His large frame and silver hair will definitely mesmerise you, but is President Ernest Bai Koroma really in charge? Some eight months since he succeeded a president who many accused of oscillation and vacillation, talking and not acting, Ernest seems to be still harnessing his earnestness to rein in. For a president walking on a political tightrope, the forces are either familiar or predictable. And if the two divides he apparently finds himself caught up in-between do not slacken the rope, the nation will be pulled along into the dragnet.
Shockingly but not strangely, the president is caught up between a faction within his own party, the opposition SLPP party and probably his utterances. Hardliners within the governing APC party, among them some cabinet ministers, feel they should have a free hand, whatever that means, in doing whatever they want. This, versus a president who has put at stake his reputation and the respect of his family by vowing that there will be “no more business as usual.”
There is also the opposition SLPP party who hardly see anything good in what the president does. All of this against a president who, despite his uttering assurances is still to declare his assets, still to advise his minister of energy and power to show up at the Anti Corruption Commission as has been requested, still to divide the offices of the Attorney General and Ministry of Justice and appointed not one but four sitting MPs into his cabinet.
Sitting MPs into his cabinet! In fairness to the president, or may be not as it ostensibly shows he is not in control, sources say he was arm-twisted into appointing certain MPs ministers because of the faction within his party that are determined to see things go their own way.
For years, there was a clear split within the then-opposition All People’s Congress (APC) party. ML Bangura, the man many saw as just a guinea pig I doubt he was that insignificant was the chief plaintiff in a court case challenging Ernest Bai Koroma’s leadership of the party. I think Mr Bangura was not a complete write-off because he had grievances he could articulate and could gain some sympathy. But if you believed many members and supporters of the APC at the time, he was merely dancing to the gallery occupied by politicised judges.
In any case, Mr Bangura was not as important as he made himself appear. I remember putting it to him at the time that Ernest Bai Koroma was the biggest single factor that gave a human face to the APC; whose overthrow in 1992 was far more welcomed than its re-election sixteen years later. Not having him as a presidential candidate at the time, meant doom for the party, however well organised the party’s campaign machinery.
In the run-up to last year’s general elections, the party convened a press conference at its headquarters to announce that the rift had been patched up. Present at the press conference were some members of the ML Bangura faction among them Eddie Turay and Birch Momodu Conteh. But absent were two of the lynch pins, Serry Kamal and ML Bangura himself whom we were told was unwell and could not attend. Just after I had reported it on the BBC, ML Bangura called me to deny the differences had been ironed out, saying he had not been ill in a long time. He heaped a litany of accusations, counter accusations and recriminations against his former co-complainants. Of course his version was also carried by the BBC.
As August 2007 approached, Mr Bangura became increasingly ostracised. His former co-rebels became troops loyal to commander Koroma. But apparent unity within the party was not without a cost. Real politic manifested itself when, following those elections that the APC won, political horse-trading began. Hence the appointment of sitting MPs as ministers.
And as President Ernest Bai Koroma approaches his eighth month in office, one needs no telling that he is struggling with forces within his cabinet. Forces believed to be shifting the party to the far right. A party source has reportedly questioned the visits to China by party stalwarts who, it says, are bent on reviving the old socialist strand of the APC.
Some political watchers have started drawing parallels with the Siaka Stevens days. President Stevens was a moderate when he became president, they believe. But the ultra radicals within his party and an opposition SLPP that would not make him sleep hardened him to near dictatorship.
Sources very close to the president say he is unhappy. A source close to his mother says the old lady can lay her life on the line to prove her conviction about her son’s commitment to country. But she is said to be concerned that a group of people are blackmailing him into racking it. They have reportedly threatened to undermine him if he attempts to rein in on them.
Whatever the truth or otherwise, it is incontrovertible that the edges are fraying within the governing All People’s Congress party. Parallels have already started to be drawn between President Koroma and the last man to lead his party as president, Joseph Saidu Momoh. Not because they are both left-handed. The global increase in the prices of essential commodities that led to the introduction of the state of economic emergency and the price control mechanism is here again. And the responses are said to be similar. If the desperation I am told goes on in government at present continues, desperate measures may be considered, including introducing a price control mechanism in a free market economy.
But President Koroma finds himself in a worse situation. While President Momoh did not have an official opposition, President Koroma does. The SLPP, which also wants to return to power, is not necessarily as interested in the general welfare of the people, as it is in embarrassing the APC by fault-finding the president on every move, at every turn. This will not bode well for this country.
Pushing the president to the wall that puts him between an opposition SLPP and a hard lined wing within his own party leaves him with one of two options. He will either be forced to join the hardliners, or, be sterner and take more decisive action in dealing with people wanting to have it their own way. After all there is supposed to be “no more business as usual”. I doubt the latter.
But perhaps the president needs reminding that “the test of leadership is not how you deal with great successes, but with great adversities” I heard british Prime Minister Gordon Brown say recently. We know providing electricity for much of Freetown in 100 days, and the unprecedented interest in seeing the Bumbuna complete is so heart-soothing. Back that with stemming the tide of perceptible disenchantment against some of your team who are seen as not singing from the same hymn sheet as you, will make you am living legend.
In this enterprise, every progressive Sierra Leonean must be onboard. Leave the hungry politicians on both sides of the political divide, and let the president feel being supported in the right things he is doing or says he wants to do. This will emasculate the forces of retrogression guising under the cloak of one faction or political party or another. After all, it is said, a people divided among themselves cannot stand. By Umaru Fofana