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In Politics, it’s what isn’t said that matters

In Politics, it’s what isn’t said that matters

The Steering Committee issued a press release that it had “taken the difficult decision” to cancel the “much anticipated” Presidential Debate that was scheduled for the 29th October. It further went on to say that “the committee was unable to secure definite commitments from the APC and PMDC that their presidential candidates will attend”. The event itself is reported to have garnered “overwhelming support”. According to the release the “programme would have provided an opportunity for all voters to learn more about the election policies and political convictions of all the main presidential aspirants, and added credibility to the democratic process in Sierra Leone”. Hmmmmm.  (Photo: Abdulai Mansaray, author)

I will hasten to express my heartfelt kudos to all those who tried their best to make this event happen, and especially Mr. Hassan Arouni and the BBC, who worked tirelessly to bring it to fruition. If my memory serves me well, this would have been the first of its kind. However, for the sake of objectivity, it would have helped if we knew the reasons why the two parties could not give the requested commitments. One would like to think that the organisers had tried to get such reasons. Nevertheless, the impression created is one that is open to a lot of interpretations. Critics and opposition parties have not wasted time to come up with their own reasons, courtesy of the impression created by the press release.

However, we have to accept the fact that presidential debates are an alien concept to our democratic process and country in particular. There is no doubt that the debate would have marked a sea change in our democratic process, but to conclude that it would have “added credibility to the democratic process in Sierra Leone” is farfetched. Change is inevitable, except if you are a vending machine. But change should take place within the confines of one’s culture; otherwise it is bound to fail. For change to be effective, it has to be within context. It is an open secret that the idea of presidential debates has been one of America’s gift to mankind. Just because it works for America does not make it sacrosanct.

There are a lot of reasons why it is good for America. For starters, America is obviously too vast a country to traverse by any politician. Television debates are the surest and best way that their candidates can get their message to the electorate en masse. Come to think of it, most people, especially the “undecided”, in America make up their mind about who should lead them, on the whim of a 90 minute organised argument. The only people who get real value from these debates are the television companies who make a killing from their harvest season of “prime time infomercials” In a country where people vote for a candidate because they liked the tie he was wearing is not a political yardstick for my democratic process. Let us take for example the most recent presidential debate in America. Before the debate, Mitt Romney was relatively an unknown. Many political pundits envisaged that Obama will sweep the floor with Romney, and in effect kill the election dead as a contest. The opinion poll told a different story after the first round of political gymnastics. What did Romney actually say or do to trigger such seismic political shift? Nothing. The polls switched simply because people were “disappointed” with Obama’s performance, which was widely described as lacklustre. The aim of political debates is “progress “but we also know that Americans fight their political battles on the small screen and billboards; with high premiums placed on negative ads.

Noam Chomsky describes political debates as a smart way to keep the people passive and obedient. One cannot deny that debates are one of the ways that candidates can demonstrate the truth; (that is if they have one) but talking does not prove it. At best, these debates prove nothing but wishes and misunderstandings. In most cases, the incumbents find themselves at a disadvantage during such debates; because they give the opposition enough opportunity to take a chainsaw to their record in office. We have seen in many cases how the opposition candidates pick holes in the incumbent’s policies, track records, everything and anything; but at the same time offer only promises of what they would do if elected.

They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river. Even foxes express a sincere interest in prolonging the lives of the poultry.  Prosperity is necessarily the first theme of political campaigns. On the flip side, incumbents do have the added advantage of pointing to tangible developments or achievements under their stewardship. It is hardly an even playing field. This is not in anyway, an attempt to second guess why the APC and PMDC did not confirm their attendance or why the SLPP acquiesced to do so. Political debates only prove who the better at oratory; for during most campaigns the air is full of speeches and vice versa. What voters want is results and nothing but results.

Political debates have in the past, been the making or breaking of political careers. All it takes is one slip or sound bite to sway the gullible. There is no doubt that such presidential debates would add colour (as if we don’t have enough of that already) to the democratic process. It is also true that the debate would have provided an”opportunity for all voters to learn more about the election policies and political convictions of all the aspirants”. But without sounding condescending, how many voters in Sierra Leone actually vote on the basis of policies? How many actually see the manifestos; and even if they have access to them, how many really read them? What the debate would have done was to give the candidates the opportunity to read out their manifestos to the masses; which in itself would have made for a good bedtime story.

It is debatable to say that the debate would have “added credibility to the democratic process in Sierra Leone”. What yard stick are we using here to measure that credibility? If so, by whose standards are we calibrating such credibility? Europe, America, France or Germany? Are we saying that because it works for the west, so it should work for us? I watched the American Presidential debate and I lost faith in human nature; for 90 minutes.

In case you are wondering, I am all for presidential debates in Sierra Leone. But first, we need to move away from the tribal, religious, financial, and regional allegiances that seem to define our political persuasions. The public needs to be sensitized about this, and perhaps make it as part of the “attitudinal change” that we all crave for. That is where our leaders and the press in particular come in. The weapon and cankerworm of tribalism has always been used by those in power to divide and rule in Sierra Leone; and the press has been the chief disciple in preaching such sermons. It is this tribal undercurrent that seems to stifle our collective political psyche as a nation. The easiest way to trace one’s family tree is to go into politics; as your opponents will do it for you.

A case in point is how the media is reporting the campaign festival of late. Words like APC or SLPP stronghold are all defined along tribal lines. When EBK visits Kenema, Kailahun, and other districts in the east, it becomes extraordinary news with headlines like “ Earnest Koroma neutralises another SLPP stronghold”. When Maada Bio visits Makeni, It is “Maada neutralises another APC stronghold”. You cannot run away from the fact that such headlines carry tribal undertones. How do we break this vicious cycle? Like I mentioned earlier, a Presidential debate would have been a good departure lounge and marked sea change. But how can we do that without sensitizing the electorate? Sounds like catch 22. It is unfortunate that we could not have this debate. Never mind, we would have five more years to prepare the groundwork for that. It did not happen this time. Let’s not overegg it though; nobody died for God’s sake.

Meanwhile, congratulations to all the citizens of Sierra Leone for a peaceful campaign festival. Let’s keep it that way.

Don’t forget to turn the lights out when you leave the room.

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