It is that time again when the voter becomes suddenly important. Those in authority or aspiring to be in, genuflect before the poor and unsuspecting voters, exalting their (voters’) significance and patriotism. “I am here to change your fortune” they recite. “Vote for me and I will make your lot better” they profess. Soon, all of that is gone. If they won, you would be forgotten. If they lost, they would be gone.
Call it campaigning or canvassing or whatever, it begins today for the forthcoming local council and municipal elections billed for July 5. The ruling party’s leader and head of state, Ernest Bai Koroma, is expected to launch the campaign for the ruling All People’s Congress (APC) party. There may not be plenty at stake in these elections, but as a party voted into power less than a year ago, there is probably everything to fight for.
“A referendum on the performance of the APC party” is how the spokesman of the People’s Movement for Democratic Change, Mohamed Bangura has referred to the elections. For the opposition parties, a reversal in the political fortunes of the ruling party is what they hope for. That will be a tall order. More often than not, who ever wins either general or local council elections, almost certainly wins the other, as long as it happens within a year.
Since the general elections last year, no much has changed dramatically in the political landscape. Neither the SLPP nor the PMDC have made any inroads to the north or the Western Area, areas where the APC have their claws firmly clasped. Of course there is the palpable sense and feeling of hardship. But it will depend on how the ruling party articulates the global phenomenon that is causing that. But they should be careful though, as an empty stomach is an empty head. A hungry man does not reason.
But there is one sickening development in the run-up to today’s campaign kick-off. It has been characterised, marred if you prefer, by serious allegations against the governing party by some independent candidates. The allegations have ranged from coercing these candidates into stepping down for the party’s candidate, to bribing them to achieve that.
I have not seen any proof to authenticate the allegations of bribery, even if they have persisted. And the fact that a record number of them has stood down is suspect. Those of harassing candidates, especially female ones, have also persisted. And they are happening especially in the strongholds of the APC – in Port Loko, Lunsar, Mile 91, etc. And some big names in the party have been specifically mentioned. Yet, rather stunningly, the party has not issued any serious and convincing denial of the barrage of allegations against it. Equivocation is what it has given at best.
This development is very sad. Not only because it undermines our budding democracy, but also because it splits the party. Imagine the disgruntlement poured out on radio on Friday night by two ladies who are running as independents in the Western Area, Rural. They are not just incensed by their not being awarded a party symbol, but also by the manner in which they say the awardees came to get the endorsement of the party. Skulduggery, they allege! But even more serious is the uncivilised methods, they say, that are being used to submerge them. One of them, Umu Hawa Kargbo from Hastings, even speaks of physical assault on her. She, like Fatmata Kargbo from Waterloo, talks about harassment and intimidation to see their back before 5 July.
Imagine the lady, Rugiatu Turay in Lunsar, who says even though she was awarded a symbol by the party, willy-nilly as she says the party wanted to renege on the popular will, claims to be being stifled by the very party on whose symbol she is running.
It would seem the more things change the more they remain the same. When they were in power the SLPP did almost exactly the same thing. In 2004, they made life very uncomfortable for independents who were contesting seats in the party’s south-eastern strongholds. The same method was applied for traditional leaders who are now in the kitchen feeling the heat from the opposite direction. The APC, who shouted their uvula out, are now compromising these same traditional leaders to bring pressure to bear on the independent candidates to step down for the party’s candidates. A crystal example, I have been reliably informed, is in the Koinadugu district.
In all of this, no party has exhibited any seriousness in dealing with the issue of female representation. And I do not want to hear the all-too-familiar excuses which range from the ludicrous to the absurd – women are not coming forward, only few of them are qualified. How about those who have come forward and, it would seem, are being ostracised? How about some of their male folks who are half-baked at best? All of them awarded symbols!
In the run-up to the bi-elections in March for some four constituencies across the country, I listened to some of the candidates who could barely construct a simple sentence in English, and they were pretending to be vying to go to Parliament to pass laws. They were males. Pass into law a bill written in a language you can hardly read and understand let alone speak?
And this issue of an apparent marginalisation of women when it comes to representation is not a bane the APC alone is guilty of. A little over 15% of the about 1,300 candidates standing in these elections are women, with none of the parties making an impressive showing. Worse still, some of these women were fielded in areas they are almost sure to lose. In other words fielding them in for the sake of it only.
Youth also have a big stake even if broken, in all of this. Despite constituting the bulk of the country’s population and being both male and female, young people have not been particularly encouraged to contest or put forward. Despite this, or may be because of it, these young men and women will allow themselves to be hoodwinked into being on the front in campaigning, and more seriously, in perpetrating violence. Shameless politicians will do the all too obvious – give them alcohol and drugs and inciting, sorry unleashing, them on those perceived as opponents in a country polarised by the “them and us” syndrome.
The questions are not coming up, and they must be put to the candidates and even the political parties most of the represent. In the last four years, how much impact have the councils had? In all these years, most of the city and district councils are still dependent on the central government even for their administrative staff. There are allegations galore of the lack of transparency and outright corruption in some of these councils. Some Paramount Chiefs, apparently relying on their closeness to the party in power (now and then), have failed to submit their budgets to the central government-seconded Chief Administrators. These chiefs have also failed to let go of some of the taxes they collect, to the running of the council.
Sadly, all of this will continue for as long as central government influence continues over the appointment of chiefs and these chiefs in turn seeing themselves as such – answerable more to the party in power than to the people in their locality.
The fear of violence in these elections, I hope it is paranoia, may not be that stark. But it should not be unexpected. In this regard, comments made by the SLPP secretary-general on radio that they do not have control over the reaction of their members if they are provoked or attacked (can’t remember the exact word), should be taken back. Such can only prepare the minds of supporters for violence. I would rather he had urged his supporters to exercise restraint and not allow themselves to be driven into becoming violent.
Having said that, my plea will be to all those running in these elections. They all, without exception, profess to be running for and in the interest of their communities. Inciting violence can only do one thing: run contrary to that and make recovery more difficult. Harassing any candidate, in whatever form, only smacks of undemocratic practice, and reverses gains made just a few months ago. May peace and civility reign as campaigning today and as we vote on 5 July. By Umaru Fofana