By James Tamba Lebbie
It was written on the walls all over the place. And I saw it coming. But it happened much later than I imagined. And in case you are concerned about my concern, I’m preoccupied by that courageous but perhaps, unfortunate move recently in Bo by the leader of the People’s Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC) who apologized to his supporters and party members for his endorsement of the leader of the All People’s Congress (APC) in the 2007 run-off Presidential polls, which to a very large extent, earned the latter the presidency.
That the alliance (if it ever existed) or better still, political marriage of convenience between Charles Francis Margai and Ernest Bai Koroma has been torn into shreds is not in any way surprising to some of us. Their relationship was patchy at best and rocky at worse, and therefore doomed to failure from the outset, given the manipulative and deceitful nature of some elements within the APC party on the one hand and the maverick and egoistic character of Charles Margai on the other.
But for such an agreement between leaders of the two political parties, apparently based on a gentleman’s agreement, (and not a formal alliance between the PMDC and APC) to be terminated in rancor and controversy, compels me to draw a significant analogy between this and the previous political alliance created some eleven years ago between Ahmed Tejan Kabbah of the Sierra Leone People’s Party and Thaimu Bangura of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in 1996. In spite of some striking differences, the two political marriages of convenience have a lot in common.
First, the ostensible reason proffered for the creation of two alliances were to bridge the regional divide, which were so glaring in the run up to the polls. Second, in the former alliance, it was the leader of the dominant south-eastern based SLPP, who came first in the first round of the 1996 Presidential polls that went into an alliance with the leader of a northern-based party that came third, and which earned Ahmed Tejan Kabbah the presidency in the run-off. In the latter alliance, it was the leader of the north-western based APC, which came first in the first round of the 2007 election that formed an alliance with the leader of the southern-based PMDC. Third, as far as I know, the formation of the two political alliances was not between the two parties but between the leaders of their respective parties. In other words, in 1996, the arrangement was between Ahmed Tejan Kabbah and Thaimu Bangura and in 2007, the agreement was between Ernest Bai Koroma and Charles Francis Margai. Fourth, the PDP and PMDC became pale shadows of their former existence almost immediately after helping their senior partners gain power.
But the interesting comparison to note in these so-called alliances is the prevailing political dynamics in the two polarized regions that created the need for a political marriage of convenience in the first place. During the 1996 presidential poll, there were about 17 political parties that contested for both the parliamentary and presidential elections. Of those 17 political parties, only three – SLPP, PDP and UNPP (United National People’s Party) and their leaders were taken seriously by the electorate. And of those three parties, two (UNPP and PDP) were in the north while one (SLPP) was in the south and eastern regions. So, while the SLPP enjoyed its dominance in its south-eastern strongholds, there was a cut-throat competition for votes between the PDP and the UNPP in the northern region. The Western Area was considered a “swing state”.
Interestingly, the UNPP’s octogenarian leader, Dr. John Karefa-Smart defeated the PDP’s Charismatic Thaimu Bangura in their northern stronghold, including Makeni, in first round of the 1996 presidential polls despite the fact that the former was a late comer in the context of politics the Second Republic. Thaimu Bangura was never able to recover from such a humiliating defeat. And in his desire to settle scores with his political rival, he joined the SLPP to secure victory for Ahmed Tejan Kabbah under the pretext of “healing he nation” from the scourge of tribalism and regionalism. Five ministerial positions, including Finance was given to Thaimu Bangura as compensation for his support. However, a Cabinet reshuffle subsequently removed Thaimu Bangura from the Finance Ministry and confined him to the Ministry of Works, in addition to a drastic reduction of government ministries under the PDP control. Many observers believed that shock and disappointment accompanied Thaimu Bangura to his grave.
Now, fast forward to the 2007 presidential polls. Although the key political actors were certainly not the same, the political rivalry along ethnic and regional lines reached fever pitch. And like in 1996, there were three dominant political parties in the 2007 polls but this time round, the APC and PMDC had replaced the UNPP and PDP. And what is also interesting about the 2007 election is that while the APC enjoyed its dominance in the north, there was stiff competition between the SLPP and PMDC in the south-east. The leader of the PMDC, aggrieved, and perhaps, justifiably so, over the manner he was treated by the SLPP in the Makeni convention to elect a flag bearer, was determined to deprive the SLPP’s Solomon Berewa of the presidency and he succeeded. How he went about it and the consequences of his vindictive move will perhaps, remain to haunt him throughout his political career.
But here are other interesting similarities. Like Thaimu Bangura’s PDP, which revolved around the personality of the leader, the PMDC was established and maintained around the leader’s charisma. And like Thaimu Bangura’s unilateral decision to support SLPP’s Ahmed Tejan Kabbah in 1996, Charles Margai’s decision to support Ernest Bai Koroma in 2007 was a singular move, hence the fallout with some key members of the PMDC executive. Also, the PDP almost became politically irrelevant after the 1996 polls. Some observers believed the PDP didn’t contest the 2002 presidential election apparently because in the absence of its demised leader, its leadership was compromised by President Kabbah. Similarly, the PMDC today is almost a political corpse. The APC has apparently compromised almost all its members serving as ministers in the government. In addition, both Thaimu Bangura and Charles Margai in 1996 and 2007 respectively used the rhetoric of ridding the country of ethnic and regional politics.
Describing Dr. John Karefa-Smart then as a living corpse, Thaimu Bangura said in the jam-packed Wusum Field that it was Tejan Kabbah’s time to be President of Sierra Leone, noting that his turn to run the country would come after Tejan Kabbah left power. In the case of Charles Margai, he is on record for putting his “political career on the line” while vouching for Ernest Bai Koroma that he would “perform”. Recently, this same man was on a tour apologizing to his supporters for endorsing the very man he hailed in 2007. Perhaps, this is a very sad indication that political alliances are short-lived in Sierra Leone and that our politicians are not only deceitful but also incapable of looking beyond the immediate future of an electoral cycle. And in their quest for a political vendetta, they would self-destruct.
My sympathy, Mr. Margai.