Sierra Leone: A honeymoon or challenging times? The new government of President Julius Maada Bio

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President Julius Maada Bio

[Commentary]

In a country where the 2018 Parliamentary and Presidential elections were considered the “most consequential elections in the history of Sierra Leone”, no one could have guessed what the outcome would be after swearing-in of the new President, H.E. Julius Maada Bio, moments after the final results were announced as a result of extreme and unprecedented pressures from the peoples of Sierra Leone, the Sierra Leone Diaspora and their friends, as well as foreign election observers.

Contrary to enjoying a rather smooth and orderly transfer of power to the incoming President, the opposite was the case on Wednesday, April 25th, 2018, when several Parliamentarians were denied their seats due to “court ordered injunctions against some elected members and problems with electing a Speaker of the Parliament,” according to AYTV. BBC journalist Umaru Fofana reported that a near mayhem erupted in the “well and the floor of Parliament” with some members “ throwing documents on the floor” while others were chanting revolutionary songs. This reminded me about our peaceful demonstrations on the grounds of both the World Bank in Washington DC and United Nations in New York City, during which Sierra Leoneans from all political parties were protesting the “illegal and unconstitutional sacking of the then- Vice President, Hon. Sam Sumana including the misuse of Ebola funds,” according to protest organizer Mustapha Wai.

Those actions of patriotic Sierra Leoneans at the time could honestly and truthfully take credit for the creation of both the NGC and C4C opposition political parties in the Republic of Sierra Leone, West Africa. In fact, many of the brains behind the founding of those two parties were members of the now defunct “CONCERNED SIERRA LEONEANS” in the United States.

Other political groups could honestly have found their roots from the same principled and selfless humble beginnings of the Concerned Sierra Leonean group of patriots. We salute those activists-turned-politicians that are now the guardians of our Republic of Sierra Leone political elites. As one of the founding members of the Concerned Sierra Leonean group said, “Let me remind my compatriots that we protested and lost friendships on protest lines not to stay the course that was marred by rampant corruption and dictatorship in our country but rather to demand the preservation of the rule of law and Democracy in Sierra Leone, where equal opportunity and peace will prevail forever”.

The fact that the country’s new Parliament now have representatives from other political parties other than the two dominant political parties should remind politicians that the people of Sierra Leone repudiated the old political order, thereby demanding that other voices be empowered legally to carry out the will and mandate of the dissenters. We agree and support this new trajectory so long as the practice is in the best interest of the Sierra Leonean peoples. How much the NGC or C4C is able to exert their influence with a very small group of Parliamentarians is something no one knows. Only the future and time will tell what will happen. In the meantime, the people will, and shall, continue to wait and see how all of these maneuvers and chess games play out.

In industrialized countries like the United States, even a legislative branch of government that controls both houses of Congress are generally given 100 days of grace time for the incoming administration to put its house in order. The Maada Bio Administration is barely one month old. Within this small window, they must appoint cabinet Ministers; they must look at parastatal organizations; they must contend with running the affairs of the state; they must maintain the rule of law while maintaining law and order; they must prepare an executive budget and submit to parliament for debate; they must consider recalling foreign diplomats while naming new ones; they must review contracts and foreign obligations to creditors; they must increase the morale of their civil service and must raise revenue to keep the government running. All of these matters, and more, are the kinds of undeniable activities that this government must contend with.

In addition, the new government is facing enormous pressure from an angry electorate to bring people to justice who have been allegedly accused of all manner of financial misdeeds and other improprieties.

At the same time, the incoming government is also inheriting an almost empty treasury that forces them to seek immediate financial help from both the IMF and the World Bank, who would most likely impose conditions that the new government could hardly meet at this time. Some of our friends in decision-making in several levels of government, particularly in the United States, continue to ask some of us questions like “Who these new leaders in the new Maada Bio administration and what are their values and principles toward responsible government?” The answers to these questions will lay the foundation and groundwork to easing donor concerns, while promoting some degree of confidence in working together.

I have worked with new governments in promoting trade immediately following the inauguration of the incoming government. The challenge for those governments were threefold:

(1) Finding the resources to address the immediate and pressing needs of the country that were indeed campaign promises of the President. The urgency to address these immediate issues forced the government to enter into untenable terms with providers who saw an opportunity to take advantage of them. This quick fix solution led to all sorts of problems that ultimately led to a scandal that forced the World Bank to discourage the then- government from executing the agreement. This caused a huge embarrassment to both the President and the government of that country.
(2) Appointing people to positions without proper vetting, including the requisite qualifications to various posts in the new administration. In some of these situations, personnel appointed to head important areas for investment and development could not follow up on commitments to outside entities that they negotiated over many months, based on a Memorandum of Agreement only to later find out that the document was “fake”.
(3) Allowing individual officials to run a parallel business that was at variance to government priorities, often clashing with each other. Needless to say, confusion and lack of trust between vendor and government created serious problems between the parties.

In my view, perhaps the most important worry of the United States toward the Maada Bio Presidency are three important priorities namely;
(1) Curbing the rapid trade expansion and influence of China in Sierra Leone, and
(2) Facing the war on terrorism, which continues to be an important priority of the United States government, coupled with the continuous human trafficking taking place in African Countries, as well as with their nationals risking their lives to travel to Europe in hazardous conditions across the Atlantic.
(3) Addressing the inability of the losing party to accept defeat and work toward the development of the country. How such a smooth and cooperative government will take place -- when SLPP stalwarts are also bent on seeking revenge – is a matter that must be dealt with sensitivity. As one SLPP higher-up told me when I reached out to him for comment for this article, said,
” How do you let these APC criminals go scotch-free and thumb their fingers in our eyes when the people that elected us want revenge?”

The high level leader within the SLPP who wanted to remain anonymous (which I promised to do) believes that their failure to not set up a “Commission of Inquiry into the financial misdeeds of the APC” will definitely put their party out of power after five years. He predicted that the SLPP will definitely investigate not only the financial misdeeds of the APC but also look into the security services and the judiciary. When and at what point in their administration that these actions will be confronted head on “will take some time,” he said. The Sierra Leone President should have no hesitation to seek wise counsel from such countries like Ghana, Senegal and the Gambia, following their own contentious elections, including their aftermaths. Leaving the door open without resolving the problem will spell trouble for the new administration sooner or later.

The anxiety of worried Sierra Leoneans clamoring for change from what a friend of mine called “ a radical transformation in our country from a government of corruption and dictatorship to one of accountability and transparency that is rooted in the rule of law” also must put into the mix the last-minute political decision to disqualify Diaspora Sierra Leoneans who hold dual citizenship from holding elective office in Sierra Leone. As one who has run for office in the United States, I could empathize with this decision that caused so much pain and suffering for many Diaspora Sierra Leoneans who resigned their jobs and sold their properties to go and serve their country by seeking elective office, only to be told at the last minute that they were barred from not only seeking the party symbol but also running for office. The irony, however, was that there were indeed many Diaspora Sierra Leoneans with dual citizenships who held cabinet level positions in the APC government who never resigned nor were dismissed from their positions. While it is my understanding that this provision is written in the constitution of Sierra Leone but “never enforced”, it beholds the new Parliament to make this matter “settled law” that will be made clear and public in all the official gazettes as well as public service announcements throughout the Republic of Sierra Leone, including Sierra Leone Embassies around the world. If the legislation needs revisiting, this matter must be taken up as a matter of priority as soon as possible.

In addition to taking up that piece of legislation, I would also like to add that any candidate seeking elective office in Sierra Leone, soliciting funds, or receiving campaign contributions from ineligible voters anywhere in the world, be either fined or disqualified from serving in Parliament after been elected to office. The evidence is clear that many candidates travel overseas to solicit campaign funds that are illegal according to campaign guidelines. If such laws are not presently part of the campaign finance laws in Sierra Leone, they must be enacted before the next elections.

My final point involves Law Enforcement. I know about this section of government, as an employee of the number one Police Department in the United States, the NYPD in the City of New York, United States of America. It is true that even members of the uniformed services do register and vote for candidates of their choice. The major difference between members of the uniformed services here in New York City and what became evident during the elections in Sierra Leone is that the performance of the responsibilities of a police officer during and after elections in New York City are done in strict accordance with campaign laws and standards. In other words, the rules and laws are applied to all without favoring any political party or individual. Police officers do not provide private security for any candidate except stipulated by law. They do not arrest an individual by order of a political or elected member of government without a valid or legal order. They do not carry petitions for candidates, although they can sign petitions for candidates to qualify them to be on the ballot. They can donate to campaigns. In fact, their Unions endorse candidates seeking elective office, which mostly sends a signal to their rank and file members about whom to vote for, as a right granted every eligible citizen qualified to vote. One problem area, that is actually handled very fairly and professionally, involves granting permits for legal demonstrations or protests on city streets. These permits are generally issued at the precinct level to a legal and an organized group. The applicant fills out an application, listing the number of people or crowd anticipated, and reasonably stating the purpose of the demonstration. They are then required to pay appropriate fees in the form of a money order. Should they require a sound permit, they are required to separately apply for this permit from the starting time of the event to the end time. If the demonstration is taking place in a public park, the organizers are required to submit a separate application to the Parks Department in the respective area. Once those conditions are met, with the date approved, the police department will assign a detail to the event with a supervisor responsible for overseeing the smooth and orderly flow of the event without violence or incident. This process of protests and demonstrations are handled at the precinct level with courtesy, professionalism and respect. I should add that New York City is a city of demonstrations for all types of causes, with permits granted to organizations with only a few people to those with hundreds and thousands of people, who converge on New York City streets and sidewalks. These laws are enforced fairly without respect to, or interference by, any political party or organization.

In conclusion, as a Sierra Leonean in the Diaspora, I remain very concerned about peace and security of everyone in my beloved home country. Now that we have a new government in our Republic, all Sierra Leoneans need to work with the new administration to provide the type of services and leadership that makes us a united country for the benefit of all the peoples of the Republic of Sierra Leone. Happy Independence Day --recently celebrated-- and long live the peoples of the Republic of Sierra Leone! I salute a United and Peaceful Sierra Leone.

Sidique A. Wai
President and National Spokesperson, United African Congress
New York City, United States of America

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