By: Saad Barrie
The race to be the nominee of the opposition Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) in the 2018 presidential polls is approaching its climax. In sharp contrast to the SLPP, the succession race in the ruling All People Congress (APC) appears non-existent, with a little over a year remaining on President Ernest Bai Koroma’s final term in office.
Several senior APC members, mostly serving and former cabinet ministers under President Koroma, are said to be interested in the most coveted job in their party. However, the local press seems to suggest that there is a de facto gag order placed by the president on ministers and senior public servants, stopping them from making public declarations of interest to succeed him. Ministers, for example, can therefore only make covert moves to build support for their aspirations to be the party’s flag-bearer (local jargon for ‘nominee’ to be president).
So far, there have been, in total, only two declarations of intent from within the ruling party to be its flag-bearer. Before his sudden death in London in early August the late businessman and celebrated philanthropist Moseray Fadika had been the only known candidate in the APC nomination race.
President Koroma remains circumspect over the flag-bearer race (or lack of one) in the APC. A situation which has fuelled speculation of a looming succession crisis in the party now that the loud chorus for third-term or “more term” for the president has been ostensibly silenced.
However, talk of a crisis in the APC sounds premature and not evidence-based. The political pundits are comparing apples to oranges in thinking that the APC will break up, as the SLPP did after its 2005 convention, due to irreconcilable differences among its elites over who should succeed the president.
The massive defections from the SLPP that followed the creation of its nemesis, the Peoples Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC), led to the party losing power in 2007. But then “history repeats itself” only for those who fail to learn the instructive lessons it teaches. That is not to say President Koroma, unlike the late President Kabbah, is infallible.
Unlike the SLPP at this stage in President Kabbah’s final term, it is hard to see clear battle lines in the APC that could lead to a PMDC-effect in 2018. Quite the opposite. President Koroma has chopped and changed his cabinet several times since winning a second mandate in late 2012. Formerly “untouchables” like Sam Sumana, the erstwhile Vice President, proved to be anything but that, with no consequences for the president or his party. The anecdotal evidence suggests that the president will remain the arbiter of power in the APC, before and for some time after the 2018 polls.
More like Pop Shek than Pa Kabbah
As Leader of the Opposition for five years President Koroma must have learnt a few things from late President Tejan Kabbah – partly as a result of the latter’s magnanimity in victory. The most valuable lesson for the president, in the present context, is to avoid the cataclysmic consequences of President Kabbah’s lack of finesse in backing his vice president, Solomon Berewah, to succeed him even before the delegates conference in Makeni, two years before the 2007 presidential polls.
For want of comparison, President Koroma’s handling of the ongoing “succession battle” within his party is similar to how late President Siaka Stevens got the APC to robber-stamp his preferred candidate, General Joseph Saidu Momoh (the “God-chosen” one), as his successor.
Today’s political pundits and management gurus might consider late President Stevens’s approach to succession planning too anachronistic. Lest they forget, the only other time the APC (as the ruling party) has had to choose a successor to a retiring president was three decades ago. President Koroma was a political apprentice by then. He is an avowed admirer of the late patriarch.
I agree the country was a one-party state under President Stevens. However, I will not be surprised if, as an impetus for party unity and following the Stevens doctrine, the APC flag-bearer is elected (selected) unopposed.
An APC Red Herring
The SLPP nomination contest became a fiercely competitive two-horse race after the retired United Nations diplomat Dr Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella joined the race in early 2015. Retired Brigadier Julius Maada Bio, the former military head of state and runner-up in the 2012 Presidential elections, is Dr Yumkella’s principal rival for his party’s nomination. There are about a dozen other contestants to be the SLPP flag-bearer in the 2018 polls. But these are, virtually all, aligned to either Dr Yumkella (ten of them are) or the former military head of state.
If he eventually becomes his party’s nominee Dr Yumkella will be a strong favourite against any APC candidate. Consequently, many in the APC would rather have Brigadier Bio (again) as the SLPP candidate in the presidential polls. In fact the Yumkella camp has accused the Bio camp of receiving tacit support from APC operatives in Government as part of a ruse to get the Brigadier the nomination.
A few days after Mr Fadika’s death the former Minister of Mines (sacked Minister of Information) and now Presidential Adviser Honourable Alpha Kanu, the self-styled “Apprentice”, abruptly declared his intention to succeed his long-time friend and “mentor” President Koroma – the current “driver” of the metaphorical vehicle.
Since Hon Alpha Kanu made his jaw-dropping declaration, countless hours of radio and television airtime and several newspaper columns have been filled with analysis of his chances of winning the APC nomination. The dominant view in the local press is one that unequivocally dismisses Hon Alpha Kanu’s odds to be president. Some of the views expressed dare to include disparaging description of the former APC mouthpiece’s private life and record in public service to justify why he cannot be president. According to one commentator, even if he somehow wins the nomination any of the current two front runners in the SLPP can beat Mr Kanu, hands down.
Given Mr Kanu’s apparent unpopularity (in the press as well as among the general public) and his proclivity for brinkmanship one is tempted to see his declaration of intent as a subterfuge to hoodwink the SLPP into believing the APC is headed for an “implosion of a seismic proportion”. The APC intuition behind such a strategy would be to up the ante in the cutthroat non-cooperative game that the SLPP flag-bearer race has turned out to be.
The Brigadier Bio camp in particular should feel emboldened to see the likes of Hon Alpha Kanu breaking ranks in the APC. A scenario which, in their view, makes getting the presidency potentially far easier for their man in 2018 than it had been against President Koroma in 2012. The prospect of running against Mr Kanu should be strong incentive for all the SLPP contestants to be less rule-compliant, with the potential to break up the Yumkella-led alliance; as each candidate will fancy his chances in the presidential polls against the likes of Mr Kanu hence might want to fight on for the nomination till the very end. The factional squabbles in the party will intensify, making it impossible to reconcile between the front runners – Brigadier Bio and his arch-rival, Dr Yumkella – before the convention planned for late 2016.
Two Necessary Conditions for the APC Flag-bearer to Satisfy
Ruse or not, to have any chance of beating either Brigadier Bio or Dr Yumkella, the APC flag-bearer must meet at least two important requirements:
(a) He or she must be likable and popular enough to be able to keep the party united after the convention but not to the extent that s/he might pose a threat, however remote, to President Koroma’s legacy or prickle his coagulating political hegemony (as Leader and Chairman) in the APC; and
(b) He or she must be functionally competent, professionally experienced and without a blemished record of service (in case another smear campaign against Brigadier Bio is in the cards), charismatic enough to woo the neutral voter, especially in urban areas, and must have built an international reputation that can rival Dr Yumkella’s.
Few in the APC can fulfil these two broadly defined conditions. Four people readily come to mind: Dr Zainab Hawa Bangura, Professor Monty Jones, Dr Kaifala Marah, and Dr Samura M. W. Kamara. Certainly not Hon Alpha Kanu – PhD or not. Besides, it is unlikely that the president will trust someone he once sacked (whatever the reason) to continue his legacy.
Dr Samura Kamara, Dr Zainab Bangura and Dr Marah are three of seven cabinet ministers who have never been sacked by President Koroma. The others are: Dr Minkailu Bah, Captain (Rtd) Allieu Pat-Sowe, Major (Rtd) Alfred Palo Conteh, and Honorable Minkailu Mansaray.
The “new kids in the block” – current Attorney-General Joseph Fitzgerald Kamara (JFK) and his “Class of 2016”(Mohamed Bangura et al) – have not been tried and tested long enough to be entrusted with the job of taking on someone as experienced and internationally respected as Dr Yumkella.
The Decision Point for President Koroma
President Koroma knew years ago that Dr Yumkella would be joining the race to succeed him in 2018. And the president would have been left in no doubt as to where lies the loyalty of the son of one of the founding fathers of the SLPP. Since then the former UN diplomat became the man to beat for the APC in the 2018 presidential polls.
For President Koroma, it was reasonable to assume that any APC candidate who could beat Dr Yumkella would stand a strong chance of beating Brigadier Bio or anybody else from the opposition.
Appointing Dr Samura Kamara as Foreign Minister after winning re-election in the November 2012 polls is arguably one of the most surprising appointments the president has made since 2007. Few thought the economist (a profession not known for diplomacy) could last this long in that post. With the benefit of hindsight, it should now be clear why President Koroma made that appointment so early in his final term. I believe President Koroma decided early in his second term that Dr Samura Kamara was the man to challenge Dr Yumkella in 2018. But he was not quite ready at the time. President Koroma had to make sure his man would be ready before the polls in early 2018.
I feel cautioned by the thought that history has shown in politics, as in many competitive sports, an outsider can sometimes beat everyone’s overwhelming favourite to win. I will therefore add a caveat here: due to his role in fighting the Ebola outbreak and the cabinet appointment that followed I see Professor Monty Jones to have emerged as the outsider. These two gentlemen (Dr Kamara and Professor Jones) satisfy the above two conditions more than anyone else in the APC: competent professionals and global figures (like Dr Yumkella) and pose the least threat to President Koroma after he retires as president.
An Economist and a Diplomat
The late President Siaka Stevens wrote in the final chapter of his biography that “the leader of an emergent nation must be an astute politician, a realist and visionary, an economist and a diplomat, a tough task-master and a humane judge, above all, a resolute fighter….” Pop Shek himself had to admit that he fell far short of those qualities.
If nominated by their respective parties, Dr Yumkella and Dr Kamara would be the closest we would have come to getting the kind of leader the late Siaka Stevens had in mind in his twilight years. To win, however, the two “economists and diplomats” first have to prove they are indeed “resolute fighters”.
President Koroma, perhaps more than anyone, can appreciate the fact that Dr Yumkella has the advantage of being a skilled professional, well-rounded statesman and has a charismatic personality. It was similar qualities that he recognised in his Foreign Minister and why he has cast him in influential roles throughout his presidency.
Dr Yumkella is evidently more of the global statesman by virtue of his longer service and in a more prominent international role as the Director-General of the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO). Had he desired a position in President Koroma’s cabinet, he would have been certainly welcome by the president and his party.
Dr Kamara, on the other hand, is arguably the most experienced Sierra Leonean economist in the country. He served as Financial Secretary (technical head of the ministry of finance) almost continuously under Captain Strasser (1994 to 1996) and President Kabbah (1996 to 1997 and 2001 to 2006), serving as Finance Minister during Brigadier Bio’s brief stint as head of state (1996). He joined the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as one of its Executive Directors in 2006, close to the start of the global financial crisis.
When President Koroma was first elected in 2007 he was desperate for Dr Samura Kamara to leave the IMF to serve as his Finance Minister. The president was disappointed when he discovered his man was not eligible to be minister because he had not registered to vote. To hold on to Dr Kamara the president settled for the next best thing – appointing him Governor of the Bank of Sierra Leone (BSL). As soon as Dr Kamara could register to vote in the 2008 local elections, making him eligible, he was moved from BSL to become Finance Minister. As Finance Minister, Dr Kamara presided over the economic boom in the president’s first term in office (albeit due to resumption in iron ore export after a three decade hiatus).
Despite Dr Kamara’s wealth of experience in managing the country’s economy in times of crisis President Koroma has not reappointed him Finance Minister, at a time when the economy is facing its worst crisis in the post-war years. He may not be Finance Minister de jure but he still plays a major role in the implementation of the country’s economic strategies. For example, earlier in February 2016 at the “UK-Sierra Leone Trade and Investment Forum” in London Dr Kamara played the role one expects of a finance minister. Expect to see and hear more of him in 2017.
Recently, Dr Kamara has become a strong advocate for higher taxes on natural resources, especially on raising the minimum tax rate on royalties on the minerals (currently at the range 3% – 15%). However, as Minister of Finance Dr Kamara did not prescribe the very policies he now advocates. Perhaps a sign, if you need one, that the former Minister of Finance’s transformation from the economist to the politician is nearing completion.
The economy may not fully recover before the elections in early 2018 – in which case, if elected APC flag-bearer, not being Minister of Finance since 2012 provides Dr Kamara some needed cover against the political consequences of a weak economy. It would be unusual of the domestic press to look beyond Dr Kamara’s successors (the Governor of the BSL and the incumbent finance minister respectively) for someone to blame for the poor performance of the economy.
In fact, except for the fallout from his failed bid to be President of the African Development Bank (AfDB) in 2015, Dr Kamara has enjoyed mostly favourable coverage in the local and international press since he became Minister of Foreign Affairs in December 2012. Not even the kidnapping of the country’s deputy High Commissioner to Nigeria could bring his stewardship of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs into question.
More Time for President Koroma
Those who know him well would know of Dr Kamara’s APC pedigree even when he was Financial Secretary under the SLPP. However, the Foreign Minister has never been named in any internal squabbles for influence in the party; not while he was a civil servant nor as minister.
Dr Kamara’s indifference in the internal dynamics of the APC is convenient for President Koroma. It would be strategic for Dr Kamara (if elected president) to have (an ex) President Koroma remain as Leader and Chairman of the party. It also makes it easier for the president to sell him to the APC delegates, before the party’s final convention, as a suitable compromise candidate who could unite the various bickering factions in the party. Although, as a fellow Limba from Bombali (Dr Kamara is from Kamalo), the president will have to convincingly defend himself against any accusation of ethnic and geographic bias from most likely the Temne-Port Loko district caucus of his party.
Mamamah Airport Project and Relations with China
Dr Samura Kamara is strongly in favour of the Chinese-backed Mamamah Airport Project, a project President Koroma wants so badly to, at least, start before his term ends in November 2017. In an interview he granted to a local newspaper the Foreign Minister was quoted saying a new airport so close to Freetown, financed with concessional loan from the Chinese, will be “transformational” for the country’s economy.
Both the IMF and the World Bank have refused to back the Mamamah project, saying now is not the time for a new airport. However, president Koroma hopes that if anyone can convince the Boards of these two orthodox financial institutions to have a rethink of their position (now or in the near future) it would be one of their own – his Foreign Minister.
Dr Samura Kamara, like Dr Yumkella, is a self-confessed admirer of China’s development trajectory. He, like President Koroma and Dr Yumkella, has developed a close relationship with senior Chinese diplomats and politicians through direct bi-lateral engagements during official visits to Beijing as well as backstage of the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) and at the UN. Also, as Coordinator of the African Union Committee of Ten Heads of State on the Reform of the United Nations Dr Kamara (in the spirit of South-South Cooperation) has had to maintain a position closer to China than to the West.
In May 2015, Dr Kamara penned an op-Ed ostensibly supporting the controversial Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the Chinese conceptualized rival to the American controlled World Bank, even before it was incorporated in December 2015.
China is now, by any measure, the biggest player in the economy of Sierra Leone. Total recovery from the pervasive effects of the Ebola Outbreak on the economy will rely significantly on the recovery of the mining sector. It is not feasible that iron ore export will recover any time soon (not at a price below $70/ton). However, an injection of investment by the leading miner Shandong Iron and Steel Group (SISG) into the iron ore sector, to rollout the company’s delayed Phase 2 plans, will help reduce youth unemployment and resuscitate local businesses in the sector’s input supply chain. A fraction of that investment (total of about $ 900m) will also help build reserves and ease the pressure on the Leones.
Strong ties to China will be a huge advantage for President Koroma’s successor as president – whether from the APC or SLPP – at least in his first term in office. The next president of Sierra Leone has to acknowledge the fact that the government of China, which has a bridle over SISG, will have to approve the company’s operational plans hence must have direct communication to Beijing.
May the Best Man Win!
The opposition SLPP should not misread President Koroma’s refusal to publicly back his preferred successor (as Kabbah did for Berewah) as a lack of succession plan or a dereliction of his leadership responsibilities of his party. Nor should they bank too much on the political dividend to be derived from an APC implosion (or a PMDC-effect) as a winning strategy. The president will ensure that his party’s best will be on the ballot in 2018.
To improve their party’s odds of winning the presidency in 2018 the SLPP delegates must decide, without fear or favour, between Dr Yumkella and Brigadier Bio who would make the most formidable opponent to the BEST, certainly not the average or mediocre, the APC has to offer in the 2018 polls.
May the best man win his party’s nomination and in the presidential polls!