Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Democracy Can be Beautiful When it Works

Sierra Leone President
Rtd. Brigadier Julius Maada Bio 
When it works, democracy can be truly  beautiful. For many years in West Africa, the only way you could get leaders out of  power was through military coups, natural deaths or violent and sometimes bloody political insurrection.
Vice President
Dr. Juldeh Jalloh 

Most post-independent West African leaders only left power dead or exiled. Those that stayed in power for long left legacies of political disappearances and the graves of their political adversaries. Up til now, Gambians are still coming to grasp with the legacy of their last President Yahya Jammeh, even as mass graves are discovered on a regular basis.

In the past few years there have been democratic transfers of power with the defeat of ruling parties in polls in Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana, Gambia, Liberia and now Sierra Leone. In West Africa of the 60s, 70s and 80s,  this was mostly unheard of.  But these days, it is becoming the norm, and West Africans are liking it.

In the past, West Africa's intellectual elite who advocated for changes in leadership or the conditions of the people such as Ken Saro Wiwa in Nigeria and Jim Fornah in Sierra Leone, paid with their lives, for trying to upend the status quo. Many others  either fled, dropped out of politics for the sake of their families, or gave up and joined those in power.

In many of these countries the leaders just formed one party states. After the 1977 national election in Sierra Leone, President Siaka Stevens declared the country a one party state and made all political opposition illegal. His All Peoples Congress party was in power unchallenged, until it was forced out of leadership by a military coup in 1992.

People all over the world have aspirations for a better life, and Africa is no exception. With increased globalization and a revolution in communication, media outlets and platforms, the people in West Africa are seeing the living conditions of people in other areas of the world and asking themselves why their own societies are stagnating or regressing, while there was progress in so many  other areas of Africa.

In this day of Facebook and WhatsApp, the young people are acutely aware of the  possibilities that their societies can achieve through better governance,  especially now that migration to the West is becoming much more difficult than in the past.  Young  Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora frequently travel to the country and educate their folks about the fact that Sierra Leone has too much resource potential for the people to remain mired on poverty.

Past African governments had tight controls over both the source and the distribution of information in the country. In the past, national radio stations, television stations and many newspaper outlets were controlled by either the governments or the agents of those in power. Those days, the governments fed the population a steady dose of propaganda and public corruptiom scandals were few and far between.

Unfortunately for African leaders the emergence of social media has made the control of information practically impossible. Even when ex-president Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone sent many good journalists in the country as press attaches to overseas embassies where they effectively became propaganda agents,  most of them only succeeded in becoming  subjects of ridicule, as ordinary citizens with cellphones became the most trusted reporters in the country. Cellphone recordings of a fight between the former Social Welfare and his visually impaired deputy where they used some pretty unsavory language led to the dismissal of both of them.

Campaigning 

A massive corruption scheme around last year's pilgrimage to the Muslim holy land of Mecca made many people lose faith in the present government, as people just did not believe that public servants would descend to the level of corruption that would involve selling places for pilgrimage to such a religiously revered place.

When Mohamed Bangura, the intellectually challenged information minister of the outgoing government boasted that he would ban social media in the country, he became the butt of many jokes, as he had no idea the challenges that would entail and was a man known for talking before thinking.

Against all odds the opposition Sierra Leone Peoples Party SLPP over the past weekend won the election in Sierra Leone. After pouring massive public resources into a campaign in which the President personally hand picked both his successor and the running mate, the ruling party lost, even though they had embarked on a campaign that they were very confident of winning and describing the opposition party of being penniless and broke. They were buoyed by the defection of the last chairman of the SLPP Chief Somano Kapen,  a man seemingly cursed to die in opposition.
SLPP Turncoat
Chief Somano Kapen 

The reading of the country's election  results had to be variously delayed, as the outgoing government wanted to engage in every known political shenanigan in order to ensure that Dr. Samura Kamara, the president's own choice was elected by hook or crook.

However the electoral commissioners held firm. Many people became increasingly aware that the tides were turning when government agents ridiculously started accusing election observers and foreign agents of trying to rig elections. It was an act that smirked of desperation.

When the election results were announced and Retired Brigadier Julius Maada Bio the opposition candidate was declared the winner,  the losing Dr. Samura went on TV to say he will challenge the outcome. However,  nobody in the country paid him much attention. It was like someone cooking soup and then blaming others for its poor taste. Samura lost a historic opportunity to behave like a gentleman. However he seem to be accepting reality and went to church with the President where he acknowledged him as the President.

The new President, Rtd Brigadier Julius Maada Bio has many challenges. He is inheriting a country that is now more corrupt than at any time in its history, with an economy that is in the doldrums. The saving grace is that Maada Bio is no political novice and there are people around him with serious experience who can proffer good advice.  His main challenge will be how to distribute leadership positions among his many supporters without alienating many at this crucial time.  One only hopes he has been planning for this outcome.
Proud Defector
Kapen 

Regardless of what happens, democracy in West Africa is maturing.  Probably in our lifetime the people all over that area of Africa will be able to choose their leadership unhindered and hold them accountable to their promises.

In spite of the fact that it occasionally leads to tyranny of the majority, democracy is beautiful when it works.

Sheku Sheriff.