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Fate of Sierra Leone's opposition in the balance 

  • Dr Abass Bundu

By Kemo Cham

The main opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) is edging towards total disintegration, barely a month after a peace deal ignited hope of unity at last.
A group of aggrieved members, who feel disenfranchised, have vowed to desert the party over unmet demands in an agreement signed last month. The “Concerned SLPP Progressives” include leading aspirants in the contentious race for the party’s ticket in next year’s presidential election.
Delegates who are to vote to elect the party’s standard-bearer in a convention slated for April were themselves elected in primaries last year. But the “Progressives” say the process in over three dozen constituencies was marred by irregularities and they want the results reviewed or the contest rerun.
One of the leading members of the aggrieved group is influential female politician, Isata Jabbie-Kabbah, widow of former President Ahmad Tejan Kabba. She says the National Executive Committee (NEC) is bent on imposing its choice of candidate on the party, in the person of Julius Maada Bio – a move she says they are determined to resist.
The disgruntled group recently gathered in the northern Port Loko district where they proclaimed a set of resolutions that include suspension of cooperation with the executive.
In all, some 12 people are contesting for the SLPP ticket. The retired Brigadier Bio and Dr Kandeh Yumkella are the frontrunners. Yumkella is one of the architects of the so-called Alliance of SLPP Flag-bearers, which comprises 11 aspirants who intend to select a single candidate to challenge Bio who is backed by his faction dubbed PAOPA.
Division within SLPP stems from the 2005 delegates’ conference in Makeni to choose their presidential candidate for the 2007 election. Following that Charles Francis Margai formed the breakaway People’s Movement for Democratic Change party after he had lost out on the contest to lead his parent party.
In 2011, history repeated itself when Osman Boie-Kamara defected to the All People’s Congress (APC) party after losing to Bio for the SLPP ticket. Critics blamed Bio for failing to reconcile the party after the fractious campaign. His supported blamed Boie-Kamara for not respecting the democratic wish of the party. Bio subsequently lost to President Ernest Bai Koroma in the disputed 2012 polls.
Bio’s decision for a comeback in 2018 is seen as the foundation of the current crisis, which some members say poses the biggest threat to unity in one of Sub Saharan Africa’s oldest political parties.

Peace process:
Between 2011 and 2016 the party was in and out of court with rival factions and individuals filing for injunction after injunction against one decision or the other. From ward to constituency, district to parliament, the Alliance-PAOPA rivalry has permeated every decision involving the party, starving Sierra Leone of a viable opposition voice, amidst a turbulent experience of the poor masses in the face of endless economic and social woes, particularly in the last four years.
The rivalry climaxed last January with the declaration of two rival executives, prompted by the expulsion of Chief Somano Kapen as party leader. Mr Kapen was accused by the Paopa of siding with the Alliance.
Last month, a highly guarded peace process spearheaded by an independent group of concerned party stalwarts yielded fruits, even if temporarily, leading to the signing of a communiqué by all 12 presidential aspirants. The development raised hopes for peace among supporters and pro-democracy institutions who had expressed concern over the implication of the division within the opposition for the county’s fledgling democracy.
Bio, a former junta leader, commands huge support from the party’s grassroots, comprising energetic even if sometimes fanatical youths branded by his opponents as thugs. They are notorious for barricading the party’s headquarters for months, making it a no-go-area for his opponents.
The peace deal notably captured this issue, resolving to end the siege on the party’s offices nationwide. It also called for the withdrawal of all court cases and the reinstatement of all members and officials either suspended or expelled since 2013. Most importantly, the deal called for review and re-examination of the 39 disputed primaries, out of 112 constituencies nationwide.
But shortly afterwards, a High Court ruled on a pending case filed by the Alliance, in favour of the PAOPA. But the former vowed to appeal, much to the dismay of the latter.
But, says Mrs Kabba, it was the Paopa who first reneged on the peace deal by refusing to go ahead with reviewing the disputed primaries after the court’s verdict.

Allegation of dishonesty:
As part of the peace process, a committee was set up to look into the disputed primaries. That committee, headed by Allie Kabba, a standard bearer aspirant himself, recommended that the party stick to the court’s decision. And on March 13, the NEC adopted his recommendation, further irritating the ‘Progressives’ who argued that the committee overstepped its mandate.
And that, says Mrs Kabba, was the first display of dishonesty by the Paopa towards the peace process. According to her, 99 per cent of the disputed constituencies are in the northwest, with the southeast accounting for only four constituencies. That’s why, she says, the Port Loko meeting was meant for north-western SLPP members. But she says she was surprised that people came from all other districts, demonstrating a widespread dissatisfaction towards the party’s leadership.
It is unclear how many Alliance leaders support the ‘Progressives’. But Mrs Kabba is confident that they have majority support of the party’s stalwarts. She says the Port Loko meeting was partly designed to prepare the hearts and minds of the supporters for a possible formation of a “grand coalition” with unnamed political parties.
Much of the disagreement over the disputed primaries stems from the rules and regulations used to conduct them. Elections in 81 constituencies were conducted under rules approved by the Political Parties Registration Commission (PPRC) and a 10-member committee endorsed by both factions. The “Progressives” claim that those rules were abandoned for another set of rules after the death of former PPRC chairman, Justice Tholla Thompson.
A big accusing finger is directed at veteran politician Dr Abbas Bundu, a major pillar in the Paopa camp. As regional chairman in the north, he is alleged to have used the “unjust” set of rules to “usurp” the responsibility of the constituency executive and presided over primaries whose outcomes favour the Paopa.
Dr Bundu vehemently denies this, accusing the “Progressives” of dishonesty. He claimed they conducted elections that were “totally improper” and when the executive decided to conduct proper ones they were dubbed as parallel elections. 
“I cannot imagine a misnomer greater than that,” he said in an interview.
“And here is a group of people who profess fate in the rule of law, respect for the rule of law and yet have the audacity to suggest that we should set aside the ruling of the court” he says.
Bundu also says the Alliance ignored their appeal against going to court because they were convinced the outcome would favour them. And he says by so doing, they demonstrated disrespect for internal processes of conflict resolution, thereby violating the party’s constitution. 
In essence both sides claim to be protecting the constitution, only that their approaches differ. 
While the Alliance members admit withdrawal of court cases was in the best interest of the party, they say going to next month’s convention under the present circumstances will amount to endorsing the pre-planned coronation of Maada Bio as the party’s standard-bearer.
Mrs Kabba is a staunch supporter of Yumkella. But she says whoever emerges winner in a free and fair contest will get her unflinching support. 
“I have nothing against anybody. What I want is that constitutionality should prevail in the SLPP. Internal democracy should be at work,” she says.
But as far as the Paopa are concerned, the court’s ruling is enough vindication of their position, and they insist that the only solution is for all to stick to the verdict. As the bickering continues, the nation gears up for presidential, legislative and local council elections in under a year.

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