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