FLASHBACK: Elections and the Middle Class Crisis in Sierra Leone

By Chernoh Alpha M. Bah

29 August 2007

 Sierra Leone’s president, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah has threatened to declare a state of emergency ahead of the election run-off to be held this week if violence between supporters of contending parties persists. Already there have been continuous reports of violent clashes over the last few days in several towns and villages in the south and east of the country among supporters of rival political parties, forcing the police to declare a dawn to dusk curfew in most areas across the country.

The run-off presidential elections will be held between the opposition All Peoples Congress (APC) leader Ernest Koroma and incumbent ruling party candidate Solomon Ekuma Berewa. Berewa is also Kabbah’s vice president.

The opposition APC won a majority of the parliamentary seats during the first round of voting (44%), followed by the incumbent SLPP (38%). The Peoples Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC) trails behind by a wide margin (14%). To win, a candidate must garner 55% of the vote. The SLPP, which has been in power since 1996 with Kabbah as its leader, cannot afford to lose the elections. Kabbah and his cronies in the SLPP are determined to hold onto political power.

The APC leadership, having lost political power in 1992 due to a military coup, sees the current elections as the best opportunity to assume leadership of the country and is exploiting the desperate and genuine desire of the masses for political and economic transformation to accomplish its selfish power objective.

Ironically, the current electoral success of the APC does not result from a new political program that differs from that of the incumbent party, thereby offering hope to the poor and exploited masses in Sierra Leone. Instead, its achievement can be attributed, in part, to the lack of a viable alternative.

The APC has never been such an alternative and will never be. In fact, none of the current existing political parties offer real, honest leadership to the electorate. In such a desolate political landscape, people are naturally compelled to choose a perceived lesser evil.

There is no fundamental difference between the SLPP and APC or any of the existing political parties participating in the current political process. All political parties participating in the election, particularly the SLPP and APC, originate from and represent various sectors of a corrupt middle class that sees political power as the license for personal aggrandizement and wealth accumulation. There is no exception to this dismal scenario even with the Peoples Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC), which was founded in 2005.

The circumstances that gave rise to the formation and existence of these political groupings and their objectives have always remained the same. The PMDC, formed and led by Charles Margai, only increased the crisis within the ruling elite. Margai, a former SLPP Internal Affairs Minister in the current regime, broke ranks with the SLPP after he was denied the party leadership in the 2005 delegates’ conference in which Berewa was elected or imposed as presidential candidate of the party for the 2007 elections. Berewa was never a suitable and popular candidate within the rank and file of the SLPP but his nomination is said to have been influenced by Kabbah, who desired to have his vice president succeed him.

Berewa appears to be a party loyalist, one that is likely to defend and maintain Kabbah’s current policies. It is this desire to have a loyalist succeed him that led Kabbah to impose Berewa as his successor, first within the SLPP and later on the country. It is this situation that resulted in the split within the SLPP and ultimately led to the formation of the PMDC.

Margai, a son of Sierra Leone’s former prime minister, claims that his resignation from the Kabbah government and the SLPP is based on widespread corruption and lack of transparency within the party and government.

An unfortunate aspect of the political system in most African countries, including Sierra Leone, is that, during and after the “independence period”, the formation of political parties took an ethnic-regional divide. The current political divide between the northwest and southeast is a colonial construct arising out of the British constitutional arrangement of 1947, originally designed to create a divide between the “Creole” of the colony and the so-called “natives” of the protectorate. This colonial strategy was designed to weaken the militant, anti-colonial movement that had developed among certain sections of the “Creole” community that later gave rise to the formation of the SLPP in 1952 under the leadership of Milton Margai.

Historically, the SLPP is an offspring of the general imperialist strategy after 1945 that ensured the transfer of political power to neocolonialist conservatives following the destruction of the anti-colonial movement led by Wallace-Johnson.

The inter-party struggles and leadership acrimony that developed within the SLPP prior to the 1957 elections and during the 1960 constitutional conference in London resulted, first, in the formation of the Peoples National Party (PNP) led by Albert Margai (father of PMDC leader Charles Margai) and, second, in the Election Before Independence Movement (EBIM), which later became the APC under the leadership of Siaka Stevens. Present political parties in Sierra Leone have arisen out of similar splits and power struggles among different sectors of the petty bourgeoisie for control of the state.

The division within the ruling class elite has had serious negative impacts on the broader mass of the country. It has fragmented national unity and reinforced false ethnic patriotism and regional consciousness among the masses. Traditionally, the SLPP had long relied on the south and east, mostly inhabited by Mendes, for support. The Mendes constitute the largest ethnic group in the country. The APC, on the other hand, relies on the north and west, predominantly inhabited by Temnes and Limbas, for its support. Whereas other political parties had emerged from among the northern ethnic groups, the south and east had always remained SLPP strongholds. This is why the formation of the PMDC had significant effects on the chances of the SLPP in the current elections. Split within the SLPP has meant a split of the votes from the traditional strongholds of the party. Of the 112 contested seats in parliament the APC had won 59, the SLPP 43 and PMDC 10 during the first round of voting. With a run-off scheduled between the SLPP and APC, PMDC leader Charles Margai has thrown his support to the APC ultimately reducing Berewa’s chances of victory.

But the central questions are: why can’t Kabbah and his SLPP cronies afford to lose the presidential elections? And more importantly, what will an APC victory mean to the aspirations of the masses?

The truth of the matter is that the current SLPP leadership is jittery, in part, because its policies have not translated into any form of development in the country. They completely ignored the welfare and interest of the masses that voted them into power. Although Kabbah came to power in 1996 following the national campaign for democracy, his eleven years in office has meant increased imperialist and multinational penetration of the country. In his quest to maintain power, Kabbah gave out strategic mining concessions to several multinational British and American mining corporations in exchange for military services and protection. A British mercenary firm, Sandline International was contracted under an agreement signed between Kabbah and the British government to provide military equipment and training for the Civil Defense Forces (CDF), a militia group established by the SLPP, to fight for the restoration of Kabbah’s government after he was overthrown in a military coup in 1997. This agreement allowed the use of an international military intervention force that claimed the lives of thousands of innocent people to restore the SLPP government then exiled in Guinea Conakry.

Today, Branch Energy, a British corporation tied to Sandline International, mines the most lucrative diamond concession in West Africa as part of that arrangement. Other corporations like Mile Stone, Africa Gold and Diamonds Ltd, Petrograd Mines, Koidu Holdings, Sandoh Minerals, Sierra Leone Diamond Company (SLDC), which is now African Minerals, and Bridge Resources are among some ninety multinational corporations currently exploiting resources in Kono located in eastern Sierra Leone. It is estimated that hundreds of carats of diamonds are being taken out of Kono every month through the activities of these corporations. Sadly, while these corporations are making huge profits, people in Sierra Leone live on less than a dollar a day with no electricity, no good roads, no pipe borne water, no proper health care system and other social services. The economic infrastructure necessary for growth and development is non-existent.

During Kabbah’s presidency, a sophisticated counterinsurgency program was introduced into the country, facilitated by massive police recruitment and the deployment of foreign troops and intelligence agencies. A program of structural adjustment influenced by western nations was also adopted. For instance, the British maintain a military base and huge military presence in the country and the other western intelligence agencies now have outposts in Freetown. The British, through the International Military Advisory Training Team (IMATT), are in charge of training and restructuring the military and defense policy of the country. British military officers, who command British troops in Sierra Leone, and police officers, dominate the Office of National Security, which is similar to the British MI6. A situation where foreign agents are placed in charge of Sierra Leone’s national intelligence and security existed.

On the economic front, the British Department for International Development (DFID) – the equivalent of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) – regulated the economic program of the country. The justice sector reform program also necessitated the appointment of British judges into the justice department.

Low life expectancy, high infant and maternal mortality rates, a rapidly declining economy and a vastly hungry population were the products of Kabbah’s policies and eleven years in office. His intention was to arguably continue and sustain these policies through the imposition of Berewa as president of the country.

Clearly, the strategy not only protected the Kabbah regime, but it also confused the masses regarding the root cause of their problems. Western allies of the Kabbah regime have always used singled out corruption and flagrant misuse of public resources as a blind to explain the causes of poverty and underdevelopment in the country, whereas the actual causes are organized external exploitation and state oppression. The SLPP government of Kabbah is one of the most corrupt political regimes on the continent, and it had used these western funded strategies and programs to suppress would be contending opposition elements even within the middle class.

For instance, the United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone, established under an arrangement between the SLPP government and United Nations for the trial of individuals believed to bear the greatest responsibility for crimes committed during the ten years war, is being used by the SLPP and its foreign allies to silence perceived threats to their interests in the region. Among those indicted by the Special Court are former leaders of the Civil Defense Forces (CDF), the militia organization trained and armed by the British through the Sandline arrangement to restore the government of Kabbah after the military coup of 1997.

The Civil Defense Forces (CDF) leader, Sam Hinga Norman was Kabbah’s Deputy Defense Minister during the period of the conflict and later Internal Affairs Minister at the time of his arrest by the Special Court. CDF members have argued that Kabbah should equally be indicted because he was the head of the CDF War Council and Defense Minister simultaneously, under whose directives Hinga Norman headed the operations of the CDF. PMDC leader Charles Margai, a professional lawyer, had functioned as one of the defense lawyers for the CDF leaders indicted by the Special Court.

However, Norman died early this year, under controversial circumstances, as a detainee of the Special Court. But before his death, Norman and other CDF detainees at the Special Court purportedly wrote a statement requesting their members and supporters to vote the PMDC. Margai had used this to garner sup- port from former CDF members and supporters of the late Hinga Norman in the run-up to the elections. It is this CDF membership within the PMDC, mostly ex-militia fighters that have engaged the SLPP in open battles in the south and east of the country resulting in burning of houses. The APC itself appears to have utilized the same tactic by incorporating renegades of the RUF and disbanded soldiers of the old army into its rank and file.

Consequently, with an opposition majority in the parliament and an APC- PMDC alliance ahead of the presidential run-off, Kabbah and his SLPP stalwarts have become extremely worried. Apart from fear of losing vested interests in the multinational corporate exploitation of the nation’s resources, Kabbah risks being taken to the Special Court. Most SLPP ministers would also have to face tribunals and commissions of enquiry that will be established through the influence of the APC-PMDC merger. This may also have implications for the large multinational interests in the country and represents a threat to the corrupt patronage network that has developed between the current ruling class elite and mercantile class, predominantly Lebanese, Asiatic, Fulani and other indigenous business magnates who have become prosperous during the last few years due to rogue relations with this political mafia.

Regardless of the outcome of the current elections, the situation of the masses will remain dire. Endemic, institutionalized corruption over the years has resulted in the development of a rogue middle class that has grown extremely wealthy in the midst of massive poverty and wretchedness. The statistics on growth and development have remained abysmal for the last forty-six years of neocolonial state terror much of it perpetrated during the more than two decades of APC rule.

So regardless of who wins the current political contest, there will be no significant policy change that will reverse the current trend. If anything, poverty and backwardness will only increase due to endemic corruption and organized state exploitation.

Perhaps the most encouraging trend in the midst of this political free-for- all is the potential of growth of political consciousness among the masses. The seemingly endless struggles among the petty bourgeoisie for political power to selfishly accumulate wealth, political corruption, state oppression and neocolonial exploitation have not only resulted in severe crisis within the middle class but have also increased the aspirations of the masses for real change. It has stimulated political agitation among the people and fueled their desire for change in their material conditions.

People are rapidly becoming conscious that decades of organized state oppression and exploitation have denied them access to state resources and social services necessary to change their conditions of existence. They are coming to terms with the necessity of building grassroot movements that will struggle to overturn the existing status quo.

Editor’s Note: The above article was first published by the Africanist Press a week to the run-off presidential elections that brought Ernest Bai Koroma to power in 2007. We republish it today to show the enduring consistency of the Africanist Press campaign for democracy and accountable leadership in Sierra Leone.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *