By Chernoh Alpha M. Bah
Why has Kandeh Yumkella of the National Grand Coalition (NGC) denied his party supporters and sympathizers the opportunity to elect an NGC presidential candidate in the upcoming June 2023 election? Will Yumkella’s one vote be enough to give the incumbent candidate, Julius Maada Bio, a second term? And is Yumkella thinking that by disenfranchising NGC voters, Maada Bio will automatically get a second term?
A few days ago, I published details of fundraising contributions from members of NGC; the political party founded and led by Kandeh Yumkella. In that publication, I asked how would a combined group of NGC members in the United States, Canada, England, and Freetown who have been unable to raise US$50,000 in six months from membership contributions be able to independently finance an election campaign? I also wondered whether a political party whose diaspora and home-based membership cannot independently raise up to US$50,000 in six months should be trusted with political power and the management of the national treasury?
These questions, and the publication of details of the NGC’s precarious financial position, have annoyed the party’s leaders and its militants. The NGC’s acting chairman, Jesmed Suma, went on the rampage in an audio message with insults and derogatory statements directed against me and Africanist Press. Other NGC members translated their anger into posters, making caricatures of my personality and work.
This recent violent response of NGC members to my work is not unusual. It is characteristic of the party’s usual reaction to my assessment of the organization even before the 2018 elections. In 2018, an online brigade of NGC members attacked me for questioning Yumkella and the NGC’s claim of being “progressive.” Back then, I asked the NGC leadership and membership to tell us what makes them a “progressive force” and who were the so-called “progressives” among their ranks? They had no answers. I also asked the NGC to point out the progressive ideas on their platform that distinguishes them from the two dominant parties they aim to replace? The NGC also had no answers. They instead resorted to the same insults and name calling.
The recent outrage stems from the organizational crisis created by Yumkella’s decision to force the NGC out of the upcoming presidential race. Yumkella refused to have the party nominate him as its candidate or another candidate in the upcoming presidential elections. Instead, Yumkella announced that he will be voting for the incumbent Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) candidate, Julius Maada Bio. A majority of the NGC executive members also deserted the party after Yumkella decided to support Bio’s bid for a second term.
In recent days, Yumkella has been traveling around the country trying to convince Sierra Leoneans that his decision to disenfranchise NGC voters was to promote development in Sierra Leone. Many Sierra Leoneans have questioned Yumkella’s sincerity; saying that his decision was designed to advance his selfish interest. Angry NGC members say an undisclosed agreement signed between Bio and Yumkella promises to make him (Yumkella) a strategic minister in the next cabinet if Bio is able to retain power. The agreement also promises similar political positions to other NGC leaders. Some even say that Bio has promised to make Yumkella the next presidential candidate if he gets reelected.
Sierra Leoneans will head to the polls in June 2023 to elect a new president among other officials. Last week, the Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone (ECSL) announced that 13 candidates have been nominated to contest for the position of president. The nominated candidates include incumbent President Julius Maada Bio. The leading contender to Bio is Samura Kamara, a former foreign affairs minister in the past government of Ernest Bai Koroma. In the 2018 presidential elections, Bio, the current president, won narrowly against Kamara by less than 2% in both rounds of the presidential race.
Five years on, Kamara’s popularity has increased, and supporters of his campaign have multiplied amidst Bio’s growing unpopularity across the country. A real possibility of defeating Bio in the June 2023 elections turned Kamara into the most obvious target for both the ruling party and sectors of the opposition groups in the country. Kamara’s growing appeal within the rank and file of the APC and the real electoral challenge he poses to President Bio has led to him being targeted by internal opponents in the APC. This June 2023, President Bio is seeking re-election for another five-year term of office. If he wins, Bio is expected to embark on new constitutional reforms and legal amendments that will significantly affect multiparty politics and participatory democracy in Sierra Leone. Bio was elected President of Sierra Leone in April 2018 on a platform to fight corruption and introduce fiscal discipline in government. On assuming office, Bio told representatives of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Freetown, that his government had inherited the worst economic situation in the country since independence in 1961. He announced a range of economic measures including the introduction of a Treasury Single Account (TSA) that centralized government expenditure.
A governance transition committee established on 6th April 2018, just two days after Bio was sworn into office, reported that the outgoing administration of Ernest Koroma had led Sierra Leone to the brink of economic collapse. It identified a huge external and domestic debt burden driven mostly by an “exploded payroll” to the tune of US$263 million or 14.4% of the GDP. President Bio responded by launching multiple audits into the past activities of the Koroma regime, examining issues of political and financial corruption, nepotism, and widespread economic graft that permeated governance during the ten years that the All Peoples Congress (APC) was in power. These investigations concluded by accusing officials of the Koroma regime of corruption and the acquisition of unexplained wealth. Bio imposed a travel ban on several of Koroma’s former ministers, including his leading contender, Samura Kamara. Bio has placed Kamara on travel ban for the entire five years that he has been in office on the guise of fight corruption.
As it later turned out, Bio’s “corruption war” against his predecessors was and is a façade. Africanist Press investigations uncovered evidence showing that corruption increased significantly after Bio took power. In the six months after the 2018 election, cash amounting to more than US$2.4 million was directly withdrawn from the Bank of Sierra Leone (BSL) for supposed personal use by President Bio and First Lady Fatima Bio. Large daily cash withdrawals of both foreign and local currencies were regularly carried out directly by the president and his wife, or by close aides of the president who acted on instructions from the president. Within the same six months, a combined total of over US$3.1 million was withdrawn and jointly spent by Bio and his wife as travel per diems. Expenditure records show that such large cash withdrawals are now regular financial practice; there is no documentation whatsoever to show how these monies were spent. In fact, misspending of travel funds has become normalized. The IMF recently noted that Sierra Leone’s economic challenges have intensified, that inflation continues to rise amidst a sharply depreciating currency, and debt related risks have also increased. Bio seeks refuge in the global economic crisis to provide excuses for his mishandling of the economy. Ordinary citizens have grown restless due to the excruciating hardship in the country.
In previous years, Yumkella and other NGC members claimed they were against Bio’s human rights records and his mismanagement of public finances. But in recent weeks, Yumkella renounced his previous criticism of Bio, saying the president is developmentally oriented and he is joining him to support progress. In the upcoming elections, NGC would mostly field candidates in opposition party districts, avoiding any competition with Bio’s ruling party.
“Ordinary NGC supporters who wanted to vote for Yumkella for president have been denied by Yumkella himself from voting for an NGC presidential candidate,” a former member of its executive said, adding that “Yumkella disenfranchised NGC voters for Bio’s second term.”
My first public comment on the NGC was published after the party appointed 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 was a two-time contender for the leadership of the SLPP, just like Kandeh Yumkella, the NGC presidential candidate. Both Keili and Yumkella, like many in the NGC, held positions in previous regimes that stand accused of decades of graft and political incest.
Yumkella was a cabinet member of the military regime that ruled Sierra Leone in the 1990s, and it was the military government by Bio and others that backed his appointment to the United Nations Industrial Organization (UNIDO). In 2013, Yumkella began campaigning to lead the SLPP as its presidential candidate for the 2018 elections. When Yumkella failed to become the SLPP candidate in 2018, he formed the NGC along with other SLPP and APC members who wanted but did not get power within their parties. After its formation, the NGC began positioning itself as a “new political group” with no ties to the APC and SLPP. Constituted as a breakaway faction of political elites, they began spreading 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. Towards 2018, the leaders of the NGC comprised all the disgruntled and alienated politicians from the APC and SLPP parties who have dominated Sierra Leone’s politics for the past 60 years. “The formation of the NGC was not about change; it was about an old faction of Sierra Leone’s corrupt political elite trying to take power for themselves,” observers have noted. Sierra Leoneans say Yumkella and others formed the NGC because they failed to garner a nomination from within the APC or the SLPP in 2018.
However, recent events have shown that the goal of NGC politicians was not to change the structure of Sierra Leone’s politics. Like the rest of the career politicians in the country, NGC leaders just wanted a piece of the pie for themselves. Weeks to the next presidential elections, the party has broken into various groups, each going its own way. Yumkella has returned to the SLPP, but he faces an uphill task: he and his few followers cannot reasonably explain the inconsistency between their previous criticism of Bio’s leadership and their recent honeymoon with the very politician they once called a “thief and violent junta leader.”
In the last two weeks, Yumkella tried unsuccessfully to convince Sierra Leoneans that his decision to support Bio is “patriotic.” In the NGC, many have been left asking why Yumkella sold out his presidential ticket to Julius Maada Bio. The majority of NGC supporters still consider Bio a violent and corrupt junta leader.
“Yumkella knows his one vote wouldn’t give Maada Bio a second term,” one NGC member stated.
Back in 2018, Yumkella scored some 136,000 votes (about 6.9%), a distant third position in the presidential election that Bio narrowly won. Analysts are arguing that Yumkella would have gotten lower vote counts had he contested the presidential elections again in June 2023; a reason attributed to his decision to endorse Bio’s candidacy. With economic hardship and corruption looming large under Bio, his chances of getting reelected has significantly narrowed in the last few weeks. Fearful of defeat, Bio and his opposition allies are now applying authoritarian methods to prevent the conduct of free and fair elections.
In June 2022, Yumkella and other Members of Parliament (MPs) enacted a new elections law that gave the Electoral Commission and President Bio unrestricted powers to redefine the electoral rules and determine how elections would be organized in June 2023. A national voter registration exercise undertaken in September 2022 was fraught with tremendous technical and bureaucratic challenges. Hundreds of videos and other evidence collected by Africanist Press showed that thousands of potential voters who turned up at voter registration centers, mostly in Freetown and in cities across the north of Sierra Leone, were unable to register. In several centers in Freetown, voters queued up for many hours to register only to be told by electoral officials that they were experiencing technical problems, including lack of functioning computers, absence of electricity supply, and other complications with software and fingerprint scanners.
The voter registration exercise was marred largely due to procurement irregularities. The Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone (ECSL) awarded two procurements contracts worth over US$10 million to two Freetown companies that did not show technical capacity to supply the requested voter registration technology and software. Yumkella and other MPs failed to undertake any inquiries into the activities of the Electoral Commission, including the problematic registration process itself which threatens the smooth conduct of the elections. Few days ago, Bio’s supporters within the opposition began calling for street demonstrations against the Electoral Commission. Intelligence sources believe that Bio is finding ways to delay the conduct of the elections and wanted to use state-instigated protests to justify delaying the elections.
With few weeks now to the elections, the world must pay attention to developments in Sierra Leone. Democratic organizations must continue to impress upon the government of Sierra Leone, and all political leaders, the need to respect the democratic process and commit themselves to the organization of free, fair, and peaceful elections.