By Chernoh Alpha M. Bah
The people of Sierra Leone are fed-up with the excruciating pain, economic hardship, and political disaster that the government of Ernest Bai Koroma and his kleptomaniac gang of rogue politicians have inflicted on the country. If there is one thing that we are all united in, as pro-democratic forces in the country, it is the removal of the Koroma regime from power. For the past ten years, we have resisted the political corruption, ruling party cooptation, and the rising dictatorship of the All People’s Congress (APC) and its leadership. There is no question that a vote for Samura Kamara, the APC’s appointed candidate, will mean a continuation of the gangster-style politics of the Koroma regime. I start with these comments to reemphasize my decade-old position of ongoing resistance against Koroma’s politics of impunity and the APC’s efforts to overthrow democracy. I want my stance on Koroma to be clear as I continue the discussion which I initiated during the last few days of 2017. In that discussion, I criticized the newly formed National Grand Coalition’s claims that they represent a new and progressive party which can save Sierra Leone from decades of poverty and corruption.
I first commented on the NGC following the appointment of Andrew Keili, a former Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) presidential aspirant, as the NGC’s vice-presidential candidate for the March 2018 elections. Andrew Keili is a two-time contender for the leadership of the SLPP, just like Kandeh Yumkellah, the former UN employee who is now the NGC presidential candidate. Both Keili and Yumkellah, like many in the NGC, are the product of Sierra Leone’s corrupt political system. Indeed, the NGC leadership has held positions in previous and the current regimes, regimes which stand accused of decades of graft and political incest. Yumkellah was a cabinet member of the military regime that ruled Sierra Leone in the 1990s, and it was the military government that backed his appointment to the United Nations Industrial Organization (UNIDO). When Yumkellah failed to become the SLPP candidate for the upcoming elections, he simply formed the NGC along with other SLPP and APC members who were denied power within their own parties.
It is ironic, then, that the NGC is positioning itself as a “new political group” with no ties to the old parties. What’s more, this breakaway faction of political elites has spread their propaganda across our country, claiming they represent a “new progressive agenda for change,” despite offering no concrete examples of the progressive policies they would supposedly pursue. The leaders of the NGC are simply disgruntled and alienated politicians from the same two political parties that have dominated our country’s politics for the past fifty years. The formation of the NGC is not about change; it is about an old faction of this country’s corrupt political elite trying to take power for themselves. These elites formed the NGC simply because they failed to garner a nomination from within the APC or the SLPP. Like the rest of the career politicians in this country, their goal is not to change the structure of Sierra Leone’s politics. They simply want a piece of the pie for themselves.
As I stated in my original comments, the NGC’s composition and character is an embodiment of the two parties that have ravaged our country since independence. The NGC leadership are simply the excrement of the SLPP and APC. I do not make these accusations lightly. I have asked the NGC leadership and membership to show the people of Sierra Leone what actually makes them a “progressive force” and to point out the so-called “progressives” among their ranks. They have failed to do so. I have also reasonably demanded from that the NGC point out what in their platform distinguishes them from the parties they aim to replace. But the NGC can neither demonstrate how they are different nor offer any concrete examples of progressive policies in their agenda. For that reason, NGC members and their supporters have taken offense at my skepticism of the NGC’s composition, character, and political message. They have responded to my critique of the NGC’s character not with evidence which could prove me wrong, but with a campaign of vitriolic exchanges. If they wish to shut me up, they can simply offer up evidence to support the party’s claims. But, as the evidence does not exist, desperate supporters have resorted to an insulting social media brigade against those who would rightly question the claims of a political party made up of seasoned elites in order to obscure the embarrassment of the truth.
As I have state elsewhere, the NGC’s intolerant attitude to dissent should be a cause for concern to real progressives and pro-democratic forces in Sierra Leone. The intolerant attitude of the NGC’s social media brigade represents a jihadist approach to political power. Only those with something to hide fear scrutiny. This sort of militant response to measured criticism should be arrested and resisted by all the true progressive citizens who are concerned about free speech and the safeguard of diverse political opinions in a country long victimized by desperate politicians, including those in the NGC, who see political power as a means of personal aggrandizement. I have warned, and will continue to warn, that if the NGC becomes the next government of Sierra Leone, the situation in the country will grow even worse than it is now. The NGC’s insulting and arrogant approach to power is indicative of what a Yumkellah presidency would mean for democracy and free speech in Sierra Leone.
Despite the fact that the NGC continues to vehemently avoid the questions I have raised about their campaign and program, I have decided to continue this discussion to further clarify my earlier comments, with the hope of constructing a road-map to what real change might look like. To do this, it is necessary that I unmask the hypocrisy and fraud of the NGC’s noisy message and put the party in the context of the predatory politics from which it was born.
When NGC supporters are asked why Sierra Leoneans must choose the NGC instead of the SLPP or APC, their first and only response is that their party is led by a former UN employee, Kandeh Yumkellah, who they claim is respected by the international community and who they also say has been preaching a message of “hope” and “change” to Sierra Leoneans. It is obvious that the bulk of the NGC’s support and its source of noisy propaganda have come largely from a scattered and disenfranchised Sierra Leonean diaspora made-up of a few academics and a handful of others who are eager to reintegrate themselves into the ruling elite. Some of the NGC’s academic and intellectual supporters have written open letters declaring their support for the NGC, arguing that Yumkellah represents the only hope for a better Sierra Leone. These academics have even joined the militant NGC brigade, whose political dialogue consists of shutting-up every Sierra Leonean who refuses to chant the NGC’s newly discovered slogan of change. Yet they continue to dodge the question of whether there is anything outside of Yumkellah’s UN credentials as the former head of the UN Global Energy Campaign which distinguishes him from his peers.
On Monday July 3, 2017, Yumkellah called a press conference at the Brookfield’s Hotel in Freetown. At the conference, he announced the suspension of his bid to seek the presidential ticket of the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP), but said he would continue vigorously pursue his ambition to become president of the country. Yumkellah’s campaign to lead the SLPP had been struggling since its formation two years prior: two of his close-protection guards were arrested on allegations of carrying firearms; his membership status in the SLPP faced questions of irregular registration; and accusations of him being denied entry into the SLPP headquarters had garnered attention. Controversy after controversy hampered his campaign. By July, when it became clear that he would lose the SLPP nomination, Yumkellah simply jumped out of the SLPP race. At the press conference, Yumkellah claimed, “democracy has been choked, suffocated, stifled, and rendered meaningless in the SLPP.” This was the political party he had been fighting to lead for the past two years. This was the very political party for which, he says, his father, a founding member, and other family members were allegedly jailed in the 1960s.
He complained that he and his supporters had faced “harassment and violence” in his quest to become the SLPP’s presidential candidate. “There has been a deliberate policy by certain groups in control of the party structures to aggressively exclude any person or group of persons that do not support their candidate,” he told his audience of supporters at the press conference. Yumkellah, did not mention this other candidate by name, but it is obvious that his innuendos were directed at only one politician, Mr. Julius Maada Bio. Bio is a retired army officer and the only person who Yumkellah and his supporters knew was a threat to his claiming leadership over the SLPP. For two years, Yumkellah and the almost ten other aspirants for the presidential ticket of the SLPP had directed their political campaign against Mr. Bio, accusing him of violence and holding the party hostage. One year ago, they had formed an alliance of aspirants, which excluded Mr. Bio, whose principal goal was aimed at challenging Bio’s grip on the party. That alliance fell apart a few months later, and Yumkellah, who had put himself forward as its leading architect, knew he would fail to win the SLPP nomination. His jihadist approach to leading the SLPP had been stoutly resisted by the rank-and-file of the party. But Yumkellah would galvanize his defeated and demoralized SLPP faction into a political organization named the National Grand Coalition (NGC).
Since its inception, the NGC has organized a media showcase of alienated and disgruntled politicians from both the APC and SLPP to declare staged support for its program. These media events epitomize the age-old trademark of a bankrupt Sierra Leonean political class always willing to jump ship from the APC to SLPP, so long as they personally benefit. These age-old incestuous political declarations make up the news media’s so-called fast swelling membership of the NGC.
Yumkellah’s entrance into the national politics of Sierra Leone, and the noise that has accompanied his campaign, are unsurprising. He is simply another example of the caustic history of party politics that regionally fragment the country and ethnically balkanize the masses. In a widely-broadcast radio interview, Kandeh Yumkellah initially told the Sierra Leonean radio journalist David Tam-Baryoh that he was not a registered member of any political party and had never voted in an election in Sierra Leone. This was shortly before he officially launched his political campaign for the presidential ticket of the SLPP. Months before the radio interview, Yumkellah had visited Ernest Bai Koroma, the president of Sierra Leone and leader of the ruling party. Those close to Koroma rumored that Yumkellah’s intention was to persuade Koroma to make him his successor and welcome him into the APC. The leadership of the ruling APC was, around this time, surreptitiously scheming to extend Koroma’s stay in power. The APC’s national convention held in 2013 had already coronated Koroma as its chairman for a third consecutive term. The leaders of the APC reportedly opposed Yumkellah’s discussion with Koroma. Yumkellah’s efforts were in vain. It was after this failed meeting with Koroma and attempt to lead the APC that Kandeh Yumkellah finally pointed his political ambition towards the SLPP. But the SLPP, like the rest of the opposition, was already bogged down by factional infighting orchestrated by the Koroma regime ahead of the elections of 2012.
Before this time, an already disgruntled faction within the SLPP – an ostracized group and made up of mostly elite politicians who had been previously denied party positions, parliamentary, and local council symbols to contest in the SLPP’s heartlands of the south and east during the 2012 elections – had organized into a support group to fuel Kandeh Yumkellah’s ambition for the presidency. This group, which included names like Dr. Martin Gbonda, Ambassador Foday Darboe, Brima Keitta, Isatu Jabbie Kabbah, and Victor Sheriff, was already holding meetings across several locations in western Freetown to pull together a support committee for Yumkellah. The Yumkellah project then became, for this group, their own 2017 Agenda; a plan hatched solely to prevent the SLPP’s 2012 presidential candidate, Rtd. Brigadier Julius Maada Bio, from contesting the party’s future presidential ticket. These disgruntled politicians, united only by their shared opposition to Mr. Maada Bio, organized themselves into a nucleus from which the Kandeh Kolleh Yumkellah (KKY) Movement would emerge.
Thus, the KKY Movement, from its embryonic stages, was hatched as a political faction born out of the scattered entrails of the SLPP and patched together only by a shared opposition to Mr. Maada Bio. It was their animosity towards Bio that coalesced into a platform from which Kandeh Yumkellah was to launch his presidential project. The KKY Movement, its program, and emblematic features – its color, representation, posters, symbols, and organizational structure – hurriedly cast and set-up from the very beginning, was running counter to the prevailing mood of the general mass of the SLPP and its intermediate leadership. Yumkellah and his supporters, by identifying and making their ultimate target the overturning of Bio’s presidential ambition, built their campaign on personal attacks against Bio. To achieve their goal, they simply recycled the APC’s anti-Bio propaganda campaign of 2012 into their own propaganda campaign. They then launched Kandeh Yumkellah into the politics of the SLPP by pitching his United Nations status against the military record of Julius Maada Bio. In brandishing Yumkellah as a new political breed, and an unblemished politician representing the only hope for the SLPP, they cast Maada Bio deep into the muddy pit first dugout by the APC during the elections of 2012, with the hope that Yumkellah’s United Nations status would be enough to steal Bio’s support among the rank-and-file of the party. But they faced stiff resistance from the overwhelming mass of SLPP supporters. From accusations of irregular membership to suspicions that he was an agent of the APC, Yumkella was doomed from the start; his campaign lurched from one controversy and court petition to another for nearly two years; these litigations jaded the SLPP and crippled the party from functioning as an effective opposition.
It is obvious that the KKY Movement and Yumkellah plunged themselves and the SLPP into a counterproductive civil war. They actually became, directly or indirectly, the fratricidal opposition within an already fractured and badly wounded opposition party. The SLPP, already seriously splintered by fiercely competing internal leadership battles that began ten years earlier in 2005 under the divisive politics of Tejan Kabbah, was now thrown, by the Yumkellah factor, into a seemingly irredeemable predicament. As each side took on a frenzied media campaign to justify its commitment to the ongoing hostilities within the party, it became obvious that the leadership contest was now becoming a struggle for the very soul of the party. The ruling APC media and propagandists had a field day utilizing much of the Yumkellah propaganda to further dirty the image of the SLPP. The Yumkellah factor, and the KKY Movement’s strategy, splintered the SLPP. The crumbs from the broken party were then re-constituted into the National Grand Coalition (NGC). The party is the initial composition of the political excrements of the SLPP, and is now also largely populated by the disenfranchised and thrown-out political skeletons of the APC.
How then can a party with such a history, composition, and character be regarded as a new political organization in the country? How can the NGC claim to have a program aimed at destroying the legacy of the two-party monopoly that the SLPP and APC have exercised on the political landscape of Sierra Leone when, in actual fact, its history, composition, and character replicate the two parties — the Alhassan and Alusine of Sierra Leone politics? It is obvious that the only difference between the NGC and the two old parties lies in its name. Instead of a platform, the party simply points to the UN credentials of Yumkellah. Its political program is merely a collection of hundreds of KKY photographs and videos. This does not constitute a progressive party. It does not even constitute a party. The NGC is merely a group of power hungry individuals who lack any sort of ideology or ambition beyond taking state power for themselves. The conditions of everyday men, women, and children in Sierra Leone will not improve under the NGC – how could they, when the party cannot even give a concrete example of progressive policy it would implement to bring justice and prosperity to our people?
That does not mean that all is hopeless. We certainly do have an opportunity for change in Sierra Leone. The objective conditions for change are evident and have been born out of the relentless struggle of pro-democratic forces and real progressives who exist truly outside the system of wealthy elites. The change we seek in Sierra Leone will never be spearheaded by a disgruntled faction of the same class of desperate politicians who have plundered out our resources for half a century. The nature and character of the NGC’s leadership and its jihadist approach to power should tells us that its leaders only seek to exploit our desperate desires for change. They promise to help the people, but in reality, they only aim to empower a small segment of an alienated petit bourgeoisie within our society. We must vehemently resist the APC’s effort to rig the next elections and secure a de facto third term for Ernest Bai Koroma. At the same time, we must also resist the NGC’s project to fulfill the political agenda of another middle class faction by opportunistically exploiting the anger of the masses against the establishment. We cannot replicate the error of American workers and suburban residents who fell victim to the Trump campaign’s anti-establishment rhetoric only to realize that their aspirations for change has only benefited the higher echelons of American society against the struggling interests of poor working class citizens. Like the NGC and Yumkellah, Trump exploited the legitimate anger and concern of the poor. With one hand he promised them change, while he picked their pocket with the other. Like the NGC, Trump offered no concrete platform or policies that would offer relief to workers. Yet, because he claimed to be an outsider, the people brought him to power. The result has been a corporate coup by Donald Trump, as he appoints friends, family, and corrupt millionaires to run his cabinets. We cannot trust the words of power-hungry politicians simply because they loudly shout “change” and “progressive” over our heads. We can only trust their actions and their concrete plans to improve the lives of our people.