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Why I Left the Sierra Leone People’s Party

Why I Left the Sierra Leone People’s Party

Like most serious minded Sierra Leoneans in the Diaspora, I have yearned for the day that I will finally return home to be part of the continuing process of building our nation. My preparation for this journey started many years ago. In 1996, I was the first Sierra Leonean recipient of the UN Award under the program called TOKTEN (Transfer of Knowledge through Expatriate Nationals). Through this program, Diasporans returned home for short-term consultancies in their field of expertise during which they begin to establish their own contacts. Back then, I came as a UN consultant to the government of Sierra Leone to assist our country in developing its communication policies for national development.  (Photo:  Ritchard Tamba M’Bayo)

In 2000, I applied for the US Department of State-sponsored Fulbright Fellowship to teach and conduct research at Fourah Bay College, but the program had been suspended in Sierra Leone because of the war. In 2005, I won the award as Senior Fulbright Scholar and went to the University of Lagos, Lagos, Nigeria where I taught and conducted research and edited a book, “Communication in an Era of Global Conflicts: Principles and Strategies for 21st Century Africa,” with contributions from renowned scholars such as Professor Ali A. Mazrui, who wrote the foreword to the book.

I returned to the US in 2006 to continue teaching at Bowie State University where I was a tenured professor, and at George Mason and Howard Universities. In 2007, I accepted an appointment as expatriate professor at the newly established American University of Nigeria in Northern Nigeria.

I am married with three children, enrolled at institutions of the University System of Maryland. While in Nigeria, and closer to home, I started working on plans to finally return to Sierra Leone, not as a politician, but as a community organizer working with the youth and women in Sierra Leone. For this purpose, I acquired a 21-acre land for a private university project in Kono that will focus on, among other things, leadership training, the kind of work that I’m presently doing in Nigeria at my university here.

In 2008, while on vacation, I was encouraged by a number of elders in Kono to seek the flagbearership of the SLPP despite my relationship with His Excellency, the President, Ernest Bai Koroma.

My project in Kono still remains a priority on my agenda of the numerous things I would like to do now in Sierra Leone.

I joined this race for the flagbearership of the SLPP as a non-traditional and non-mainstream politician. I’ve never held a cabinet post nor have I been a parliamentarian. But I came with a politically untarnished character, a big heart, and loads of patriotic sentiments, convinced that regardless of party affiliation, I could make genuine contribution to the unfolding processes in our country.

I was never a party fanatic, and never played party politics while I was in the United States for nearly 30 years. Instead, I considered myself simply as a patriotic Sierra Leone who led a pro-Sierra Leonean and pro-democracy organization for years during the most difficult times in the history of our country. In that capacity I came to know many people on both sides of the political divide-SLPP and APC, worked with and advised them on matters of policy pertaining to our country. Meanwhile, I was either a student or a lecturer, engaged in activities for my professional development.

These are the credentials I presented to the SLPP. The Advisory Committee interviewed me, and there was nothing to disqualify me as a member or flagbearer aspirant of the party.

Our organization, the Coalition for Democracy in Sierra Leone (CODISAL), insisted upon an uncompromising stance on the promotion of democratic principles and culture in the wake of the coup that toppled President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah in 1997. We organized Sierra Leoneans in the United States to protest against that coup and to promote harmony and greater understanding among our people. We also lobbied the United States government to adopt a sympathetic understanding of the problems in our country during the war.

At the time, the greatest beneficiary of our activities was the democratically elected SLPP government, since our programs called for the return of that government to power. We vehemently condemned the coup-makers and I personally tried without success to persuade Johnny Paul Koroma, who was also a friend at the time, to rethink their action for the sake of peace and unity in our country. I’d met Koroma through another friend during one of my visits to Sierra Leone.

In retrospect, it’s quite amazing that we were accused of being SLPP supporters disguising as neutral political activists. Although CODISAL was opened to all Sierra Leoneans, we insisted upon a membership that worked on a non-partisan basis. We organized several protest marches for the Sierra Leonean cause, participated in refurbishing our embassy in Washington, DC, met and advised Valentine Strasser and his entourage when they visited the US in September 1992. I gave the welcome remarks on behalf of the Sierra Leonean community at Howard University. In my remarks, I advised the NPRC to immediately embark on a program to prepare the country for democracy. All of these are matters of public record, and many of my comrades are out there, and can support or refute any of my claims.

Now, on the question of my defection. First, there is always an element of personal ambition with all politicians. For some, it may not be the overriding motivation for public service, but it is there. People leave political parties not necessarily because of internal electoral defeat. That may occasionally be the case. But the more significant push factors, in my view, are the sense of injustice and betrayal coupled with perceptions of unfairness, inflexible, combative, dictatorial and deceptive leadership. I believe that’s why Charles Margai left the SLPP and formed the People’s Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC); that’s why Dr. Lansana Nyallay left and joined the APC. I know Dr. Nyally very well. This is a man who sacrificed his professional life as a Biochemist after years of schooling at Howard University in Washington, DC, recruiting, mobilizing and organizing Sierra Leoneans across the United States for the cause of the SLPP.

These were not moles or spies; they were men of principles. It is a completely different matter whether we agree with them or not.

I, too, “an insignificant player” in the SLPP politics, but a fiercely independent-minded political activist, decided to leave the party for similar reasons. I read recently that the late and most venerable, Dr. John Karefa-Smart, also once left the SLPP and joined the APC for these same reasons. I don’t think he was a mole, an accusation that has become fashionable with ideologically bankrupt party stalwarts against people who defect. The history of the SLPP is replete with many such examples, but the party still does not seem to have learnt much from that history, and no one has bothered to honestly study why these things happen.

In my own case, particularly, I agonized in painful silence over many of these issues. At the District level, party functionaries betrayed me. At the national level, I suspected a heightened anti-Diasporan sentiment among some key members of the party.

I also suspected an emerging cabal of gatekeepers within the party who have created a political no-free zone at the apex of the party. They are determined to maintain the status quo, and regardless of all the hoopla surrounding the aspirants, this group will decide who will be the flagbearer, just as it happened the last time. For them, it is necessary to have someone who will protect their interest first, and then the interest of the nation. These men and women are benefactors of many of the delegates and have tremendous influence over how they will vote.

Most of the delegates are good and decent people, and their patriotism and party loyalty are beyond reproach. But quite a number of them are simply dishonest and fraudulent. They are predators without conscience, and they prey on vulnerable aspirants. Except if someone wants to be president at any cost, I don’t see how people can tolerate this dysfunctional process in docile silence.

Imagine that the going price for each delegate is Le50,000.  Parliamentarians receive as much as Le100, 000 or more. That’s what I paid, and I can name those who received money from me while they were courting other aspirants as well.  Imagine also how painful I must have felt sitting in a room with some 45 delegates as my campaign team distributes my hard earned cash stuffed in brown envelopes among these delegates. I agonized over this daily and protested behind closed doors with members of my campaign team, but I was always reminded that if we wanted to win the race I should be mindful that “this is not America, Prof. You’re in Africa, and that’s the way it’s done here.”

Wealthier and more determined aspirants are alleged to have dished out as much as USD1, 000 to ‘hard-to-persuade’ delegates and godfathers.

This is worrisome, not only for the party, but for our country as a whole. First, my colleague aspirants know what’s going on. But either they are too timid or too pre-occupied with their own personal ambitions, that they have chosen to remain silent and allowed themselves to be pulled around like puppets on a string by the godfathers of the party. For this alone, I don’t think any of them can be trusted to protect the interest of our country as president.

In my view, a party whose leadership for the presidential contest is chosen on the basis of the highest bidder should have no business in a fragile and transitional democratic state such as ours. The top contender now is a man of tremendous wealth, but he is certainly not the best among the aspirants. I’ve never even met the guy. But heavily loaded with cash, he sees no reason to interact with other aspirants knowing that his money talks and eliminates a lot of “unnecessary” debates about “national interest”.

I’ve never met anyone who considers him as presidential material. But he might as well be the winner of the fake contest as many of the party big guns are now on his payroll and scouting for his delegate support. One of these godfathers had initially agreed, “in principle”, according to him, to be my adviser. But once he found out that I’m an ordinary professor of meager financial means, he abandoned ship, distanced himself, and stopped taking my calls.

Cries of foul play will shake the party once again like thunder after March 5. Good politicians are proactive – they act to forestall injustice.  The timid ones act only when it is too late.

During my aspirant interview, the so-called Advisory Committee questioned my citizenship (unfairly) and even advised that I should either drop out of the race or renounce my American citizenship. The Chairman of that committee had the 1991 Constitution on his table from which he was quoting. If you were going to question someone’s citizenship, wouldn’t it be prudent to have a copy of the 2006 Dual Citizenship Act as well? They were not interested in that. Instead, as it appeared to me then, they had a hidden agenda, and one member of the committee said unabashedly that he had problems with “people from the Diaspora who come here and want to be president.” For some strange reason, which I never bothered to ask about, I was not disqualified, and no one brought the issue up again.

The delegate system, which, in my view, has now become the bane of the party, also posed serious problems and doubts in my mind.  Obviously designed with good intentions, the delegate model of the party has been transformed into an elaborate and institutionalized system of corruption designed to extract money from vulnerable flagbearer aspirants in lieu of serious debates over policy matters.

By the time I left the party, I already had serious misgivings about the whole process, and I came to the conclusion that the ultimate winner of this staged contest will be determined on who doled out the most money and not who will be the most viable candidate to lead the party to victory in 2012. This is how the party conducted its last elections, with disastrous consequences, and it is heading the same way once again.

My detractors have already said a lot of negative things about me. But the more I hear these things, the more I’m convinced that my defection was the right thing to do. National Treasurer, Joe Kallon, has referred to people who have left the party as spies and moles with moral weakness; others said they are “paid fifth columnists”, and he is quoted as calling me an “APC mole”.  Perhaps I was naïve! An APC spy? No! If that were the case why would I post my campaign photos on my Facebook knowing that sooner or later, I’ll be defecting or I will be found out? They are still there. Spies don’t behave like that! They cover their trail, and any honest person desiring to know the whole truth about my recent action can follow that trail to find out if this was a deliberate act of deception. Besides, I conducted my campaign in a more transparent manner than the SLPP conducts its business. I signed at least two petitions, together with other aspirants, protesting against some of the issues. But the leadership was not interested in openly dealing with such grievances. Our petitions were dismissed without any consideration.

Instead of engaging in damage control in the wake of persistent defections from the party, as a good political strategist would do, Kallon betrays his ignorance about the process by throwing puerile accusations around, a supreme example of incompetence as a political organizer. For Mr. Kallon and many others in the party, political action and competition are engagements with the “enemy” – us versus them; the SLPP versus the APC. This is backward thinking and old politics. Isn’t it possible for us to be friends even if we are in different political parties? Ambassador Patrick Foyah, Ambassador John Leigh, Hon. Ansu Kaikai, Professor Septimus Kaikai, etc., know what I did in the United States in our struggle for democracy, for which the SLPP was the beneficiary.

Let me say this again, because this is the ‘crime’ I am accused of committing in the eyes of the SLPP, for which they call me an APC mole. His Excellency, the President, Ernest Bai Koroma, is my friend, and I have known him for over ten years. I have made no secret about this in my campaigns, and for many people in the SLPP, it is difficult to believe that someone vying for the party leadership could be a friend of the leader of the government they are trying to unseat.

The Vice President, Chief Sam-Sumana is my brother. That too is no secret. But I never mixed matters, never socialized with them from Jan. 2008 to Jan. 2011, and openly declared for the SLPP. I campaigned only on one platform and one platform alone – the SLPP platform. Why didn’t I join the APC in the first place? The question has been asked many times. But as His Excellency said on national television while I was at State House, and I agreed with him, that question is really not important now. What is important is that two friends have resolved their differences in the interest of the country.  And, as the President said to the nation, “the less we talk about that, the better,” so let’s focus on moving our country forward, he added. For the last three years, and throughout my campaign, I never spoke even once with His Excellency or with VP Sam-Sumana, or with anyone in the APC about my campaign or the internal matters of the SLPP. My friends in the APC were following my movement through the media. Many of them sensed my frustration at a distance, and have now told me that they knew it would end like this.

I strongly believe that every Sierra Leonean, whether SLPP or APC, wants nothing but what’s good for our country. There are no enemies in this battle, other than those who undermine this fundamental desire of all of the peoples of Sierra Leone. Unfortunately, mainstream politicians often lose sight of this fact.

One can always predict what critics who are more concerned with protecting the interest of the party than knowing the truth would say. “He is a spy”. “He is looking for a job”. “He is not to be trusted”, etc. Every crisis situation is also an opportunity for us to learn and improve our organizations, but we lose that opportunity when we engage simply in pedestrian analysis of the problem.

I have not asked for and I have not received money from the APC as an enticement to defect. I was not acting on anyone’s behalf but myself, and His Excellency has not promised me a job! We both are happy that we will be able to talk again about matters of policy affecting our country as we always did. But I assured him that whenever he needs me, I’ll be on the next flight back to my country. If this is a crime, I plead guilty!

I could have simply aborted my campaign and walked away. But my home district–Kono–is faced with an unprecedented historical moment. The VP, and the First and Second Ladies, are from Kono. The President himself is a ‘son’ of Kono, as an in-law of the Konos, according to our tradition. This has not happened in the history of our country, and it is a huge political capital that Konos must take full advantage of. It is not time for emotional politics. If we lose this opportunity, history will not look kindly on us, and that opportunity will never come again.

The President said to me that: “The development programs we have for Kono will begin to unfold this February (2011), and once we start, we shall not stop until we change the face of Kono. I need Konos, and particularly people like you to come together and help me deliver the goods.”

The District is about to get what it rightfully deserves, after years of neglect and as the region most affected by the civil war. There are no good roads, no electricity, the educational system remains in deplorable condition. Yet, it is still a major source of our national revenue. I could not turn my back on his invitation, and that’s why I declared for the APC and resolved to work with the President, rather than to settle for the role of a passive observer of the work we need to do to wipe the tears of poverty from the faces of our people.

Some may call this ethnic identity or ethnic politics. For me the results will be more important than the labels we put on our alliances. After all, I got into this race precisely for this. And God, I believe, has shown me the way.

This is partly my own version of the story. It is left with you now to make your own judgment about me.  There is much more to say, but I do not see the need to respond to every stone thrown at me now. I’ll be taking stock of all the views expressed on this matter for my memoir. But before I leave you, please allow me to say a few words about how I funded my campaign.

I started my campaign in Jan. 2008, exactly two years ago. Since then I’ve spent over $100,000 of my own money (from years of hard work and personal savings). I have traveled by air for over 200 hours, shuttling between the US, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. This past year alone (2010), I’ve been in and out of Sierra Leone nine times, and each time I spent about $5,000. I received a total of USD5,600 in campaign contributions, mostly from relatives (my sister and her husband and my aunt), and family friends in the United States and Nigeria, and a Le20, 000 contribution from one “youth man” in Kono. I still have that money, the most important contribution to my campaign, sealed in an envelope. And that’s all!

I have received more support for my action than my detractors would want to know. While writing this statement (at about 11:00 p.m. here in Nigeria), I received a call from a young man in Freetown who said his name was Tom. I asked what he wanted, and he simply said that he saw my picture in the newspapers and he was calling to tell me that he would “vote for me.” I told him I’ll call him the next day so that we can chat some more. I have my God as witness to this. So I have nothing to fear; I have not done anything wrong. I simply followed my conscience. And I’m extremely grateful to God for my life. These past two weeks, I’ve unusually slept very well. I can now switch my phones off and go to bed peacefully.

My family, my wife particularly, has agonized over my politics and personal safety these past two years. I had at least one death threat, which I reported to the SLPP secretariat. And who knows how much I’ve angered some other people. But I leave my faith to the Almighty. I should have listened to my wife. I did not. She prayed daily that the good Lord would touch my heart to do the right thing. I have not seen my children for about a year now. I was not with them for either Christmas or the New Year. And I’d curtailed my financial support tremendously because of my campaign. I have, therefore, resolved that 2011 will be the year for my family.

Indeed, for any politician, these past weeks would have been trying times. But I’ve had consolation from many people, and I hear Ralph Waldo Emerson beckoning, saying, “Trust thyself; for whosoever would be a man, should be a nonconformist”.  Great men are made of sterner stuff.  God bless Sierra Leone!

Ritchard Tamba M’Bayo, Ph.D., Professor & Political Activist

Professor of Communications & Multimedia Studies, School of Information Technology & Communications, American University of Nigeria, Yola, Adamawa State, NIGERIA

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