Third Force Blues: A Word for KKY
The run up to the March 7, 2018 elections promises electrifying political theatre! Truth be told, if Sierra Leone has ever shown signs that her post-independence duopoly (APC-SLPP) can be dislodged from power, this is one such election cycle. I argue herein that, the more is not always, the merrier: To unseat the ‘Red-Green’ duopoly will take a solid bloc of parties forming a Third Force. But you won’t catch me holding my breath. Here’s why.
The word diversity strikes a note of especial resonance when one looks at the political geography currently. As recently as few weeks ago, two parties, just received their registration certificates, one of them called the Coalition for Change party. For whatever it is worth, the last time there was such a burgeoning political field was in 1996, another round of elections that could have occasioned the defeat of both APC and SLPP. Neither party had the benefit of incumbency and the slate was clean enough to precipitate an ‘almost win’ for Dr. John Kerefa-Smart with his newly-minted UNPP. That may not be the case this time around. The APC have a precarious incumbency with a termed-out president (Ernest Bai Koroma) and the SLPP is in opposition. What’s more, there is a lot of splintering; via defections going on in both leading parties that it is almost certain there will be no outright winner in the first round of the presidential elections.
Enter Dr Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella (KKY) (in photo). Did I already mention “coalition” as the name of a political party, well, KKY was a flagbearer contestant for the opposition SLPP who broke away along with some other members to form the National Grand Coalition (NGC) party. Social media has been abuzz with actualities of his mass rallies in Freetown and across the country. To say KKY/NGC is gathering decent momentum particularly among young people home and abroad is not far-fetched. But what’s up with this coalition-mania though, you may ask? Clearly, in a highly-likely second round scenario, coalescing is going to be needed aplenty to determine a clear-cut winner. The aroma of the Gambian experience that saw Adama Barrow resign from his UDP and head the coalition of seven political parties that enabled a victory over incumbent president Yayah Jammeh, still wafts fresh. I suspect importing that magic has crossed the minds of many a player in the Sierra Leone political arena. Problem is, there are myriad obstacles militating against any neat and formidable coalition in the Salone context. I will proceed to map out the contours of my pessimism/naysaying.
The Third Force phenomenon has had a loud presence in the post-colonial political consciousness. Just as much as splintering, defection, cross-carpeting, and yes, what could be termed criss-cross-carpeting are alive and bubbly among Salone’s pool of jockeying and jostling politicians. And don’t you forget the outsized egos! Where does one start? With the threadbare narrative about SLPP emanating the PNP (Pikin Nar Pikin, haha!) and Siaka Stevens, a trade unionist, breaking away to form the APC as antidote to the elitists and patronage-drenched former, after a brief spell with the latter, as the country’s first grassroot iteration of a political party? I know, it’s confusing. Exactly why we should skip all the antecedents of one-party dictatorship and cut to the 1996 elections, the first time I witnessed multiparty democratic dispensation in Sierra Leone.
As the NPRC Junta lifted the ban of political party activities, a plethora of parties flooded the scene, including the APC which it had overthrown four years earlier. In all the flurry of political activity that ensued (including the birthing of supposed alternatives to the duopoly like UNPP, PDP, etc.) I specifically want to recall the All Political Parties Association (APPA). That organ, in my view, demonstrated pregnant possibility of the ingredients for a Third Force or noteworthy coalition where party politics is concerned. Unified in voice and action, they ensured that the Junta not renege on its promise to restore a civilian government under the 1991 constitution. This singularity of purpose—to oust the junta—or something like it, is what is needed in spades to deal a decisive defeat to both the APC and the SLPP. Benefiting from the clean slate of a junta background and no single political party enjoying the benefit of incumbency, Kerefa-Smart’s UNPP was the one and only opportunity that I have lived of a third force party nearly winning the presidency on its first try. Nearly winning? That’s for historians to debate James Jonah’s superintending of those elections and their fairness. What should not be lost on us: Kerefa-Smart did the right thing—accepted the results and led his party as opposition in parliament— but, cross-carpeting, or inclination to such, got the better of the situation regarding his MPs. Our politicians are too bloody eager for jump ship to any party in power. Simple. That cult personality following (as Kerefa-Smart’s or, say, Thaimu Bangura’s) can still win elections in Sierra Leone currently, is not a call I am willing to make at this time. KKY’s gambit!
I want to be terribly wrong to believe that a comprehensive coalescing, as would be needed in the current political calculus, is an ‘impossibility.’ Even as I have tried to digest the coverage of news that Charles Margai’s PMDC and the C4C (Coalition for Change), under illegally-sacked vice president Sam Sumana, seem to have done precisely that in Ghana, with ex-President J.J Rawlings in attendance for effect. How that translates to votes in Sierra Leone is anybody’s guess. However, there are a couple things that come to mind when talking about impossibility. First, political parties are built around cult-like personalities with gargantuan egos; who will be willing to cede their leadership and play second fiddle to someone else leading a would-be coalition as obtained in The Gambia. Second, there is the ‘criss-cross-carpeting’ hinted earlier. Of the dozen-or-so political parties registered with the National Electoral Commission in 1996, there is hardly any major party that pulled in significant votes which did not have one of their numbers take a post offered by the Kabbah-led government “in the interest of National Unity.” The vibrancy of parties in opposition is grossly corroded by this chronic and nefarious actuality. Also, the idea of a Third Force reformulates its meaning in Sierra Leone. It is very disassembled and splintery, reforming every election cycle to usually mean, limitedly albeit, the party polling the third highest votes. The one that supports either party of the duopoly to decisively win in a second-round contest.
In 1996, the elections results for the first round were thus: SLPP Ahmed Tejan Kabbah: 266, 893 35.8%; UNPP John Kerefa-Smart 168, 666 22.62% and PDP Thaimu Bangura 119,782 16.007% of 745, 511 votes cast. The second round was to see over 1 million votes cast, and Kabbah polling 59.5% over Kerefa-Smart’s 40.5%. The extra votes of the second round are not relevant to this piece, but Thaimu Bangura’s role in deciding the victor and becoming the next Minister of Finance, is! Charles Margai was to a minor extent, play that same role in the 2007 elections. Folks, fact is, Margai in 2018 does not have the support outside of his Banta Chambers to pack a match at a six-aside soccer field. At the expense of sounding propitiating, I wager that the up-coming elections will provide a similar three-way race in respect of the heavies in the first round. Granted, the population is considerably youthful, dynamic and relatively more politically aware, especially with the advent of social media; one should be, however, careful with this interesting and electric electioneering atmosphere as not to miss the wood for the trees in the echo chambers that can result thereof about support/votes of the dozen-or-so parties in the running. That (should this prediction hold) leaves us with a first round that will see the same duopoly APC-SLPP, and NGC in the lead after the first round, not necessarily in that order. Enter again KKY. This would be a messy scenario, making KKY a kingmaker-kind-of-a-third-force guy. The kind that would have to decide who is the next president. The more problematic question will not be with which duopoly party to ally, but, at what cost? The ensuing blues at the threshold of that bridge, when we get there, will determine whither the genuine calls by well-meaning Sierra Leoneans to break the APC-SLPP governing spell that has provided wind for the NGC’s sails.
THE WORD: Let me first talk about efforts of talented Sierra Leoneans touting the Third Force mantra that I have witnessed and why it informs this word for you, KKY, for all my two cents are worth. I was old enough for the formation of the National Democratic Party (NDP) when President Momoh lifted the ban on political parties in 1991. Some of our brightest minds (some among NGC ranks right now) rallied around NDP and started canvassing the electorate, only for the events of the coup by the NPRC junta, in 1992, to interrupt that process. Guess what? Some members of NDP after their initial shock went on to serve in positions offered by the NPRC junta. That among other things dismantled that party as members of its ranks dispersed into other parties during the 1996 dispensation.
Personally, as a writer with The Democrat Press and activist, I was part of a similar configuration in the form of a political organization called Movement for Change (MFC). It was the view of many among these bright minds that the Kabbah government was weak and conceded too much in the then Lome Peace Accord with RUF rebels signed in July of 1999. Stop! Press Restaurant on George Street (as you know, KKY) was the joint for frantic political activity. But for all my minimal involvement, I choose to recall the inaugural meeting held at ex-military strongman Col. Mike Conteh’s house at Regent Road, Lumley. It was the first time RUF leader Foday Sankoh was billed to return to Freetown. Ernest Bai Koroma and his ‘conclave’ (more like retinue) of acolytes were there in full force. It is by now stale to report that MFC was a stillbirth. However, in nothing short of a coronating ethos, the current outgoing prexy was mooted as going to lead the group with NGC current running mate Andrew Keili as, yes, wait for it, running mate. Koroma did not utter a word in that meeting. I stood up and addressed the group to the fact, first, that despite his (Koroma’s) name being bandied about as prospective Leader of the group, he was just mute, observing, while nobodies (I was the youngest member of the group) like us were spewing forth Change rhetoric and taking positions. Second, that in what amounted to an abnegation of the whole Third Force idea, I proffered that members of this group go into their various parties and create change from within those structures. Hell blipping no! I was attacked for first addressing Ernest Koroma in such brash manner (he apparently commanded so much reverence from especially those who had marked him for presidency, maybe as far back as his days as Senior Prefect at Magburaka Boys High School). I was dismissed as a hothead or contrarian.
A year-or-so later, I did not get an apology when, true to my abnegation, Ernest Koroma declared for the APC flagbearer slot. One of the people who had accosted me, a writer himself and Koroma admirer, even wrote a bilious piece protesting the move which he thought was beneath him ( being an untainted political figure). Koroma had an arduous time jostling with the likes of lawyers Serry-Kamal and Eddie Turay to lead the APC ticket in 2002. He lost the elections to the incumbent Ahmed Tejan Kabbah and stayed in opposition up until 2007; he got elected! Exemplary tenacity by Salone standards! Take Zainab Bangura. She is one politician who exemplifies working from within the duopoly and fighting for an opportunity to effect change there. She led her Movement for Progress (MOP) party in the 2002 elections, fruitlessly, and moved to the APC after 2007. There she’s been minister in a couple ministries before serving at the UN. On return, she knows enough to stay and contest with 16 others for flagbearer of the APC. Also consider herein the US Senator, Bernie Sanders, who is an Independent, but contested and lost the nomination for the Democratic Party to Hillary Clinton. Even as he had severe reservation about the Democratic National Congress’ conduct of the 2016 primaries, he (Sanders) stayed in the game and supported the Clinton-Kaine ticket. With all those unresolved reservations and the fact that he offered a notably different platform, Bernie urged his supporters to do everything to elect Hillary Clinton. The lattermost is also a case of duopoly. Team spirit, par excellence! I want to believe, terribly, that it is Change and its quest that pushed you out of the SLPP, KKY… that you want to pioneer something new that captures the aspirations of your mostly youthful support base, that will unseat APC-SLPP. This will mean growing your NGC party to have staying power through multiple election cycles, not just one or even two. It will also mean that if you cannot rally the support of other opposition parties and make the first two spots in the first round, you will cast NGC as above-mentioned king-maker-kinda third force. History, either way, will judge you, kindly or not, based on the “grandness” of your vision, your ability to make the propitious move(s) at that critical juncture in the aftermath of the March 7th elections. The lot is cast in your lap and I wish you good luck. You are going to need it, aplenty!
By Fayia Sellu, California, USA
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