One need not be injected with truth serum to own up that the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP), our and my “Grand Old Party,” has been on many a self-destruct path before, and that it may well be headed that route again unless … Well, I am just getting started, even as you discount me as a good-for-nothing alarmist washing the Party’s dirty laundry in public! The fact is that the Party’s self-injury has been festering in public for a while. No contending, the SLPP is a government-in-waiting, but as 2018 inches closer, party folks who are measuring (prematurely, by the way) the green, white and blue drapes to Slater Terrace (where State House is located) should come to terms with the Party’s yawning fracture, which is nothing short of a civil war. As with many a splintered entity that is bound to crash under its own wobbly weight, the Party’s discord must be addressed, and pronto, so 2018 does not come and pass by as a missed opportunity. But for the Party to unravel itself would require some retrospection, a going down memory lane, so it can learn some hard lessons, hopefully, and stop the bleeding.
Compromise among Colony- and Protectorate-based groups aimed at unifying Sierra Leone had inspired the birth of the SLPP in 1951. While it seemed early that the Party would dominate national politics, those expectations were dashed, in large part as a result of intense leadership struggles; the first saw Albert Margai challenging and defeating his brother, Milton Margai, in the1957 party leadership contest. Subsequently, party pressure and compromise, not violence or intimidation, were brought to bear and Albert Margai stepped down for his brother, who then formed government. As Prime Minister, Milton Margai left no one in doubt about his preferred successor, John Karefa Smart, whose leadership prospect in the Party was cut short in favor of Albert Margai’s following the Prime Minister’s passing in 1964.
The fact that Albert Margai, an ethnic Mende, had succeeded his brother set the stage for the Party’s ensuing negative ethnic image and plummeting fortunes. The Party’s internal cohesion diminished progressively under Albert Margai, who was accused of gross intolerance. Matters came to a head leading up to the 1967 elections after he had deprived two of his tribesmen, Kai Samba and L.A.M. M’briwa, the party symbol for parliament; Kai Samba and M’briwa then contested as independents and won and, not surprisingly, declared for the opposition All Peoples Congress (APC), which went on to form government. Once in opposition, the fortunes of the SLPP continued to wane, which was made worse by the lingering leadership friction between the Albert Margai and Salia Jusu-Sheriff groups. So, by the time Prime Minister Siaka Stevens imposed his APC one-party rule on Sierra Leone in 1978, the SLPP had been rendered roundly weakened and incapable of posing an effective opposition.
In more recent times, there have been the Solomon BerewaCharles Margai, the Maada BioWusu Boie Kamara, and the John BenjaminMaada Bio leadership snafus, among others. But what have set contemporary events apart are the vitriol, intimidation, irrational intolerance and unwarranted acts of barbarism within the Party, the likes of which never before seen. The toxicity has been such that one would think the Party has been possessed by frenzied aliens from outer space! Yet we can’t tout enough to the firmaments our Party’s motto of “One Country, One People” and its peace and democratic credentials. But how can the SLPP make legitimate claims to its being democratic, peaceful and unifying when some members can’t accommodate or tolerate the points of view or ambitions of others? What moral high ground can be argued by us now and in the future while seeking justice for our members, deceased and alive, who were brutally violated by outside goons following the 2007 elections if the Party remains steeped in acts of intimidation, molestation and violence? How can the Party expect to go into elections splintered, and with a blurred image, and expect to be taken seriously by voters?
Undoubtedly, the Party can only be a viable government-in-waiting if members can demonstrate that they are one another’s keepers, not antagonists. Potential flag bearers and their supporters should come to terms that only one individual will emerge as the presidential candidate. Further, that the grueling bid for the Party’s capstone position is a transformative exercise, one that will make for a better prepared candidate in the presidential election. And more important, that the Party will have to count on the unflinching support of every party member to elect its presidential candidate and parliamentarians. The extremist throng that maintains a daily fixture at party offices may be the most visible and vociferous but certainly not the most dedicated, let alone a wining marker for the Party on voting day. The point is that successful campaigns invariably are products of the collective effort, not of camps doing things their different ways. Recall the 2007 “Solo-bebes and “Solo-bobs” splinter syndrome that gripped and sapped the Party’s organizational and collective effort?
One important takeaway from 2007 would be for party members to recognize the high cost at the polls if one party group or the other continues to antagonize and brazenly dismissincluding chatter of eliminatingothers perceived or believed to belong to camps other than theirs. Just the kind of mindless self-destructing that played out unchecked in 2007 when Charles Margai was demonized and waved off as a rabble-rouser and nothing more. Charles was no doubt a sore loser in the 2005 SLPP leadership race, but we, as a party, did a terrible job of pointlessly bashing and hounding him even after he had left the SLPP and established his Peoples Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC). It may be well for one to be disinclined to or hold in low esteem Charles’ politics or leadership qualities, but he should be credited for proving that he was no political undercard or pushover. And when his “glorious moment of fame” came in 2007, he seized it deftlyif only to validate his political relevance and, some would say, bottom lineand, therefore, paid us back by tilting the balance of power to the opposition APC. By the way, which politician wouldn’t seek validation or relevance? None… Charles may never again be able to pull it off as he did in 2007, but a reprise of our monumental failure of imagination not to have figured out that he would come back at usguns blazingshould qualify as political asininity. Period!
For all it’s worth, some comfort can be taken that the Sierra Leone Parliament, by a recent Act, has vindicated the SLPP claim that the chairman of the national electoral commission, Christiana Thorpe, had acted illegally in 2007 when she invalidated votes from 477 polling stations in the SLPP stronghold of Kailahun (“Kailahun Court Barre”), on grounds of over-voting. It’s instructive to note, however, that the Party might still be in government, “Kaliahun Court Barre” or not! The 2007 ballot figures are explicit: The 220,000 of the 255, 499 votes that Charles Margai won nationally came from south-eastern SLPP strongholds during the first ballot. Extrapolate that against the160, 756 votes the APC bested the SLPP in the subsequent run-off and you begin to conjecture what if … And assuming, just assuming, Charles had remained neutral during the run-off, the SLPP possibly might have gotten a greater share of his 220,000 south-eastern votes; hence, the invalidated Kailahun votes could have been countervailed, with some to go, against the APC’s. Better still a hypothetical Charles Margai support for the SLPP!
Looking back, there had been many cases as Charles’ that hardly made it to the public square but which detracted equally from the Party’s 2007 prospects. Who knew or cared that former Vice President Albert Joe Demby had deep seated grievances? To be clear, constitutionally a person can only ascend the vice presidency by the grace of the president’s; hence, a president can refuse to appoint or can drop a vice presidential candidate without any explanation. If truth be told, some SLPP members had been less inspired by his vice presidency, even as that didn’t detract in any way from his being an SLPP’s SLPPthe real deal, if you please! In retirement, nonetheless, he was treated poorly, to say the least. In one instance, an outstanding entitlement of his was given short shrift by an SLPP member in charge of a government department after the ex-VP had gone to the individual’s office to settle the matter. In contrast, he was treated expeditiously and honorably after President Ernest Koroma had been made aware of the ex-VP’s perennial troubles with his assigned official vehicle. Some top SLPP and government officials would refuse to associate with or welcome him lest they lost their jobs, or so they feared or believed. It was as though he were an outcast, as though he no longer had anything to offer the Party.
However, it’ll be pushing the envelope to suggest that what the former Vice President had to endure was directed from above. It was a treatment largely borne of the selfishness and opportunism of party members demonstrating their “unflinching loyalty” to the Party’s emergent powers-that-be; this included those who had vowed to support his retention as vice president for the 2002 elections, but who cowered no sooner the balance of power appeared to shift early against him. To his credit, the retired VP took everything in stride, at least for the most part, and didn’t abandon the Party. But he proved at the opportune time, as any politician would, that he still had relevance.
The 2007 elections were lurking in the corner and, for the first time, the Party appeared to be in real damage control mode, especially in the immediate aftermath of Chief Sam Hinga Norman’s death. The former VP’s role as chief mourner during Chief Norman’s funeral generated much speculation about his allegianceone rumor had it that he had defected to Charles Margai’s PMDC. What many didn’t know was that few years earlier, the ex-VP and the late Chief Norman had crossed several ugly paths while in the Tejan-Kabbah cabinet. But the two were eventually reconciled by the late president. Despite the ex-Vice President’s apparent estrangement with the government and Party, he went public and most graciously commended government for my attendance at Chief Norman’s funeral service in Bo. When the 2007 elections finally dawned, however, it took several anxious moments, emissaries, bended knees and prostrating to get him to commit to campaigning for the Party, and on each occasion he didn’t disappoint in letting party members understand how much he had felt deeply hurt and humiliated by his own kith and kin. Fortunately, it was in many ways a happy ending.
But in case former Vice President Joe Demby’s experience didn’t present a teachable moment for the Party, what about another ex-Vice President, Mr. Solomon Berewa, as the Party’s latest lightning rod? I hold no brief for the former VP because he, like many of us, has a bigger share of the blame for 2007 (And which politician won’t blame a losing candidate for all that goes terribly wrong in a campaign?) But for him to be made the new whipping boy (whipping man, I should say) because of his perceived or actual support for one camp or the other sounds as unhinged as to suggest that the Party can only do well when legitimate dissent is ramrodded into shutting up or shipping out. We can all differ with the former VP on many levels, but no one can deny his enviable personal accomplishments and immeasurable contribution to what Sierra Leone is today. It will amount to yet another judgment deficit to believe that such a man, in spite of all his human frailties, no longer has relevance in the SLPP which he had led for five years; that he can’t even make a difference in his own village, Yengema, and, by extension, his constituency; and that the country which he had contributed to its peace and development so estimably, second only to the late President Tejan-Kabbah, has turned its back on him.
Take me to the gallows for suggesting that the ex-VP will neverunder any circumstanceditch the SLPP for another party. On the other hand, walk me to the same gallows if I were to suggest that he wouldn’t develop cold feet for the Party or vote for its presidential candidate if he felt sufficiently antagonized and humiliated by his own people. You only have to imagine the profoundly negative coattail effect such a scenario might have for the Party during national elections. But who would blame him?
In 2006, the late Mohamed B. Daramy, a senior party member and cabinet minister, feared being targeted for retaliation because of his position on the leadership question and so had to quit government quietly and got employed by ECOWAS. In my case, I had never in my adult life felt that invalidated and irrelevant until I was bizarrely targetedand publicly debased as to being referred to as “that boy”for riotous/mob conduct that was blamed on the instigation of Charles Margai in 2005 at Christ the King College in Bo. While still mystified by that event, I remain eternally grateful to good party folks as Alhaji Kanja Sesay, Alpha Timbo, Tony Kasse and others who stood by me such that I didn’t react in any uncharacteristic ways. Hon. John Gaiva Labor (SLPP) and ex-SLPP southern region chairman Dr. Momodu Yilla had their own bitter experiences. It was in many ways an Odyssey of disaffection, especially going into the 2007 elections. Many of the disaffected either sat out the campaign and election or did in fact actively campaign against the Party. Don’t get me wrong. For even under the most hoped-for circumstance, the SLPP, like all human organizations, is bound to keep grappling with internal disagreements; there are members whose interests or demands will never be fully met; others, motivated by instantaneous gains, will defect to the highest bidder. But it’s something else to resort to partisan fanaticism, naked bullying and aggression and expect to earn the loyalty and support of those so targeted. The use of tactics as those described can only make it very hard or impossible to reconcile with the aggrieved to maximize the Party’s votes behind one person when the occasion demands. The brinkmanship in 2007 which culminated in people crying out their eyes so that disaffected party members could forgive the past and support the Party was, and certainly is, not a wining proposition.
So, if the first object of a political party is to win elections, then nothing can be as self-destructing as the SLPP not going the whole nine yards to reconcile itself well ahead of 2018. And such reconciliation should be about truth telling as much as recognizing that no one who holds a contrary view or who supports another aspirant should be subjected to molestation, vandalism, name-calling and dismissal as a fly-by-night politician; any settlement should involve calling out all, Party principals in particular, who think the only way they can make the next SLPP government is to demonstrate their animus toward others who disagree with them on issues or about their preferred aspirants. How I hate to make the analogy, but we probably should borrow a leaf from the APCand the United National Peoples Party and PMDCwhich reconciled itself in 2002 without resorting to the kinds of detestable method being used in our own Party. And the question is this: If some of us in the SLPP can forge great relationships within the ruling APC and other parties, what sense does it make for party members to engage in such mutual viciousness? Even more, how could we have reconciled with and accommodated murderous rebels in government but cannot now accommodate folks who have an equal interest in seeing the SLPP form the next government?
Unless and until everyone is genuinely reconciledfrom Ambassador Alie Bangura to Brig. Julius Maada Bio, John Benjamin, Mrs. I.J. Tejan-Kabbah, Alpha Timbo, Hon. (Dr.) Bernadette Lahai, Mohamed Mallam Janneh, Dr. Francis Kai Kai, Mohamed Cochie Mansaray, Haja Rabi, Dr. Kandeh Yumkella, other potential aspirants and many, many morethe Party’s 2018 prospect will be a diminished one, if not a pipe dream. Irresponsible and polarizing supporters ought to understand that their prospects in a future SLPP administration will remain a mirage if disaffected party members and their ilk can’t beeline to the polling booths for the Party’s chosen candidate. Culpable aspirants and party officials should take full responsibility for the toxic climate that has been created by their known ultra surrogates and foot soldiers.
At the risk of superfluity and pontificating, aspirants should be wary of supporters who would stop at nothing, including throwing their own parents and friends under the bus, just to prove their contrived loyalty to one aspirant or another; these ultras straddle both the educated and uneducated or ill-educated worlds and are connoisseurs at playing on human susceptibilities and fearsthe fear of losing an election, for example. Their modus operandi is manipulation predicated on the idea of the permanent enemy, the non existent foe only they can see or create, and so they are able to win a place in the consciousness of aspirants as the ultimate protectors; hence, they are prone to stir up life-long suspicions and animus between aspirants and their long-standing friends and family, not to mention doing worse among the aspirants. They’re driven entirely by the fiery quest for the most lucrative perks ultimately than by love of Party and country; they’ll fawn perpetually at the feet of aspirants; at every turn they’ll defer to rather than differ with aspirants, creating in the aspirants a sham sense of infallibility and inviolability; they’ll indulge the aspirants to believe they’re anointed as God’s special promise (Messiahs) for poor Sierra Leone, and that eliminating anyone considered an obstacle (SLPP members included) to their leadership quest is God’s will done. But these ultras will be first to play the blame game, or who’ll excuse themselves without notice, once a presidential race is botched. You only need ask former Vice Presidents Joe Demby and Solomon Berewa and you’ll get a sense of some of the divisive characters now masquerading as surrogates and supporters par excellence.
By the same token, contestants who had lost the race for party officesincluding those who staged a walk out in Boshould for once accept the outcome of the Bo Party Conference and work unconditionally with those in office now; they shouldn’t be the sore losers. Party members who feel aggrieved in other ways must also bury the hatchet and unreservedly support the Party and whoever emerges as flag-bearer; justifiable anger shouldn’t be allowed to get the better part of their judgment. Remember: Charles Margai may have had his day in 2007, but his created Frankenstein recently gave him the bitter taste of his own medicine at the Criminal Investigation Department!
Hopefully the Party can save itself the comparable infamy of the mom who would blame every illness of her child on witches and evil spirits save on her own poor hygiene and terrible child-caring skills. President Koroma and Christiana Thorpe won’t deserve another round of the blame game if we can’t resolve our intra-party battles and end up flunking 2018. We can’t cherish basking in cold comfort convinced that the APC lacks the advantage of incumbency; that somehow there exists an “unwritten contract” with the Sierra Leone electorate which bars a ruling party from having a third straight term; that President Koroma has vowed on the Bible (not the national constitution) that he’ll emulate the democratic credentials of his immediate predecessor (late President Tejan-Kabbah) to hand over government to the SLPP no matter the outcome of the 2018 ballot; that the country’s demographics are more favorable to the SLPP now than at any time, in spite the extensive APC forays into SLPP backyards; and even more, that counter-intuitively APC supporters will vote for us wuteh-teh (en-masse) in 2018 in place of our antagonized and un-reconciled party men and women.
The call to action is for all well-meaning party members and supporters to do their utmost to reconcile. We could not have ended the country’s 11-year civil war so admirably and yet can’t quell a self-created civil war in our Party. The expectation is that we can get over this partisan bone-headedness by emulating former Vice President Demby and the late Sam Hinga Norman, or former Vice President Berewa and the late President Tejan-Kabbah, who got over their differences. Time may not be on our side! The deafening silence and hypocrisy that have cost us two election cycles can’t be wining formulas in 2018.
Abass Collier (Former SLPP Deputy Minister)
By Abass Collier
Friday April 11, 2014