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Questioning President Koroma’s democratic credentials

By James Tamba Lebbie

Once again the parliamentary bye-election in the All Peoples Congress’ “stronghold” of Mile 91 – scheduled for 29 June 2013 but which didn’t take place - has brought President Ernest Bai Koroma’s democratic credentials under sharp scrutiny. And once again, the same incident has lent credence to what many observers have been saying - that the APC is afraid of elections and is incapable of winning any clean, credible and transparent poll.

On Thursday 20 June 2013, President Koroma left his official state duties to attend to an internal party brawl in Mile 91 where supporters of the two ruling party candidates for the parliamentary bye-election that never was, were at each other’s throat. His mission, I was made to understand, was to put pressure on one of the candidates – John Gbla – who, apparently frustrated by the fact that APC party denied him a symbol, had decided to contest on an independent ticket – to relinquish his parliamentary aspirations in favour of his opponent, Aaron Koroma, the preferred APC party candidate.

The president’s intervention in such a manner, no doubt has several far-reaching ramifications for our fledgling democracy, which is in need of good governance practices both at the micro and macro levels in order to nourish and consolidate it.  Among other things, I will comment on two of those ramifications.

First, that the president would use his official time and state resources (I saw him returning from Mile 91 in a long presidential motorcade) to address internal party issues is testament to the fact that the line between state and party has become very blurred. This is a country where incumbents cannot draw a distinction between state matters and party affairs, and they would use tax payers’ money to address internal party problems. In his former capacity as opposition leader before the 2007 elections, President Koroma vehemently criticized such practices. Under his watch, however, this same practice has been institutionalized and entrenched.  Such political hypocrisy by our leaders is unhealthy and undermines our democracy.

Second, President Koroma’s intervention and/or mediation between the two parliamentary candidates with the object to ensuring that the APC candidate went unopposed is not only ill-advised, but a serious threat to our democracy. It is inconceivable in this twenty-first century that a political party would deny a candidate a symbol to contest an election, and when that same person decides to contest as an independent candidate, the same political party, led by the party leader and president of the country intervenes to deprive him of his constitutional rights to be voted for.

I was of the opinion that the primary responsibility of members of parliament is to represent the people in their constituencies and not the political party under which they contest. However, recent events in Mile 91 have shown me that the opposite is the case. And if the APC party was so sure that Aaron Koroma (and not John Gbla) was the right candidate for the people, why didn’t they allow the former to contest and face the verdict of the people they both wanted to represent? Rather, the intimidating presence of the whole party machinery from Freetown including the president of the country was brought to bear on Gbla. No doubt, the intimidation was too much for him, and the poor, young man had to give up his ambition at least for now.

But this is not the first time such things are happening. At the previous APC party convention held in May this year, it took the personal intervention of the party leader and president again to suppress the ambitions of those who wanted to contest against those preferred by the Koromaists, but apparently unpopular candidates of the party. Consequently, the convention ended without an election, and all positions within the party were won unopposed. And while they lack the courage to speak out, many were dissatisfied over the conduct of the convention. In fact, a close friend from the Diaspora and member of the APC party who came to witness the occasion told me that he had never witnessed an “undemocratic convention” like such.  He was visibly disappointed but he told me he would not quit the party.

But while I will listen to the argument that the practice of winning internal party positions unopposed could help to foster internal party cohesion, I will counter the argument that such a practice negates good governance practices. Indeed, although democracy is just not about elections, it is a fundamental prerequisite.  Therefore, a party that believes in and subscribes to a democratic system that espouses freedom of expression and participation should not be afraid of conducting credible elections.

Further, there is no guarantee that the absence of internal democracy within the ruling party could not affect the way the state is being governed. And like it was pointed out in our TWEETER column on one of our past editions, the fingerprints of one party dictatorship are already visible everywhere around the country.

But these are not the only reasons for questioning the president’s democratic credentials. Under his watch, some of our key state institutions are being compromised and rendered weak and pliable, sometimes through their weak structures and other times through direct interference from senior government officials.

Take the establishment of the country’s so-called public broadcaster, the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC). Its institutional structure and funding mechanism have rendered it incapable of meeting its public service objectives. A board was appointed that is incapable of insulating the corporation from outside interference. In addition, a management was appointment whose heads do not have a clue of public service broadcasting ethos.  And staff members were recruited from the old structure (the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service) whose mentality about broadcasting is very much patterned on a pro-establishment template. At the moment, at least two of the three commissioned reports on the SLBC have indicted the board and the management, but the government has failed to act so far. Today, the SLBC is everything but a public service broadcaster. In essence, it is a failed enterprise.

Another institution which is being rendered impotent is the Independent Media Commission (IMC). Take the case of the appointment of Dr. Sylvia Blyden, a newspaper proprietor, as the president’s Special Executive Assistant. She has on many occasions lampooned the IMC and in one or two instances, she even violated sanctions levied on her by that institution. Interestingly, or rather ironically, the president himself had had causes on few occasions to seek redress at the IMC against this same person when she brought his image and family name into disrepute. If such an appointment is not a ridicule of the IMC, then tell me what is.  But a more serious issue of undermining the credibility of such an important and supposedly independent state institution came when the IMC took a decision to grant a broadcast license to Afri Radio. The IMC subsequently rescinded its decision after a meeting with the president at State House. Many believed the IMC was arm-twisted to revoke the license.

Another state institution that is functioning only in name is Statistics Sierra Leone. The credibility of the statistical information generated by that department is suspect to say the least. Many in the statistics community believe that the institution is incapable of meeting its benchmark, i.e. providing credible statistical information for other government bodies, international organizations and researchers. This is also because of its institutional structure and outside interference. For instance, the appointment of the current Statistician General was not approved by Parliament. His colleagues say he is grossly incompetent for that job because he is a computer engineer. Besides, he has been running that institution without a board (the statistics council) for over a year now. And more importantly, perhaps, is the fact that a damming report known as the “Pepper Report” on Statistics Sierra Leone and its management is with the government but which has so far refused to act on its recommendations. I’m made to understand that the Minister of Finance and Economic Development is under considerable pressure from his colleagues to suppress the report.

The list is endless. However, I will use those instances and examples to substantiate my argument that President Koroma is not the democrat he has made many to believe. His public rhetoric runs in sharp contrast to his actions.

(C) Politico 05/07/13