By Umaru Fofana
The edges seem to be fraying on the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party – unless of course they do something very dramatic and astonishingly surgical which is becoming increasingly daunting. While the governing All People’s Congress party has been beset with one scandal after another – which in some situations should have spelled doom for them – the SLPP has been tinkering on a brink of their own. Internal wrangling seems to be ripping the party into smithereens.
From where I write, outside of the country, I have been following reports of the defection of the Chairman of the Kailahun District Council, Tom Nyuma. For some reason I have deliberately decided to avoid reading the online chats and commentaries about this. As with many things political in our country these days, it is hard to find an honest and dispassionate view on this matter.
But suffice it to say that I have been speaking with openly partisan people – namely officials on both sides of the political divide. And it has been interesting the way they have responded to what is clearly a political coup for the APC. Even though I have oscillated and vacillated on it a bit lately, I would have betted some two years ago that Tom Nyuma would never leave the SLPP party. And here is why:
Once I was visiting the disputed border town of Yenga with the Parliamentary Committee on Defence. Tom, under whom Yenga falls, played a pivotal role in making the MPs visit happen. I had arrived in Kailahun around 03:00 after a terrible ride and Tom was surprised that I could make the trip and not spend the night in Kenema. We met for breakfast at his house together with the MPs. That was to be my first such encounter with him since my days at Fourah Bay College in the mid 1990s when he was serving in government. In that time we had a brief encounter at a PANAFU meeting in Kenema. I doubt he still remembers that.
When Tom and I had our first ever chat so up close and personal in Kailahun, I noticed he had profound respect for me. I will leave the details out for reasons of modesty. And as we traversed the rough terrain of his district, he mooted the possibility of me ghost-writing his book. I remember him saying that he had a lot to write about the country and his role in the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) junta which ousted the APC in 1992 and the role of that junta in rescuing the country. Some of those things he said in confidence I will never reveal unless of course at his say-so. Like it or not, the NPRC junta, in which Tom subsequently served as Deputy Defence Minister (de facto Defence Minister actually) and Minister of State East, came to power through a plot that was either inspired or even backed by the SLPP. In as much the same way as the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council coup was by the APC. I did not quite agree to Mr Nyuma’s apparent suggestion for me to ghost-write his autobiography even if we never got to discuss it again so I cannot tell what he wanted written and how different it would be if he were to write it today. The next time he and I were to have a chat again was in London.
It was in November of 2009. I was covering the Sierra Leone Donors and Investment Conference in London for the BBC World Service having travelled with the official government delegation. Tom was attending the conference as an official government delegate. He pulled me aside to make certain observations about the way he was being treated by his Sierra Leone People’s Party and asked whether that was being fair to him. He showed me correspondences between him and the then SLPP Secretary General Jacob Jusu Saffa. His party had objected to him attending the conference – or rather the manner in which he had been selected. Or may be both.
I cannot vividly remember the full detail of the letters because I was chasing a BBC deadline but I remember that the party had said they would rather he had been selected through the government writing to them and not directly to Tom to attend the conference. A government official at the time told me that they had taken into account the fact that Kailahun was underdeveloped and had a huge potential for crop production which would be attractive to investors. I refused to give my views to Tom beyond saying that they should try to find a way out of the suspicion which at the time looked to me to be paranoia. I thought some of the party’s leaders were paranoid because, to my mind, Tom looked genuinely loyal to the SLPP. He however seemed frustrated that there was so much mistrust surrounding his visit to London. Some of that mistrust was trumpeted by some of those who, today, see themselves as the staunchest allies of Tom’s choice for president in 2012 – President Ernest Bai Koroma. I could have betted anything that Tom would remain loyal to his party and that would certainly not have been out of naivety.
In the end I am not aware of any direct benefit that came to Kailahun out of the London conference. Needless to say the attacks against Nyuma only subsided but did not disappear. That notwithstanding, he supported Maada Bio in his bid to bear the SLPP flag. The two, after all, had been comrade-in-arms dating back to the NPRC junta era of the 1990s when they both served in cabinet.
I can bet my life that party interest has again beclouded the thought process of many a commentator. And depending on whose side they are on they will believe and amplify one thing or another. Without regard to conscience and nation. I would be the least surprised if some people who’d hitherto seen nothing wrong in Tom Nyuma begin to expose the reasons for his deportation from the United States. I would also not be the least surprised if those who saw everything bad in him not long ago begin to say he is the closest the country has to a Messiah. Whatever position anyone takes in the Tom Nyuma defection, it should awaken the SLPP to the reality that their fight is becoming more difficult even if not yet lost.
It is all too easy to say that people are defecting to the ruling party because of money. This may hold true in many of the cases. But it is also true that there is something fundamentally wrong within the party. It will be naïve of anyone to ignore the fact that some it it dates back to 1996 when Maada Bio led a palace coup and, shortly after, held elections that returned the country to a civilian rule. There are those within the SLPP, who despite their dislike for the APC would rather Bio did not win in November for those selfish considerations. Worse still is that the party seems to have run short of its elders who would have intervened in such situations. I am thinking of Salia Jusu Sheriff, Rev Paul Dumber and even Chief Bai Shebora Komkanda who also had selfish reasons to support the SLPP. After all he had been dethroned as Paramount Chief by the APC until his reinstatement by the SLPP. The shortage of elders to serve as interlocutors is largely because in the run-up to the party convention last year, virtually every elder in the party took sides and almost did so publicly.
Tom’s departure is a serious dent to the SLPP’s chances to win in November – perhaps the most severe in a very long time. I stand to be corrected that he is the first public official elected under the banner of the party to defect so openly since Borbor Sawyer, MP, also from kailahun, did so . The dent is not so much because Tom personally commands a huge following in Kailahun. Far from it! He may as well fail to win a parliamentary seat or even retain his current position in the district. But it is a huge psychological blow which, depending on how the SLPP responds to it, could prove decisive for President Ernest Bai Koroma’s re-election bid. Kailahun is a strong SLPP hold. One of the optimisms on the minds of many opposition members to win the election in November is the fact that over 400 polling stations whose votes were nullified in 2007 would count this time. And those votes are found in Kailahun. And remember that what a presidential candidate needs are popular votes, not parliamentary seats, to win.
But while I have not yet spoken to Tom in a very long time, it would be interesting to know what his reasons are for defecting. After all those who have been leaving the party lately have been giving as reason the fact that they did not support Bio for his bid to lead the party. If Tom did, it would be interesting to know what his reasons are.
Or does it have to do with the survival instinct at the expense of principles and country as seems so much to be the case in present day Sierra Leonean politics? Are our politicians really interested in us or in themselves? This is a question I always ponder over not least when I sense the level of desperation on the part of both those who want to retain power and those who want to return to power or want to get there for the first time. In the end it is the ordinary masses who lose out in this game of survival of the most compromised. Sometimes one is tempted to pray that God should take back the iron ore and hold back the oil.