In late April, on Sierra Leone’s independence day, police raided the headquarters of the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party, firing shots and arresting supporters. In an email interview with World Politics Review, Jimmy Kandeh, a professor at the University of Richmond, discussed the state of the opposition and domestic politics in Sierra Leone.
WPR: What are the opposition parties in Sierra Leone and how broad is their support across the country?
Jimmy Kandeh: The main opposition party in Sierra Leone is the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), which, like the incumbent All People’s Congress (APC), is a blatantly corrupt patronage outfit. Founded in 1951, the SLPP led the country to independence in 1961 and was in power from 1961 to 1967 and again from 1996 to 2007. The SLPP’s main support base is in the south and east of the country. The party has struggled in recent years to gain electoral traction in the Northern Province, one of Sierra Leone’s four administrative regions. Its inability to win a single parliamentary seat from the Western Area—the only swing region in the country—in the last two national elections in 2007 and 2012 calls into question the SLPP’s national credentials and the geographic diversity of its support. In short, neither the SLPP nor the incumbent APC are national parties in the sense of drawing their support from across all four regions of the country. Their support primarily comes from different ethnic groups.
WPR: What are the SLPP’s main policy differences with President Ernest Bai Koroma, and how much operational freedom do they enjoy?
Kandeh: There are no ideological or major policy differences between the two main parties in Sierra Leone. What differentiates them is their competing support and patronage networks. Both parties govern in much the same way when in power, but “northernization,” or the tendency of civil servants to favor northerners, is worse now than it was the last time the APC was in power from 1968 to 1992. When the SLPP was in power from 1996 to 2007, President Ahmad Tejan Kabba’s government was more inclusionary and tolerant than Koroma’s current APC government, which took office in 2007 and has gone out of its way to politicize all public institutions in the country.
The opposition, however, is hampered less by external forces than by internal dissension. There is a faction within the SLPP that supports Julius Maada Bio, the party’s presidential candidate in 2012 who, in 1996, was the leader of the National Provisional Ruling Council junta. It is intent on imposing its candidate on the party. They have resorted to acts of intimidation, harassment and violence directed at party members that do not support Bio.
Many believe the APC’s only chance of winning the next presidential election, to be held in 2017 or 2018, is if Bio—who is widely considered unelectable—is the SLPP’s presidential candidate. Koroma has also routinely used bribes and handouts to silence prominent members of the opposition, including Bio, further dividing the opposition and making it listless and ineffective.
WPR: What is the political and economic outlook for Sierra Leone after the Ebola epidemic?
Kandeh: The post-Ebola political outlook for Sierra Leone is at best uncertain, as the APC, which has lost considerable support on account of its handling of the Ebola epidemic, is scheming to prolong its hold on power. Many people doubt that the party—which imposed a one-party system on the country for almost two decades in the 1970s and 1980s, and has historically been the more intolerant of the two main parties—will hold free and fair elections in 2017 or 2018. Unlike the SLPP, the APC does not have a track record of exiting power voluntarily, while Koroma, who is limited to two terms by the constitution, has been toying with the idea of changing the constitution so he can prolong his incumbency. Koroma is no stranger to violating the constitution, having fired his vice president without constitutional approval during the Ebola crisis. Any orchestrated attempt by the president to seek a third term or manipulate the outcome of the next elections would likely plunge the country into a protracted crisis.
Economically, the Ebola epidemic coincided with a sharp decline in iron ore prices and resulted in the economy contracting by 22 percent. Mining, agriculture, tourism, construction, services and trade, including a reduction in informal trade due to mobility restrictions, were among the sectors that experienced a sharp decline in activity. African Minerals and London Mining, two iron ore mining companies, shut down their operations and went into receivership at the very beginning of the epidemic. Although Shangdong Iron Mine, a former minority partner in African Minerals, bought out African Minerals in 2015 and resumed mining operations, the continued slump in iron ore prices and unresolved worker grievances have slowed the mining sector’s recovery. Sierra Leone’s currency, the leone, has depreciated against the dollar by almost 25 percent since the end of the Ebola epidemic; youth unemployment remains very high; and the government is increasingly experiencing difficulties meeting its payroll.