By Chernoh Alpha M. Bah
President Julius Maada Bio’s propagandists are working strenuously to make the world believe that Bio and his ruling Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) are the popular choice among voters. In Freetown, the Institute of Governance Reform (IGR), a local civil society organization led by SLPP activist Andrew Lavalie, has even announced, without any survey data, that President Bio will win the June elections with 59% of the vote. Lavalie’s colleagues in Freetown, and his associates in London, and other cities in the United Kingdom, have repeated this fictitious narrative in opinion articles published by a couple of international news outlets in the UK and other places. The objective of their propaganda campaign is to convince global audiences that Maada Bio is the leading candidate in Sierra Leone’s presidential election scheduled to take place on 24th June 2023.
This rehearsed narrative that aims to subsume Bio’s massive unpopularity – unprecedented for any first term African president – is carved out of hollow ground. Bio, who is seeking re-election for another five-year term of office, was elected President of Sierra Leone in April 2018 on a platform to fight corruption and introduce fiscal discipline in government.
Instead of honoring his promise to fight corruption, President Bio and First Lady Fatima Bio have made themselves the very center of corruption. In his first six months as president, he and the First Lady withdrew more than $2.4 million for their personal use, and over $3 million more for travel per diems. Large financial withdrawals have now become regular practice and Africanist Press reporting shows that these withdrawals are for Bio’s financial benefit.
This unprecedented level of corruption is occurring at the same time that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has 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 post-COVID to provide excuses for his mishandling of the economy. Ordinary citizens have grown restless due to the excruciating economic hardships in the country.
Bio’s leading contender is Samura Kamara, a former foreign affairs minister in the government of Ernest Bai Koroma. In the 2018 presidential elections, Bio won narrowly against Kamara by less than 2% in both rounds of the presidential race. Five years on, Kamara’s popularity has significantly increased, and supporters of his campaign have multiplied amidst Bio’s unpopularity across the country. The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) recently projected that Kamara is likely to win the upcoming presidential race.
This real possibility of defeating Bio in the June elections has resulted in Kamara being targeted by both the ruling party and sectors of the opposition groups in the country. Kamara’s campaign events have been the ongoing subject of police violence in recent weeks. Ruling party supporters have reportedly disrupted his campaign tours in SLPP strongholds in the south and east of the country. Media coverage of Kamara’s campaign activities have also been very minimal compared to Bio’s favorable local and international media coverage.
Fearful of defeat, Maada Bio, and his party officials – almost all government ministers and other political appointees – have spent the last two months traveling around the country, transporting crowds of the same individuals from SLPP dominated districts in the south and east of Sierra Leone into opposition dominated constituencies and districts in Freetown and other regions. Their aim is to use these transported and paid crowds to create a façade of popular appeal to impress unsuspecting international observers that Maada Bio is a popularly supported incumbent candidate. These transported crowds of familiar faces, mostly from SLPP strongholds in the south and east, are now a permanent feature of President Bio’s rallies. SLPP politicians are using state resources to transport these crowds to shore-up the ongoing dancing parades of President Bio’s campaign caravan across the country.
Known ruling party propagandists, and their hidden allies in media and civil society, have in turn used images of these rented crowds to argue that the electoral dynamics in Sierra Leone are now rapidly changing in favor of Maada Bio. In fact, Andrew Lavalie and other known SLPP operatives have used images of these rented parades and transported crowds as evidence to justify their recent fictitious surveys. In some radio and TV discussions, Lavalie and other SLPP activists claimed that the rented crowds ferried into Freetown, Makeni, Portloko, and Kono are unprecedented and are therefore illustrative of SLPP’s victory.
However, this conclusion is both disingenuous and plainly wrong. Nonetheless, it directly speaks to a familiar psychological tactic in African politics: it is a campaign tactic of crowd politics habitually deployed by many unpopular, incumbent regimes in almost all authoritarian electoral environments in Africa. It is a deceptive politics that is now characteristic of electoral authoritarian regimes across Africa: from South Africa to Nigeria, and Ivory Coast to Kenya. It is an evolving trend in African crowd politics that is aided by manipulative public poll statisticians and the politics of the new fact-checking technology industrialists. And the practice is not just done during election campaigns. Former Gambian President, Yayah Jammeh habitually transported his Jola supporters around to follow him and dance in parades.
In Sierra Leone, the psychological use of rented crowd politics is not new, and it did not begin with Maada Bio. Ruling party crowd renting practices have become part of the evolving repertoire of electoral politics since the end of the civil war in 2002. Today’s crowd renting techniques are directly borrowed from preceding regimes, and they have been refashioned with new media technology by an emerging youthful generation commanded by the same corrupt elite networks. In Bio’s case, he borrowed the current script directly from Ernest Koroma’s strategy on how to rig elections through crowd manipulation. Koroma and the APC used similar tactics in both 2012 and 2018.
In 2012, for example, the APC of Ernest Koroma reportedly bribed the then UDM leader, Mohamed Bangura, with more than US$300,000 to withdraw his candidacy in the presidential race a week before the elections. Bangura was later appointed as cabinet minister by the APC and was afterwards awarded a parliamentary nomination to contest in the 2018 elections in a supposedly safe APC electoral district in the north of the country. The APC also paid a bribe of two hundred million Leones to the disenfranchised NDA presidential candidate, Alhaji Wurie Musidal Jalloh to announce support for the APC a day before the elections. The list of bribed opposition party members in 2012 included the late Tom Nyuma, Usu Boie Kamara (later made Minister of Trade), and Robin Fallay (who was part of the APC’s publicity team but has since joined Maada Bio after APC lost the elections five years ago).
This same crowd renting politics employed by Ernest Koroma are being used today by Maada Bio. Like Koroma, Bio has bribed opposition politicians out of the current presidential elections. These politicians include Kandeh Yumkella of the National Grand Coalition (NGC). As part of the bargain, Yumkella refused to have the NGC nominate him as its candidate in the upcoming presidential elections. Instead, Yumkella announced that he will be voting for Bio. Angry NGC members allege that an undisclosed agreement signed between Bio and Yumkella promises to make Yumkella a strategic minister in the next cabinet if Bio can 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.
For weeks now, Yumkella has led some of the rented crowds that have travelled around the country organizing President Bio’s dance parades for a second term. Many Sierra Leoneans have questioned Yumkella’s sincerity; the same way they also doubt the reality of paid crowds dancing behind Bio’s campaign convoys.
It is this familiar horse-trading – vote buying, and political bribery – that Andrew Lavalie and his UK-based colleagues have used as metrics in their recent partisan polls to project a false narrative of a certain Bio victory. They are deliberate in their use of false data based on financially induced crowds as indicators of a potential win for an incumbent party candidate in African politics.
In studying crowd mobilizations in African politics, we can identify a significant and obvious difference between opposition crowd parades, like the crowds that are trooping behind the APC’s presidential candidate Samura Kamara, and the paid and transported crowds of the same faces that are being ferried around the Maada Bio campaign caravans.
Opposition rallies in African politics are often driven by genuine crowd support and could be evidentiary enough to assess an opposition candidate’s given chances in an electoral contest. The contrast is often the case with unpopular incumbents, like the current regime of Maada Bio in Freetown, who deliberately employ and deploy the resources and services of the state to create a political masquerade with the intention of demoralizing opposition voters and make them believe that the elections are a forgone conclusion. To understand the futility of such propaganda and psychological tactics in Sierra Leonean politics, one only needs to recall the similar public masquerades organized by the SLPP’s incumbent candidate, Solomon Ekuma Berewa during the election campaigns of 2007. Or the 2018 presidential elections organized under Ernest Koroma and its crowd parades as well.
The first immediate thing that must be taken into consideration is not only the amount of state resources that Maada Bio’s government is now willing to deploy in favor of his party’s campaign, but also the fact that events like the SLPP’s dance parades are a clear example of the staged plans that are already set in motion by the SLPP leadership and its electoral machinery to rig the upcoming elections in June 2023.
The greatest challenge now confronting opposition parties in many African elections, especially in places like Sierra Leone, is how to counter the rogue campaign tactics of incumbent authoritarian regimes? How do opposition groups prevent rogue incumbents from having even the slightest opportunity to actualize any of the psychological techniques of rigging elections?
There is no way an unpopular incumbent can win an election if the entire electoral process — from the organization of polling stations, the casting of votes, and counting of votes, to the tallying of results and reporting of vote counts — is effectively and efficiently monitored, in a much more vigilant manner, by opposition polling agents who must be sworn to protect the ballot and its content vigilantly and genuinely on election day. Authoritarian regimes can only win an election, in such context, if they can illicitly generate more votes than the existing number of registered voters across the country. And if they are allowed to psychologically or physically suppress and disperse potential opposition voters in districts and constituencies where opposition parties have dominant presence.
Thus, the first step to prevent fraudulent outcomes is for democratic forces, including opposition parties, to defend and secure the entire voting process from start to finish. It must be understood that the use of state and public resources by an incumbent party to create an undue advantage is one of the most heinous acts of political corruption in a democracy. Such a practice runs contrary to the requirements of a free and fair election.
Therefore, opposition party activists, and by extension all democratic forces across the country, must use the new media tools at their disposal to expose efforts by the SLPP and their accomplices when they seek to employ and deploy state resources and services in a manner that is intended to create an undue advantage for their own candidates in the elections. Everyone must be committed to utilizing all of the media technology at their disposal to peacefully force all those involved in the ongoing electoral process to respect the rule of law and the requirements of free and fair democratic elections. This is the single most important thing the opposition must do if they want to protect and secure the possibility of victory in any election.
Again, the opposition can only win if they are completely resolved to peacefully policing the electoral process and are absolutely determined to genuinely enforce compliance with the rules and requirements of a democratic electoral environment on all contenders and managers of the electoral process.
People have the right and responsibility to insist on fair elections and campaign practices. Only in this way can the incumbent regime be persuaded to operate and conduct itself according to the rules of free, fair, peaceful, and transparent elections.