There is a widespread political truism in Sierra Leone: both political parties that have (mis)governed the country since independence have regional and ethnolinguistic strongholds. The SLPP seems to have an edge over the APC in the South-Eastern regions of the country while the APC controls a larger part of the Northern regions and by extension the Western Area, Freetown. No matter how badly they govern, those regional strongholds will always vote their respective political parties massively. What is responsible for such regional and ethnolinguistic political relationships with these two political parties?
Arguably, the formation of these two traditional political parties and their historical trajectory would definitely answer that question. Their leaning on our regional and ethnolinguistic compositions is all geared towards dividing the electorates and ordinary citizens who deal with one another daily.
These two political parties have sown so many seeds of discord that talking about peaceful co-existence, tolerance and national cohesion to diehard residents and supporters of their regional strongholds is so difficult during election periods. The beauty of our different ethnic affiliation and the appreciation of our cultural heritage and manifestations can hardly have a pass from outsiders of our diverse ethno-cultural practices.
Politics has so much put a dent on the things that should have held us together or what we should have celebrated as “beautiful” given the long tradition of intermarriages and intercultural relationships that many people would rather not talk about their ethnic origin or membership, especially if one bears a name that cuts across many ethnolinguistic groups.
How has post-independent governance in Sierra Leone looked like? Have these two political parties delivered Sierra Leone and Sierra Leoneans from our economic woes? Are we wallowing in a constant leadership crisis or is Sierra Leone trapped in a resource curse?
Looking at the preceding questions, the careful reader would notice my interest on two thorny issues within the contours of the political history of Sierra Leone as a sovereign nation.
The first question seeks to find answers as to whether Sierra Leone has been misgoverned or badly governed since 1961 when we gained political independence; or whether good governance, the linchpin that sustains – or the precursor of – economic independence, development, and sustainability, especially given the natural and mineral resources we have, has ever been the concern of our political leaders before 1991 and after 2002.
The second and third questions consider two strands: leadership and the resource curse theses as factors responsible for either the political dispensations we have had or the economic deprivations the citizens have endured and the development decadence we have witnessed and suffered as an independent nation. These two strands, leadership, and the resources a country has, are the reasons for a country’s sociopolitical and economic development or can lead a country to sociopolitical debauchery and underdevelopment.
Taking a snapshot view of Sierra Leone’s political history and given some of the deep-seated factors that led to the 1991-2002 rebel war which are still resurfacing today – bad governance, massive unemployment of our youth, corruption, tribalism, nepotism, ineptitude of state functionaries, successive governments not delivering basic services like water and electricity, poor housing conditions, lack of good sanitation and health care system, hunger and general deprivation, lack of a sustainable transportation system to guarantee a free flow of goods and services to remote areas, institutions and their structural challenges and their consequent dependence on the Executive branch of government and their being remote-controlled from State House, an unpatriotic legislative branch, the centralization of governance systems, ministries and state institutions in Freetown, the lack of a robust secondary and technical educational system that guarantees post-secondary employment opportunities and the independence of youths, the need for an overhaul of our aging colonial higher education curricula and the infusion of twenty-first century best practices in tertiary education teaching and research that promise the educated class a life outside of politics so as to serve as moral guarantors of all Sierra Leoneans – one will definitely argue that Sierra Leone’s challenges lie squarely on the heads of our political misleaders who have mismanaged our resources for their own selfish gains at the detriment of our people and nation.
What difference have the two decades after the rebel war ended made in the lives of Sierra Leoneans and the country as a whole?
From 2002 – after the end of the senseless and brutal rebel war – to date, a period some of us thought would have been a takeoff point towards the development of Sierra Leone and the end of the economic sufferings of our people, not much can be said about our country as far as human, institutional and infrastructural development are concerned.
While we are still struggling to have the basics – food security, clean water and constant electricity supply, good housing facilities, employment opportunities for a youthful population who are being drugged not to think about their future – other African countries that we had similar periods of instabilities and how these are seen today both within the continent and outside as exemplary post-conflict nations considering how they have minimized the economic and political malaise that provoked their armed conflicts, and how they have turned their socioeconomic challenges into development opportunities, albeit countries that Sierra Leone now looks at as shining examples of economic and infrastructural development, peace, political stability, and a projection of a bright economic and entrepreneurial future for their youth, women and girls, other vulnerable groups, and generations yet unborn.
Our politicians are presently turning their homes into commercial and investment banks, giving to the poor and needy people they have produced from their industries of political mismanagement and corruption what they could have used to develop the country and provide the much-needed services for our people and communities.
It is not a secret: our politics is not about ideas, issues or serving the people and country or which political party or politician can free the people from the 62 years of economic hardship, corruption and other ills of our sociopolitical ecology, but how much the party or politician has to offer the voters on the eve of elections. While it is generally known that elections are lost, in our case elections can be bought – not always but some or most of the time.
What is the solution to our aged-old political and economic challenges?
The answer to this question might be found in the political history of the country and the way politics has made the country and its people to become entrapped in this dark political quagmire made possible by the parties that have (mis)governed Sierra Leone for a better part of its post-independent history. Both political parties have had a fair share of post-2002 governance: ten years each. Ahmad Tejan Kabba’s SLPP last five years in office ran from 2002 to 2007.
Ernest Bai Koroma’s APC administered the country from 2007 to 2018. Julius Maada Bio’s SLPP has governed from 2018 to 2023. We are looking forward to an election around issues and service provision, not about politics as usual. Sierra Leoneans are hoping that election manifestos are not just going to be empty political promises, but ideas that are going to start materializing immediately after the first one hundred days in office. People are hungry. Youths need jobs. The country’s economy is in comma.
For foreign direct investment to happen, and for local investors to have the confidence that businesses will thrive, we need the enabling environment: constant electricity and clean water supply, sociopolitical peace and tranquility and the technological infrastructure to ensure local businesses become competitive nationally and with others in the region and beyond. Technical and Higher Education needs to be given a boost to serve as the catalyst for economic development and the sector that provides the human, technological and knowledge needed to service the other sectors of the country.
Sierra Leonean political elites need to understand that relying heavily on the extractive industry has not taken the country anywhere – only unscrupulous national and foreign exploiters, they are not investors, have been operating in that sector and the country has not benefited from our mineral resources. We need productive industries – from agriculture to guarantee food security to manufacturing products that people and the country are in dire need of for businesses and the country’s development. We have the human, natural and mineral resources. What we need are patriotic and resourceful politicians.
The June 24 elections this year are crucial for Sierra Leone’s economic development. One is tempted to refer to the forthcoming elections as ‘the case of the desperate desperados: APC is desperate to win the elections; SLPP is desperate not to lose them at all costs.’ The electorates will definitely decide.
While voters are preparing to listen to what these two political parties will be presenting to them as electoral programmes or ideas that they should consider, I want to remind my fellow Sierra Leonean citizens that the paradoxical way Sierra Leone has been described as one of the poorest countries in the world does not truly represent our country and people.
We are not poor. Our politicians have made our country and people to be poor. We have all the resources that we need to become a developed and sustainable country. What we have not had are truly patriotic leaders that have ever championed the cause of our nation by utilizing our resources for the development of the country and its people. Since we have not had that leader, for these elections choose wisely between the two age-old political parties. Look at the past twenty years to guide you while deciding on the fate of the country for the next five years. Look for the party that has delivered a semblance of development and that can guarantee you of doing more. Peace and your economic sustenance are on the ballot.
Elect politicians who have an unblemished human rights record. Elect politicians who can guarantee you of your sociopolitical and socio-economic peace. Elect politicians, not tormentors and killers. Elect politicians that can guarantee you that governance is about service to the people, and not people serving politicians. Elect leaders that do not present flamboyant and unrealizable promises. Elect leaders that are not tribalistic and divisive. Sierra Leone is a multiethnic and multicultural country.
Let us enjoy our linguistic and cultural wealth in our day-to-day relationships and in our politics. Intermarriages and ethnolinguistic co-existence and tolerance have always been the bedrock of our cultural existence as a country and people. Let these elections be the turning point of our dark political and economic narrative since independence.
By Saidu Bangura, PhD