When rumors started making the rounds late last year that the Minister of Internal Affairs, Musa Tarawally would replace Vice President Sam Sumana as President Ernest Bai Koroma’s running mate for the November 2012 election, I didn’t know how to react – to laugh or to cry. It was a rumour indeed but a persistent one too until it culminated into that intra-party skirmish in Kono in early September last year. I will return later to shed some light on reaction to this interesting drama.
Why would President Koroma prefer to pair up with his notorious Internal Affairs Minister for the political race if indeed such an option was on his table is a question for him and probably, his party to answer. And as for his apparently beleaguered Vice President, rumours were also rife that the President was contemplating on replacing him because the latter had become an embarrassment, and a liability to him. Liability indeed according to his detractors. But what about political expediency, asked his admirers. Which of the two should be of interest and significance to President Koroma? That in my estimation is President Koroma’s dilemma.
VP Sam-Sumana’s alleged political sins are no doubt, numerous and grave enough to make him a subject of scorn and revulsion not only within his own political party circles but by well-meaning Sierra Leoneans. Sam-Samuna, a relative unknown came from the Midwest state of Minnesota in the United States to become Ernest Koroma’s running mate and subsequently the country’s Vice President. Barely after a year of his vice presidency, Sam-Sumana’s democratic credentials came under severe scrutiny when in the absence of the President he ordered the closure of the two political party radio stations. Observers believed his real target was to see the closure of the opposition party radio, which was proving to be very caustic to the ruling APC government. The Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) vociferously condemned the move and it took the timely intervention of the Independent Media Commission (IMC) to save the embarrassing face of the Vice President.
In 2010, a leaked US embassy cable revealed that Vice President Sam-Sumana was named as a “third party defendant in a civil suit in Perry County, Arkansas” for “swindling”. The document pointed out that “when rumors then circulated in Freetown about Sam-Sumana being summoned to an American court and that he had been caught on tape accepting a bribe”, he allegedly tried to “bribe numerous journalists to keep things quiet”.
In September last year, supporters of Sam-Sumana clashed violently with those of the Internal Affairs Minister, Musa Tarawally when the latter visited Kono. The conflict, it was widely believed, was over who between the two antagonists should be President Koroma’s running mate. As a reaction, the government issued a press statement in which it vowed to investigate the matter and bring those responsible to book. Eventually it is believed that more of his supporters than Tarawallie’s were charged to court over the matter,.
Some three months later, the English Channel of Al Jazeera Television broadcast a programme on illegal and destructive logging in Sierra Leone. The documentary, produced by Sierra Leonean film-maker Sorious Samura, also apparently implicated the Vice President and his caboodle. He appeared in that documentary to have offered to use his influence to defer a ban on timber if only to apparently satisfy undercover journalists posing as businessmen interested in the timber industry. The timing was appropriate or unfortunate, depending on where one stands: the revelation came in the wake of the climate change conference in South Africa. Not surprising therefore, a group of 18 United States Representatives including Hank Johnson, U.S. House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa and Donald Payne Global Health Ranking Member wrote a letter to US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton calling on her to urge a full investigation into the allegations.
Describing the report as “very disturbing”, the Congressmen said their “relationship with Sierra Leone requires faith in the integrity of its leadership.” The government was clearly embarrassed and at a point distanced itself from the Vice President. The government however, issued another lame press release promising to investigate the matter to the fullest and to bring to book those found wanting.
For want of an apt characterization, the leaked US cable has this to say of VP Sam-Sumana: he “has a reputation for corruption, and is also believed to be the instigator of some political violence that occurred in and around Kono in the 2007 and 2008 general and local government elections. There are also rumors that he is or has been involved in narcotics trafficking in the past, and has business dealings with former Minister of Transport and Aviation, Ibrahim Kemoh Sesay”, who now works as Presidential Adviser.
Suffice it to say where a semblance of decency exists within a government that prides itself in spending taxpayers’ monies on promoting attitudinal change, the above reasons are more than adequate to relieve the vice president of his duties. But this is Sierra Leone where political expediency reigns supreme at the expense of national considerations. And this seems to be the sole reason behind saving Sam-Sumana’s political skin and by extension the president’s. And here is why:
In the September 2007 Presidential run-off election, Ernest Bai Koroma defeated Vice President Solomon Berewa by 160,756 votes. In Kono District however, the latter polled 72,458 votes as against 52,908 for the former. However, the situation was different in the 2008 local government election in which the APC swept almost all the wards on a low turn-out polling day that was preceded by an unprecedented wave of sustained violence against supporters of opposition candidates as was widely reported by the widely respected Independent Radio Network. In November this year, Ernest Bai Koroma will be competing with SLPP’s Retired Brigadier Maada Bio in an election many observers say will be a close contest. Their projection is probably not misplaced since the political climate and landscape have changed from those of the previous elections.
First, unlike the 2007 elections, the SLPP now has a relatively popular flag-bearer and running mate. Additionally, and related to the first point, the PMDC factor that helped Ernest Koroma win the elections in 2007 has almost vanished. But consider this other point: In 2007, the National Electoral Commission invalidated 477 polling stations that had turn-outs in excess of 100 percent. Of this number, about 400 polling stations were in the opposition (then in government) strongholds of Bo, Pujehun, Kailahun and Kenema districts, something the SLPP says is unlikely to repeat itself this time round.
Some observers and most opposition members still believe that by adding up the invalidated SLPP votes to those protest votes that went to the PMDC and subsequently, the APC in the run-off, Ernest Koroma could not have won the elections in 2007. When these calculations are taken into consideration, Kono District, a traditionally SLPP stronghold but arguably now a “swing state” therefore becomes a paramount target to both political parties in a country that is seemingly divided in the middle between south-east and north-west. In this context therefore, the chances of the APC taking over or losing Kono is contingent on President Koroma’s decision to retain or change his Vice President. As it is now, it is difficult, if not impossible for the President to replace him with another prominent Kono man that commands the respect of the Kono people. This is not to suggest that Sam-Sumana is a very popular politician in Kono. However, changing him now will certainly not only annoy the people of Kono because of natural sympathy for one of their own, but will also erode any possibility of the APC consolidating its inroads in that district.
President Koroma thus seems to be walking on a tight rope in this political quagmire. Sticking with his Vice President risks alienating the country’s international partners and the few swing voters who are apparently irritated by his alleged misconducts. In addition, such a move would arm the opposition with enough ammunition to tear the party apart. On the other hand, changing his Vice President almost certainly means losing a strategic base with a potential to tip the balance in favour of the opposition. This is the albatross that hangs around President Koroma’s neck; and like the Devil’s Alternative, he has to choose the lesser evil.