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I Spotted the Presidential Material in Yumkella in 2009!

By Umaru Fofana, BBC (20/01/18)
In November 2009 at the Westminster hall in London I was covering the Sierra Leone development partners’ conference.

A very good initiative of the Sierra Leone and British governments to try to woo investors back into the country, President Ernest Bai Koroma had invited a top Sierra Leonean diplomat, Kandeh Yumkella (KKY) to address the conference. It would be my first time to see him albeit we did not meet. I was mesmerised. Why not! After all he was one of only three Sierra Leoneans to have risen to the rank of United Nations Undersecretary General - the others having been Dr James Jonah and Dr Davidson Nicol. There has been a fourth one since - Zainab Bangura.

It would take six years before I could meet Dr Yumkella. We sat together for an interview at his Hill Station house - yet incomplete. He told me how he had spent years building it and wondered why some in present day Sierra Leone would just come up with mansions in no time after their appointment or election to public office.

As a United Nations’ undersecretary general, the Westminster hall was full of businesspeople from around the world listening in with bated breath. And they paid rapt attention. They were expectant to get an assurance about the business climate situation in Sierra Leone. The faces of government officials and businesspeople glowed as Yumkella spoke. Then I thought to myself that this man - whose name had already been touted anyway - would one day run for president of Sierra Leone.

But I was unsure because he had been deemed to be a member of the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP). Credit due then to the decision to invite one of the country’s illustrious sons to attend to a national call regardless of his political inclination - a rare consideration in present day Sierra Leone. How things have changed in just six years!

Soon I would hear - but couldn’t confirm - that Yumkella was being courted by the All People’s Congress party. A source linked to Olusegun Obasanjo was quoted as saying that the former Nigerian president was working on it. As someone who joined President Ernest Bai Koroma to openly campaign for him in 2012 one could not just shrug off the possibility of his involvement.

But whatever happened Dr Yumkella would later declare his intentions to run to lead Sierra Leone by aspiring to bear the flag for the SLPP. That would be bogged down in controversy with questions over his party membership. Depending on who you believe he has been an SLPP member for years or he only so became this year - 2016.

Be that as it may Dr Yumkella brings along a huge influence that makes him a very safe pair of hands to head the country’s foreign ministry. As for the presidency, I would say thus: Those who think Ahmad Tejan Kabbah was a good president who respected freedoms and established governance and accountability structures would attribute that to his many years as a UN diplomat. And those who think he was too weak, clueless and boring with a tendency to be vindictive would also probably attribute that to his long years at the UN body. That perhaps is how a Yumkella’s presidential candidacy could be viewed.

Yumkella’s chances of becoming the SLPP flag-bearer are tough - in fact very tough - but not dismissible. This may in part be due to the way the political parties are structured in Sierra Leone but also because of his many years abroad and what is generally regarded as having stood aloof on the country and been away for far too long. He does not have the oomph of Dr John Karefa-Smart who, despite having lived overseas for many years - or may be because of that - wielded tremendous popularity back home and in the views of many won the presidential election of 1996. But he may well determine who becomes the next president of Sierra Leone.

But no one can take away the fact that like Karefa-Smart, Yumkella has a huge influence among the intellectual class. And being a northerner he can do better for the SLPP in the northwest than any known APC aspirant can do in the southeast. That support he has in the northwest is what the SLPP needs to be able to win a nationwide election. In the same way any APC candidate needs to get the southeast to be comfortable to win.

In view of the rancour that has developed between supporters of Dr Yumkella and those of Brig (Rtd) Julius Maada Bio - the frontrunner for leadership of the SLPP - there may well be a repeat of the rapture that followed the disagreement between Charles Margai and Solomon Berewa in the SLPP following the party’s 2005 Makeni delegates’ conference. Like then, the current disagreement has the tendency to lead to a split within the party and make an already bad situation even worse.

Now what a split does - assuming Yumkella loses the party leadership tussle and feels hard done by due to the circumstances leading to that and decides to set up a new political party - is this: The SLPP may well be in for another defeat with the possibility of making amends depending on how the sides fell out and made amends or not.

Ordinarily a Yumkella presidential candidate would take more of APC votes in the northwest than any of the currently touted APC candidates would take in the southeast, or even any other SLPP candidate would take in the north - except perhaps Alpha Timbo. And for all you know Timbo may well be a fine compromise candidate if Yumkella and Bio become the albatross around their party’s neck.

Now, if Yumkella runs under another party and loses, he is less likely to support Maada Bio in a runoff and will be more inclined to ensure he loses as a punishment. One cannot rule that out in the event Maada Bio lost the flag-bearer contest. The same as Charles Margai whose disdain for Berewa was such that he chose to do what he did in 2007 to shift the balance of power against his former party. An action he says he now rues.

Just may be the camaraderie that brought Koroma and Yumkella together that led to him being invited to that London conference in 2009 may well be alive to make him support an APC candidate in a runoff election. But two things that could militate against that are the fact that he has been vilified a lot by some individuals who are APC operatives. But also because he has expressed dissatisfaction over the way the country is currently being run for which he blames the APC.

Mind you he is a firm believer in many things Western and would be hard to compromise against his conviction. Put all of that together and make him SLPP presidential candidate, the APC will have all to fight for.

Courtesy: Umaru Fofana, Politico 14/01/16. Reproduced.


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