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The Recipe for SLPP’s State House Menu: Your ‘Man’ Matters Less in the Big Bowl

Kef Dukulay

As the nation hopes the Ebola scourge would end soon to open the floor once more for social and political activities, the various political parties will sure be engaged with internal restructurings and other activities in preparation for the 2016 Local Council Elections.  The filling in of candidates for the local Council seats is very crucial for any political party contesting the national elections (parliamentary and presidential) expected to fall in 2018.  It is equally so at intra-party levels because the process will enable those that have eyes on carrying party flags to position their own ‘men’ in the ‘system’ to play the game for them at the ultimate National Delegates’ Conventions to elect or select presidential candidates. 

This is very much the case in the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party who always find it difficult to choose their flagbearer and presidential nominees.  The SLPP’s history is replete with ambitious camp built-ups around candidates that often negatively impact on the party’s performance in national elections.  Once a candidate gambles and fails to clinch the position and then becomes disgruntled and decides to leave the party, he goes along with his camp surrogates.  Vows to remain together get broken so soon as some members fail to get their desired results in flagbearer elections. This was evident in both post-2005 Makeni and 2011 Freetown delegates’ conferences; unfortunate developments that have cost the party two presidential bids.  

The dangerous thing about ‘campism’ is that it goes out of control in political institutions like the SLPP that practices elitist approach to politics with no stringent party discipline to regulate vaunting ambitions, and no clear line control over its grassroots membership. Camps normally metamorphose into breeding grounds for real or perceived misgivings amongst the membership since their loyalty is to the ‘camp’ leader first before the SLPP. The resultant effect is normally intra-party mistrusts that have become a self-destroying weapon that has stabbed the party on its back in two presidential elections. This disingenuousness entirely blurred the party’s vision for State House in both 2007 and 2012.

It is only sad that by the look of things as events start unfolding, the SLPP is not ready to learn any lesson.  It is now an over-told story how a single man’s ‘grievous’ ambition in 2007 changed the whole electoral tide against the SLPP with even greater consequences suffered by the membership. Also, it is no secret that the refusal by some ‘camp’ leaders in 2012 to shelve their differences and put the party above self by unconditionally giving their time and energy to the campaign of the ‘party’s chosen candidate’ played no mean role in paralyzing the SLPP in the march to State House for the second time since Tejan Kabbah left office in 2007. Like in the aftermath of Makeni in 2005, defections gripped the party again after Miatta Conference in 2011. Though no splinter party sprang up after the Miatta Conference Centre Delegates’ Conference, there were a lot of faceless defections and insincerity on the part of some camp masters in the campaign process which had great toll on the chances of the party in 2012.

Constitutional Jeopardy

Also, the interpretation of the Party Constitution has been a contributing factor to the confusion within the SLPP. For instance, where Clause 6(v) worked well for the former vice president and flagbearer, Solomon Ekuma Berewa because of age, it has been very devastating for the ambition of the young Retired Brigadier Julius Maad Bio who also lost in 2012 to incumbent APC’s Ernest Bai Koroma. The decision by some members within the then JOB Administration to abrogate Clause 6(v) deepened rancor within the party. While some saw it as an unconstitutional move, many welcomed it, especially considering the exigency (the election petition) at the time and the belief that since he had contested for the highest seat in the land Maada Bio was undisputedly the ‘grand chef’ of the party and that status quo must renmain.       

Clause 6 (v) devastated Maada Bio because in spite of his popularity as a presidential candidate, he remains subordinate to the party hierarchy, with no specific nomenclature and defined role within the National Executive Council. He remains ex-officio member of the NEC. He is not constitutionally prevented from contesting back but he is prone to another herculean challenge. Many other contenders, both old and new, are coming up again. This includes the Chairman and Leader who baby-seated the 2012 election, John Oponjo Benjamin.  He was largely blamed for the poor performance of the party in that election. Many argue he was not proactive as he really is to ensure Maada won because ‘it was not his own man that clinched the flag.’ Was it that in his own ambitious calculation he saw the SLPP losing the 2012 presidential election as good bidding for him? He recently took a swipe at the Maada Bio 2012 team and the choice of Dr. Kadi Sesay as running mate in a local tabloid. That statement was a misrepresentation of a leader of a party under whose administration the flagbearer was elected and running mate chosen. So was it the usual hypocritical display of the SLPP democracy in leaving Maada Bio alone to choose Kadi Sesay as running mate and, as well surround him with unlikely names? If so it meant total ignorance of Clause 6(d) of the 1995 Party Constitution as amended which inter alia, gives discretion to the candidate to choose his/her running mate as his/her Vice President but in consultation with the National Executive Council. So was Maada Bio deliberately not guided by elders and NEC or he foolishly refused to hang heads with the NEC before setting up his team?

John Benjamin is now poised to contest against Maada Bio with whom he has never been comfortable; alongside Alpha Timbo and Andrew Keili who were all in the 2011 race. Many new kids are sure to come on the block, the most talked about being Dr. Kandeh Yumkella of the United Nations. Already, camps have been formed around these candidates. The glaring problem is intolerance; members in each camp see themselves as separate entities from the SLPP.  The Bio Camp still refuses to come to terms with the ex-officio status of the former flagbearer. They hold the belief that his flagbearer position is intact and incontestable, albeit losing the 2012 election. Their understanding is a complete misinterpretation of the party constitution and from that moment of attempt to abrogate Clause 6 (v), those that challenged the motion became enemies in the Bio camp. 

Bad precedent?

The coming of John Benjamin into the race is sure to heighten tension in the party especially as many see him as a sellout. Though he insists he did much he could for the SLPP, and credit indeed goes to him for refusing to allow the APC to muzzle the party after the controversial elections in 2007, the fanfare that greeted his elevation to the position of chairman and leader of the party diminished the moment it was suspected he handled party matters with sentimentality. JOB had long fallen out of grace to many SLPP members. It will have to take him time to repose the trust and confidence he enjoyed from the membership when he was elected in 2009. He is a fighter and knows every character in the SLPP but does he have the detergent to clear the sentimentality and accountability slur on him to members? Sadly also, extremists in the Maada camp would conclude that he frustrated their man’s efforts and spoilt SLPP’s chance because of his ambition. But most importantly,  JOB’s name will oddly go into the party history books as the first national chairman and leader who refused to take the eldership and advisory seat after his tenure but decides to come back into mainstream party and national politics. 

The Northern Sway

There is also the anti-Maada group but not comfortable with JOB either. This set of people within the party would prefer to go the extra mile to cajole the unlikely Yumkella to contest if only for something to fall on as a way of vendetta. Hence, everybody is looking for a spanner to throw into SLPP wheel to State House.  Here then lies the problem when we also have the ‘northernisation’ preacher, Lawyer Alpha Timbo. Timbo too is big in the race and he is the ‘norhternisation pao-pa,’ not ready to budge an inch for any candidate, not even from the north. He insists with Maada in particular or any other south-eastern candidate, the SLPP’s chance to State House would always be slim. He is always ready with figures and patterns of National Voter Registration to prove his point.

Recently a senior figure in ODAK, Andrew Keili’s train, resigned with no explanation. It is tooted that Imram Sillah is eying a new position in another northern camp to be created soon. Though the Engineer says ‘it is good riddance, Imran was seen to be instrumental in promoting the image of Andrew Keili.

South and East Rivalry

On the south-eastern flank, the eastern candidates feel this is their own time because they have not found electoral success in southern candidates. They see the two southern candidates aligning themselves too much to Alma Mata fraternities and those that do not have much to offer to the party. But there are also other likely candidates from the south who feel strangers have been having field day in the party. Hon. Ansu Kaikai, who is also likely to throw his weight into the ring often says that the SLPP leadership should go to those who know best, have suffered and served the party unwaveringly since their youth, not only those who see the power for grabbing.

Such is the spider web like confusion in the SLPP. But would the membership ask themselves who is more important, their camp master or the SLPP? The party’s success in a national election, especially for the presidency, can never be achieved if members and supporters hold their candidates dearer than the SLPP. The spirit of competition is natural in any democracy but must not serve as self inflicting deterrent to institutional cohesion. What is therefore important is not who should be elected SLPP flag bearer but how best all members would embrace that candidate and rally behind him to take the party to State House. Don’t say I am not going to participate in the campaign because my man has lost. That selfish mentality has plagued the party for so long and still threatens the 2018 chance. You may hold your ‘man’ close to your heart but respect the other man’s opinion and treat him as member of the party. Your candidate may lose without affecting you but an SLPP loss is always devastating to you, your godfather and good governance and the progress of Sierra Leone. Take heed!