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Sierra Leone: Political Parties and the Politics of Ethnicity

  • Written by  Mohamed Idriss Kanu (Ph.D. Research Student)
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I will start this article by restating an old adage: “The lip of truth shall be established forever; a lying tongue is but for a moment.” 

The politics of ethnicity in Sierra Leone

I write not out of malice or bias against any political party or persona. Nor am I promoting tribalism. My motive derives partly from my desire to return to a safe Sierra Leone after I shall have completed my studies – my selfish interest - but mainly from the deep concerns I hold about the upcoming elections – my selfless interest. Critical and dispassionate as my analysis of the behaviour and intrigues of the political parties may be, I must confess to some foreboding about how these machinations can easily compromise the November 2012 elections.

Ernest Bai Koroma (‘Obai” for short), as the incumbent President of Sierra Leone since 2007, is seeking re-election for a second term in November. Ordinarily an incumbent President should feel comfortable being judged primarily by reference to the terms of the contract he agreed to with the electorate at the last election and by how much he has fulfilled the terms of that contract. Obai may be content with his Agenda for Change performance over the past five years. The electorate, for its part, would want to evaluate his performance in such critical areas as corruption and nepotism, economy and living standards, food prices and agricultural production, provision of basic life necessities like safe drinking water and electricity, education and vocational training, health care and health care delivery, and other infrastructures like roads, transportation, etc. The assumption here is that the electorate today is much more enlightened than past electorates and therefore more discerning and more capable of making sound judgments about a President’s performance and marking his scorecard accordingly. 

The reality, however, is that we live in times that are not ordinary. Right now, the political debate in the run-up to the November elections is skewed; dominated not so much by sound evaluation of the President’s performance as by the issue of Obai’s ethnicity. This is most unfortunate. Who is responsible? The APC is blaming everybody but themselves for this negative use of tribe in national politics, but the truth of the matter is that, no matter how unpalatable it may sound, the APC leadership started it all in 2007 and have only themselves to blame for the fallout. So Obai and the APC Party must bear the greatest responsibility for the persistent domination of the political debate that ethnic labelling is taking barely months to go to the most crucial elections in Sierra Leone since the end of the rebel war. 

So let truth be told. Nobody can argue that Sierra Leone is not a multi-ethnic society. Past leaders acknowledged its explosive potential and tried to manage it with great care and discretion. Recall, for example, the exemplary leadership of Dr. Milton Margai, Siaka Stevens and Ahmad Tejan Kabbah in the art of judicious balancing between the various ethnic groups. It behooves every leader in Sierra Leone, present and future, in the supreme interest of national cohesion, to learn lessons from the experience of these past leaders. Indeed this has been the cornerstone of our stability as a nation. 

I may therefore be forgiven for asking: what business has Obai or his media handlers to awaken from slumber the monster of ethnic labelling? The first time they did this was in the electioneering of 2007. The APC achieved great advantage but that does not mean it was not flawed. They got away with it the first time purely for fortuitous reasons but in the process they lost the moral argument. They seem bent on engaging it for a second time in the run-up to the 2012 elections. This time around it is not likely they will succeed because times and circumstances have changed substantially. 

For all I care, Obai could be a Bambara or a Marakka. But the point must be made abundantly clear. The strategy of ethnic labelling, taken presumably from the APC’s vaunted 99 tactics, poses grave danger to national stability and is definitely not capable of producing good leadership. Witness, for example, the recent social tensions that this virus generated in a Provincial capital as variegated in ethnicity as Makeni, where people publicly rejected the Catholic Church’s appointment of a Bishop for their diocese merely because he hails from a different region and, by implication, from a different tribe. How much more toxic should this ethnic pigeonholing get before the APC leadership realize it is wrong?

Obai declares “I am a Temne by tribe” in 2007

In my last installment, I examined the history and pattern of voting by the Temnes in all modern democratic elections in Sierra Leone since independence. One conclusion I reached was that, from a historical perspective, the Temnes as a group have always voted for their own kindred leaders, not for political parties per se. And therein lies a fundamental difference between the Temnes on the one hand and the Mendes and Limbas on the other.

The APC had lost the elections of 1996 and 2002 to the SLPP and those of 2007 were proving problematic for them. In their quest to win votes in the North, especially the Temne vote, the second largest ethnic group in the country, they knew they had to craft a message especially for them. They found it in marketing Obai as a Temne: he spoke in the Temne language and sang and danced to Temne songs. As a result, Temnes everywhere in the country voted for him massively. For the Temnes their dream had come true, or so they believed. For long – in fact far too long - they have been yearning for a leader they could call their own to take the place of the late S.I. Koroma and John Karefa-Smart. Despite being the second largest tribe in the country, they have never occupied the seat of power. So in 2007 it proved not too difficult to persuade them to support Obai’s candidacy for President. He, in turn, was found not stingy with promises to the Temnes.

But the APC didn’t stop there. Driven by desperation for the presidency, they barred no option. They dressed the dreadful ghost of tribalism and gave it new life. They did this by labelling the then ruling SLPP as a Mendeman’s party and told Northerners, the Temnes in particular, not to vote for them. They made their point most poignantly by pointing at the Executive positions held by persons like the Flag Bearer, Solomon Berewa; his Running Mate, Momodu Koroma; the National Chairman of the Party, Alhaji U.N.S. Jah; the  National Secretary-General, Jacob Saffa and the National Women’s Leader, Bernadette Lahai, amongst others, all of whom they portrayed as Mendes. This happened after the appointment of Momodu Koroma as Solomon Berewa’s Running Mate. 

This stereotyping was deliberate. Its perpetrators cared little about its repercussions nor did they think of it as blatant tribalism or incitement to tribal hatred. Lampooning the SLPP was all they cared about. At the end they achieved their aim: the Temnes did come out in droves in 2007, voting massively for Obai and the APC.

Obai declares “I am a Loko by tribe” in 2012

That was 2007. As we move now towards the November 2012 elections, the same APC leadership is again showing signs of desperation. They are nervous about losing the Temne vote, especially after the appointment of Kadi Sesay, a Temne, as the Running Mate to the SLPP Flag Bearer.  So worried are they that they have even threatened to end the “honeymoon” they claim the media had with them, whatever that meant, forgetting for a moment that they are leading in a democracy. It’s like daring the country’s journalists to write anything anymore about the President’s ethnicity. Unfortunately, the IMC followed suit, also threatening the media with stern action against what they termed “reckless journalism”; simply another name for muzzling free speech and press freedom that the national Constitution had enshrined.

Because the Temnes voted massively for Obai in 2007, they are now taken for granted, so much so that the APC is least bothered about its likely adverse consequences. So Obai turned his back on the Temnes. In a meeting with members of the Loko tribe in Freetown in March 2012, barely six months to go to the November elections, he unceremoniously changed ethnicity. He was quoted as saying: “I am a Loko by tribe”. This was reported in the Torchlight newspaper of 2 April 2012, whose owner is his Deputy Minister of Information and Communication, Sheka Tarawalie, himself a Loko. Another tabloid, New Storm, interpreted this declaration to mean Obai “disowning the Temnes”. 

APC Vuvuzelas and their frolics

This caused uproar amongst the Temnes followed by outpouring of anger and disbelief. The first reaction of the voluble APC Vuvuzela blowers was to pour scorn on the Temne ethnicity of Kadi Sesay, the Running Mate of the Opposition SLPP. They claimed she couldn’t even speak the Temne language and that her parents couldn’t have been Temne because they had settled in a place outside of Temne land.

This not only failed to wash, it angered the Temnes to no end. Sensing the damage this blunder could cause to his re-election bid, three weeks proved too long before Obai made an about turn. “Who Does Not Know I Am A Temne?” became his change of tack, sounding to many like a vain-glorious attempt to trivialize a disturbingly ruinous matter.     
Obai has thus oscillated between Temne and Loko and back again to Temne – now he says he is Madingo ha ha - all in a matter of weeks. Though manifestly wary of the awesome voting power of the Temnes, his U-turn is nonetheless viewed as cheap and as also adding insult to injury. 

Whatever opinion one might hold about these oscillations, truth must not be sacrificed. The first to raise the spectre of tribal labelling in national politics was the APC in 2007. They lost the moral argument then. And their many ethnic incantations in 2012 constitute a fresh attempt to deepen further the ethnic fissure. Talk to the Temnes in Northern Sierra Leone, the East-end of Freetown and in the Diaspora. They confess to a feeling of betrayal, now almost reaching a climax.

Obai’s media handlers then set about manufacturing a new spin to explain away the blunder. They said Obai has been misunderstood and that what he meant to say to the Lokos was that “for today I am a Loko by tribe”. This spin was hugely spewed in the columns of Awareness Times editions of May 18 and 21; and repeated in the Torchlight newspaper edition of 18 May 2012 by the very man, Sheka Tarawalie, who, on 2 April, had robustly reported Obai’s categorical statement: “I am a Loko by tribe”.

Not only the contradictions apparent in his declarations, the very question of Obai’s ethnicity has dominated public debate, posing a serious threat to his re-election chances. That was probably why he wasted no time in doing a turnaround, reclaiming his rejected Temne lineage in the hope of laying this unfortunate matter to rest.  But, unfortunately for him, the matter has refused to rest. 

We shall now examine the ramifications of Obai’s ethnic declarations. Putting aside the glossy spin crafted by his Vuvuzelas, the question is which of Obai’s declarations is true and which is false? Remembering also his great promises of 2007, have these promises been kept?  

Which ethnic declaration of Obai is true?

To declare you are a Temne doesn’t make you a Temne. Custom and tradition require that you establish your genealogy at birth. What tribe was your father  and your father’s father at birth? What did the people in your village say? What’s your native tongue at birth? What do your friends and contemporaries say? Questions like these - touching upon a person’s pedigree and upbringing - assist in the determination of his true ethnicity.  

So you don’t need a garrulous Vuvuzela blower or a celebrated spin doctor to tell your ethnicity. Nor does one need a meeting of Temne Chiefs to manufacture one. Either you are a Temne at birth or you are not. No need for rebranding or for limiting your ethnicity “for today”.  
So if you claim to belong to a tribe and your claim is genuine and well founded by your kindred, the claim is good. But if you claim to belong to a tribe knowing your claim to be spurious, then your claim is bad. And if you make a false declaration with intent to deceive, for example getting them to believe you are a member of their tribe for the purpose of getting their votes in an election, then, arguably, you are guilty of making a dishonest and deceitful declaration about your tribe. You are also guilty of contempt. 

However, to these APC spin doctors in Sierra Leone, it is not deceitful or contemptuous to declare that you belong to a tribe “for a day”. By the same token, they would see nothing wrong in disowning one tribe for another so long as you are able to obtain what you want.      
Obai’s report card: matching promises with action

If Obai is truly a Temne, as he claimed in 2007 and again in 2012, how much matching is there between his pre-election promises to the Temnes and his performance as a “Temne President”? 

Obai’s Temne declaration in 2007 must naturally have raised expectations among the Temnes. For one thing, they expected their representation in Obai’s Cabinet to bear some proportionality to their voting strength. This is why they have found it difficult to understand why a professed “Temne President” would have only one Temne in a Cabinet of 23 Ministers. It’s even more difficult when that is compared with 5 Loko Ministers and 7 Limba Ministers. More difficult still for the Temnes to accept is the firing of Sanpha Koroma, a Temne, as Secretary to the President without reason; firing of Kemoh Sesay as Minister of Transport and Aviation when no Court had convicted him of any crime; firing of Abdul Serry-Kamal as Attorney-General and Minister of Justice without reason; relocating Edward Turay from Majority Leader in Parliament to London as High Commissioner again without reason. Even the only Temne left in the Cabinet, Alpha Kanu, has since been demoted, again without reason. 

Skeptical observers might say if a man who professes to be a “Temne President” cannot feel comfortable working with his own Temne kinsmen, then something must be fundamentally wrong.  

This anti-Temne posture has even been extended outside APC circles. Dr. Abass Bundu has become the latest victim of APC political machination. He is facing trumped-up charges relating to the passport saga for a second time even though the matter had been closed by the previous SLPP administration that had in fact brought the initial charges against him in the first place in 1996. Abass Bundu, a Temne and a highly respected intellectual and diplomat, is a prominent member of the Opposition SLPP and a strong ally of the SLPP Flag Bearer. The passport saga has been going on for 16 years now and Sierra Leoneans are anxious to know whether or not Bundu is guilty as charged so that this matter can be brought to an end finally. Otherwise the whole thing cannot escape condemnation as political intimidation and persecution.

I wonder what the APC spin doctors are waiting for to rebrand people like Alhaji Ibrahim Ben Kargbo, Minister of Information and Communication, who, though speaking flawless Temne, has never pretended to be otherwise than a Limba. Dauda Kamara, Minister of Local Government, likewise a good Temne speaker, is not reputed to be anything but a Limba. The same is true of Alimamy Koroma, Minister of Works, a Limba,  and of Samura Kamara, Minister of Finance, a Loko. These people are fine examples of ethnic honesty. They are what they have always been – Limbas and Lokos by tribe and proud ones at that.

They are not like Frank Kargbo, Attorney-General and Minister of Justice. Born to a Loko father and a Temne mother, and allegedly a cousin to Obai, he seems to relish being referred to as a Temne even though all his siblings carry the ethnicity of Loko with good grace.

Conclusion

As a multi-ethnic democracy, no Sierra Leonean should underestimate the value of ethnicity in national politics. A politician’s first constituency is his ethnic base. It’s only human. When the Temnes voted for Obai in 2007, they did so believing he was one of them and they were more than anxious to see him seated at State House. That did not make them tribalists or their action tribalism.  
Therefore the current argument is not about tribe or tribalism. It’s about honesty and deceit; it’s about good and bad leadership. Put simply, the Temnes feel cheated and betrayed; they also feel they have been fooled once and could be fooled a second time. So they are now most circumspect. They want to be sure when they vote in November that they are voting for one of their own either for the number one or number two slot in the State House. 

What is more, they have not been able to point to a single village anywhere in Temne country comparable to a village called Yoni in Loko country very close to the Konso River near Makeni, where beautiful modern cement block houses now dot the landscape where until very recently old shanty hamlets of mud and stick predominated.  
All said and done, the Temnes say they can’t wait to give Obai his scorecard on November 17. Before then, they would have evaluated whether he had lived up to their expectations and the terms of his contract. If they judge him to have not satisfactorily carried out the terms of his contract with them, like having only one Temne Minister in his Cabinet, completely disproportionate to their voting strength, Obai might as well forget about a second term presidency.

Within the present political landscape, the Temne vote can no longer be taken for granted or become the monopoly of any one party. Facts, not fiction, shall be the determining factor. The Temnes may have been deceived once; this time around they are determined not to be deceived a second time. They want a blue-blood Temne in the State House, not a Temne manufactured on the pages of newspapers.

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