Obasanjo’s endorsement in Sierra Leone: will it help or hurt?

Nigeria is the regional anchor of West Africa, with a rapidly growing population of 164 million people and easily West Africa’s largest economy — an economy set to overtake South Africa’s economy by 2020. 

So when former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo made an endorsement in the contested presidential race in Sierra Leone, a country of just around five million people, people took notice.

Obasanjo endorsed Sierra Leone’s incumbent president, Ernest Bai Koroma (pictured above, right, with Obasanjo, left), last week.  So what does that mean for Sierra Leone’s elections to be held this Sunday, November 17?

Probably not much.

As Andrew Novak has recently written for Suffragio, Koroma, the candidate of the All People’s Congress (APC), remains a slight favorite against his chief opponent, Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP).  The SLPP was formed in 1951 and dominated Sierra Leonean politics immediately before, during and after Sierra Leone’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1961.  The APC, formed in 1960, dominated an increasingly autocratic and corrupt Sierra Leonean government through the early 1990s, when Sierra Leone descended into one of Africa’s bloodiest civil wars.  The Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a rebel group backed by Liberian strongman Charles Taylor plunged Sierra Leone into a chaotic war that featured the use of child soldiers and other horrific war crimes, mostly fought over control of Sierra Leone’s diamond mines in Kono.

The SLPP’s Ahmad Tejan Kabbah won power in 1996 during the height of the fighting and despite Kabbah’s inability to govern, he won reelection overwhelming in 2002, the same year that Sierra Leone’s civil war ended.  The SLPP lost power in 2007 — Kabbah’s vice president Solomon Berewa lost to Koroma, and despite some tensions, Kabbah peacefully transferred power to Koroma.  The SLPP’s current candidate, Bio, led a coup in 1996 and actually served as Sierra Leone’s president for a short while that year before his government called the elections that Kabbah ultimately won.

Historically, the Temne ethnic group, based in the north, has supported the APC and, indeed, Koroma is Sierra Leone’s first Tenme president.  In contrast, the Mende ethnic group in the south has traditionally supported the SLPP.

It seems more likely that Obasanjo is less interested in swaying Sierra Leonean voters than in ingratiating himself with the president of a country that has recently discovered new offshore petroleum deposits and remains one of the largest diamond-mining countries in the world, although proceeds from diamond mining were long used to fuel lavish personal spending from the 1960s and the 1990s and control of Sierra Leone’s diamond wealth fueled so much of the country’s civil war that Sierra Leone is often said to have suffered from a ‘diamond curse.’  So new discoveries of oil in Sierra Leone have been welcomed, but cautiously so.

Although Obasanjo has been out of office since 2007, he still plays an outsized role in African politics, both at home in Nigeria and abroad, including as a peacekeeping envoy for the United Nations to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In the 2007 race, Obasanjo, still the incumbent president in Nigeria, endorsed Berewa, the SLPP candidate, much to the protest from the APC.  Predictably enough, the SLPP has criticized Obasanjo’s meddling in the current election.  In contrast, current Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan visited Sierra Leone last week and, despite a warm meeting with Koroma, made a point of reaching out to all major political players in the country.

In many ways, the dual approaches of Obasanjo and Jonathan represent the strengthening commitment of Nigeria to democratic institutions — while Obasanjo undoubtedly played a key role in Nigeria’s transition from dictatorship to democracy (a transition that didn’t split the country on Christian/Muslim lines), he did so in ways that undermined democracy, such as widespread claims of corruption and his attempt to revise Nigeria’s constitution to allow himself a third term as president and his rigging of Nigerian polls in 2007 to ensure the election of his ally, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua.

Both Bio and Koroma have traded accusations of corruption throughout the campaign (Koroma’s vice president Sam Sumana has faced direct accusations), but Koroma can point to solid accomplishments through the past five years — notably, the introduction of free health care for children under age 5, pregnant women, and lactating mothers, rebuilding and improvement of many of Sierra Leone’s roads, rebuilding hydroelectric capacity.  Under Koroma and under Kabbah since 2002, Sierra Leone has made important strides — it’s marked solid economic growth, attracted some foreign development, made a solid transformation to democracy and worked to bolster the rule of law and civil liberties.  Indeed, the United Kingdom, which intervened with military force in 2000 to end the Sierra Leonean civil war by decisively bolstering the government against the RUF, has taken a key role in funding reconstruction in the one-time British colony.  While corruption remains a scourge, Sierra Leone’s certainly not alone in that regard.

Nonetheless, the winner of the elections will face an economy that, although recovering and growing, remains relatively poor with a GDP per capita of just $849 — over two-thirds of the country lives in poverty.

In addition to the presidential race, voters will elect all 124 members of Sierra Leone’s unicameral parliament.  The APC won a 59-seat plurality in the 2007 elections, and is hoping again to secure the largest share.

In addition to the two major parties, a third party, the liberal People’s Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC) might also play a spoiler role in either the presidential or parliamentary elections.  Its leader, Charles Margai, is running for president as well and Margai is the son of Sierra Leone’s second prime minister Albert Margai.  If the presidential race does go to runoff, Margai has said he will back Koroma, however, which is an endorsement the APC likely welcomed more than Obasanjo’s.

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