Democratic Erosion Under Ernest Koroma and the 2018 Elections
By Dr. Jimmy D. Kandeh, Guest Editor (14/02/18)
The expectation that governance will improve under President Koroma has instead witnessed steady democratic erosion under the APC.
Forty years after Brigadier David Lansana’s praetorian intervention derailed the peaceful transfer of power from the SLPP to the APC in 1967, the late President Ahmad Tejan Kabba graciously handed over power to Ernest Koroma after the latter won the 2007 presidential election.
This was Sierra Leone’s first peaceful alternation of political parties in power and many at the time saw this transition as marking an important milestone in the maturation of our fragile electoral democracy. The expectation was that governance will improve under Koroma, as it had under Kabba, and that the ballot box will continue to determine who rules Sierra Leone.
But instead of improvements in democratic quality our country has witnessed steady democratic erosion (trashing of our constitution, manipulating rules of contestation, weakening state institutions, coopting the opposition and civic organizations, polarizing our country and undermining public confidence in elections) since Koroma became president.
While Koroma is not the only elected authoritarian to assail and subvert democratic rules and institutions that made possible his rise to power, the backsliding of our democracy under his watch is far more disturbing and consequential than in countries like Rwanda, which is viewed as one of the better governed states in Africa but whose leader is an elected autocrat. The difference between Rwanda and Sierra Leone is that the former is a developmental state that promotes development while Sierra Leone is a predatory state whose leaders impede development.
Ernest Koroma is a danger to our democracy because he does not, in the first place, respect our constitution. The lame duck president is not known for respecting constitutions, having violated both his party and country’s constitution for which he was respectively taken to court by some APC leaders and his former Vice-President. Respect for the rule of law by leaders begins with constitutionalism and a president who has little or no regard for his country’s constitution cannot be expected to respect the wishes of the electorate. If Koroma can dismiss his Vice-President who was elected by the people, there is no reason to believe he has any qualms about overturning the electoral verdict of the people if he can get away with it, and not many people are confident Koroma will hand over power to the opposition if his party is defeated in the forthcoming elections. Failure to comply with the wishes of the electorate, however, is certain to plunge our country into protracted crisis that is not likely to have a happy ending for the Supreme Leader.
Democracy does not have a chance if actors fail to play by the rules (procedural consensus). Electoral outcomes can be uncertain, as they often are, but not the rules and procedures for democratic competition, participation and representation. A leader who resorts to manipulating procedural rules in order to exclude competitors or give himself and his/her party an unfair advantage is not above tampering with electoral outcomes and stealing elections.
Gerrymandering of electoral districts to favor the incumbent party in parliamentary elections, clientelizing leaders of the opposition and civil society, converting public offices into rental havens, politicizing every sphere of social life and protecting reserved domains that are above the writ and beyond the reach of the law (‘buff case’) are among some of the many ways Ernest Koroma has undermined and assaulted our fragile electoral democracy. That the opposition is the weakest it has ever been since the end of the war is in large part due to Koroma’s patronage offensive directed at its members. By weakening public institutions and the opposition SLPP party, Koroma emasculated two of the main pillars of a functioning democracy, namely an effective state and an effective opposition.
Low state capacity or an ineffective state is not good for democracy and the rule of law but what makes our state ineffective is precisely the manner in which power has been organized and exercised. Public institutions generate sufficient power and tend to function effectively when they are: (1) not beholding or subordinate to political incumbents and powerful interests, and (2) are responsive to the needs and interests of average citizens. It is impossible to improve state capacity or effectiveness when public institutions take a backseat to patronage networks that crowd out merit, transparency, accountability and other universals.
Denying public institutions any semblance of relative autonomy from political incumbents makes them less effective in the performance of even the most basic of tasks. Parliament and the judiciary are weaker today compared to when Kabba was president and the public bureaucracy is as corrupt as it has ever been. In the absence of effective horizontal accountability mechanisms, no public institution has been able to escape the corrupting influence of the sitting president.
Complementing the functional enfeeblement of state institutions under Ernest Koroma is the hijacking of the civic realm through cooptation of civic organization leaders which allowed the outgoing president to pursue his self-aggrandizing agenda with little or no resistance from both institutional sources and civil society. The once critical and assertive Campaign for Good Governance (CGC) has, for example, mysteriously gone silent, as have many other once promising civic organizations. The country’s broadcasting services have become notorious mouthpieces of the government and many journalists have been compromised by “brown envelopes” from The Supreme Leader.
The entrepreneurial class, both foreign and local, is so closely tied to the state that it is incapable of posing a reformist challenge to political incumbents. Wealth, in short, does not check power in Sierra Leone because the processes of accumulation (wealth) converge or overlap with the avenues of domination (power) and the predominantly foreign entrepreneurial class is not interested in democratic governance. Weak institutions and a less than vibrant civil society may serve the narrow interests of predatory incumbents but they do not further the cause of democracy, socio-economic development and good governance.
The spectacularization of corruption under Ernest Koroma represents a clear and present danger to our democracy and the effectiveness of state institutions. Since Koroma became President it has been one scandal and calamity after the other (mining contracts, oil blocks, Timbergate, Ebolagate, Tollgate, Hadjgate, Mudslidegate, Munku Mansions, etc) and, in the clearest abrogation of our sovereignty, Chinese clients of the President are now collecting taxes on a public highway in our country. Reports by the Auditor-General that cite and document cases of financial irregularities and possible misappropriation of public funds are never acted upon or even tabled for discussion by parliament, whose members are often in the habit of assailing such reports, or followed-up by the President.
The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) is visibly powerless and only investigates and prosecutes petty offenders outside the orbit of the Supreme Leader and other important personalities. The absence of mandatory jail sentences for corrupt officials incentivizes them to be corrupt since the penalty for corruption (a mere slap on the wrist) is vastly outweighed by gains to the individual. Unbridled corruption under Koroma has weakened public institutions, alienated popular sectors, incubated poverty, stifled development, fostered insecurity and endangered democracy and good governance.
To the degree that economic development helps to consolidate democracy, lack of progress on the economic and social front under Koroma does not augur well for democratic consolidation. Dodgy mining and road contracts, procurement mark-ups, a preference for shady start-up companies that have mostly gone belly-up, conversion of every misfortune (Ebola, mudslide) into an opportunity for embezzling state and donor funds are some of the lowlights of the APC’s economic record. Health care and education, two sectors that can make a vast difference in the lives of ordinary people, have not improved and the majority of our people still live in poverty and lack access to clean drinking water and electricity.
We still occupy the bottom rung of the global development ladder with some of the highest infant mortality, maternal mortality and illiteracy rates. While mass poverty does not prevent democratic emergence, democracies are consolidated as populations are lifted out of poverty and as economic change transforms social structures. Economic development serves democracy by improving living conditions of citizens, exposing our electorate to cross-pressures, creating a middle class, broadening the outlook of citizens, fostering associational life and engendering universalistic norms.
As the date for the March elections approaches, there are many who are concerned about the prospect for violence, especially after the recent display of wanton violence by some APC supporters (on the day their party nominated its candidates) left many Freetown residents running for their lives and scurrying for cover. This is in sharp contrast to the peace and tranquility that prevailed on the day the other parties nominated their candidates. If what happened on the APC’s nomination day is any indication of what to expect on voting day, the APC will unleash violence to suppress voter turnout and skew election results in its favor.
Also, because Paopa fanatics of the SLPP are convinced they can counter APC violence, the potential for violent confrontations between these two group of supporters is real. Violence in whatever shape or form is not, however, going to work for the APC because the electorate’s fervor for change is strong and will overwhelm and dwarf the lame-duck President’s determination to steal the elections for his party and hand-picked successor.
Any attempt to hang on to power against the wishes of the electorate will be unsuccessful and can only plunge our country into protracted crisis and international isolation. Public protests, cascading peaceful demonstrations and widespread civil disobedience (Burkina Faso and Senegal are sub-regional precedent) are likely to chase the APC out of power if its leaders fail to accept the verdict of voters in the March elections. If rigging is the last resort of the outgoing President and his cronies, peaceful protests will be the ultimate democratic response of a populace that is sick and tired of bad governance under the APC.
The impact of democratic erosion on the conduct and outcome of the March elections remains to be seen but our people are not going to accept fraudulent electoral outcomes or acquiesce to leaders whose power is not derived from the consent of the governed. Elections are supposed to function as safety-valves that allow electorates to change their leaders and hold them accountable. They give democracies a regenerative capacity that is lacking in authoritarian regimes and it is important for the electorate to continue to have confidence in the integrity of the electoral system as a mechanism for bringing about genuine change.