor’s NPFL rebels in Liberia. This was after both men had undergone guerrilla training in Libya.
In an ensuing political confusion, a group of young Sierra Leone army officers led by Captain Valentine Strasser struck in April 1992, seized power, and forced President Momoh into exile in Guinea. But after four years marked by several real and alleged coup attempts that resulted in further bloodshed, Strasser himself was toppled by his fellow National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) members and forced into exile in Conakry, Guinea in January 1996. Captain Julius Maada Bio, his former ally, and whom Strasser had promoted to the rank of a brigadier, led the coup plot. The Bio-led junta managed to keep its promise and returned Sierra Leone to constitutional democracy by organising general elections in 1996, which Ahmad Tejan Kabbah won to become Sierra Leone’s third president under the SLPP platform.
But having tasted power, the Sierra Leone military would not let go. By May 1997 another group of soldiers, this time, led by Corporal Tamba Gborie, who was loyal to Army Maj.-Gen. Johnny Koroma detained over alleged coup plot against the Kabbah government, sacked President Kabbah and forced him into exile in Guinea, which was fast becoming the preferred refuge for dethroned Sierra Leonean leaders. Despite Kabbah’s reinstatement by the Nigerian-led ECOMOG forces in February 1998, Sierra Leone’s vicious civil war and instability were far from over.
When this writer visited Freetown on a reportorial mission after Kabbah’s reinstatement, the once bubbling Salone capital city was a shadow of itself with the war damage and destruction very much in evidence. To underscore the level of instability, that trip from Lagos was only facilitated by ECOMOG in a Lockheed C-130 Hercules military aircraft. Tourist centres in the city including then famous Mummy Yoko Hotel, where the Radisson Blu Hotel sits today, were in ruins with the only functional Cape Sierra Hotel serving as the temporary Command Headquarters of ECOMOG. The regional force was then under the command of Nigeria’s Col. Maxwell Kitikishe Kobe, who until his death in 2000, served as Sierra Leone’s chief of defence staff in President Kabbah’s government in recognition of his gallantry and contribution to ending the RUF-instigated civil war.
When embattled President Kabbah eventually requested for United Nations support, the Security Council in 2000 approved the deployment of an initial 6,000 peacekeepers, later increased to a 13,000-strong force at the peak of the hostilities. However, following the withdrawal of Nigerian ECOMOG troops, the RUF seized some 500 peacekeepers resulting in Operation Khukri by the UN troops to flush out remnants of the RUF rebels.
By January 2002, Kabbah declared the Sierra Leone civil war over and in May of the same year, he was re-elected with a wide margin against the opposition APC’s candidate Ernest Bai Koroma.
The return of relative peace in the country in 2004 encouraged the UN-backed war crimes court to begin trials at The Hague of those with the highest responsibility for Sierra Leone’s civil war. This led to the conviction of Charles Taylor for his involvement with the RUF, whose leader Sankoh had died in detention in July 2003 while awaiting trial.
Although ineligible to run again, having completed his constitutionally allowed two five-year terms, the August 2007 presidential and parliamentary elections in Sierra Leone, represented a referendum on the legacy of the Kabbah administration. The result was a resounding NO for the SLPP whose candidate Solomon Barewa was defeated in the presidential run-off vote by APC’s now outgoing Sierra Leone’s fourth President Ernest Bai Koroma.
While the jury may still be out on the assessment of APC’s 10-year government under Bai Koroma, Sierra Leone’s post-war worries, were compounded by the Ebola virus pandemic of 2014, which killed more than 3,000 people from the estimated 10,000 reported cases in the country, part of a West Africa-wide affliction. And as if that was not enough, Sierra Leone was hit by deadly mudslides from heavy rains, which claimed more than 1,000 lives and displaced tens of thousands of others, with grave health consequences.
It is under this grim context and prognosis that Sierra Leone holds the crucial presidential, parliamentary and local council polls on 7 March 2018. While the APC and SLPP, which have dominated power, are fielding Foreign Minister Samura Wilson Kamara and former junta leader Julius Maada Bio, respectively, as their presidential candidates, there has been significant realignment of political forces ahead of the crucial elections.
Sixteen candidates are contesting for the Executive Mansion. But there are only two women flag bearers even though women account for 52.1 percent of the country’s population. The stakes are particularly high and whoever emerges winner has his/her job cut out. Kandeh Yumkella, the standard bearer of the newly formed National Grand Coalition (NGC), considered a “third force,” did not mince words, when he declared in a recent interview that “Everything bad is with us,” in a reference to various development indicators which put Sierra Leone on the bottom rouge of the ladder, with 70 percent of the population living under the poverty line.
The constitutional requirement that a candidate must score 55 percent of the votes to win the presidency makes a run-off ballot almost inevitable. The contest for Sierra Leone’s unicameral parliament is no less competitive, with more than 795 candidates, including 101 women vying for the 144 seats, including 12 slots for paramount chiefs and with 124 of the seats filled by direct election.
Some 3.17 million registered Sierra Leonean voters, out of the country’s estimated seven million inhabitants will be casting their ballots in 11,122 polling stations to elect the nation’s fifth president, who will shoulder the responsibility of moving the country from the devastation of natural and man-made disasters to the path of national development if the “Lion Mountain” is to roar again.
This would be the fourth multi-party elections since the end of the civil war, but it is the first time that Sierra Leone authorities would be taking full responsibility of the electoral process since the withdrawal of the UN Mission in 2014. One tribute which Sierra Leoneans owe the memory of ECOMOG fallen heroes, including the late Kobe, and gratitude to ECOWAS, the UN and the rest of the international community, for their sacrifices for peace in the country, is to conduct themselves responsibly and deliver credible and successful elections for the consolidation of peace and democracy in the country and the region as a whole.
Winners of the 7 March polls must be magnanimous in victory, while the losers must cooperate and all work for Sierra Leone to put its dark past behind it in the interest of development and prosperity.
*Paul Ejime is an international media and communications consultant.