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West Africa: The people have their say

West Africa: The people have their say
  • PublishedJanuary 1, 2018

In his monthly round-up of West African developments, Desmond Davies examines the impact of Liberia’s election result on regional power dynamics, how Ghana’s electorate is playing it smart, and why Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora are feeling blue.

LIBERIA

Weah the history man 

When George Weah was sworn in last month as the 25th President of Liberia, many of his compatriots could be forgiven if they failed to grasp the significance of the momentous occasion. Granted, they will know that he was the first African to be named World Footballer of the Year by FIFA when he was plying his trade in Europe. Some of them will also know that he has replaced Africa’s first woman President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who stepped down after two mandatory terms.

But what might be lost on many Liberians is that their country has not seen a smooth political transition since January 1944, when William Tubman was inaugurated as President, having been elected in May 1943. He died in office in 1971 and his Vice-President, William Tolbert Jr., took over the reins of power.

There was no smooth transition for him: he was killed in office in 1980 by mutinous soldiers led by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, aged only 29. He transmogrified himself into a civilian president in 1985, only to be killed five years later by one of the rebel leaders, Prince Johnson, who had emerged during the country’s civil war that began in 1989.

By 1996, troops from the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) had brought the conflict to an end and in 1997 Charles Taylor was elected as President. But he had to contend with a second civil war that eventually forced him out in 2003, and later led to his being tried for war crimes in Sierra Leone. He is now serving a 50-year jail sentence in the UK.

To superstitious Liberians, the Executive Mansion in Monrovia, seat of the presidency, was becoming a jinxed edifice. This could have been taken into account by Johnson Sirleaf when she was elected president in 2005. After being sworn in in 2006, she was reported to have spent only a couple of nights at the Mansion before decamping. Luckily for her, a mysterious fire gutted the building so she conveniently stayed away from the Mansion throughout her presidency.

Since then the building has been under renovation. The workmen did not finish the job during Johnson Sirleaf’s 12-year presidency. The talk now is that it will take a few more years before the Mansion is returned to its once-pristine state before the new President can move in.

Communication is all important

But for Weah, worrying about where to live right now must be low on the list of priorities for his new administration. Top of this list must be the onerous task of managing the high expectations of Liberians, especially the young ones who voted overwhelmingly for him.

He has become the history man and now he has to ensure that he makes history again by delivering for a country that has gone through difficult socio-economic times over the last decade or so.

Liberians are looking for a leader who can create the environment for human development, which is dependent on the sort of political change that has just taken place in their country. Weah will need to provide strong governance that will give Liberians the opportunity to have more say on how the country’s resources are used for human development. His government will have to provide a political climate that engages and ultimately empowers Liberians.

In order to achieve this, Weah’s administration must ensure that it deploys a strategic communication policy that allows for widespread dissemination of information and knowledge. Under Johnson Sirleaf there was a singular lack of government communication with the people.

Weah, on the other hand, should be conversant with the need for public communication – something that is obligatory for sportsmen of his calibre. He also has the political nous to understand these things, given that he was in the presidential fray in 2005 and 2011. He lost on both occasions to Johnson Sirleaf, but the experience could stand him in good stead as President.

Also, having become a Senator in 2014, he should be familiar with the mindset of Liberian legislators. This, though, could be made less complicated by the fact that his Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) and its allies within the National Patriotic Party (NPP) are in the majority in the 73-member House of Representatives.

While the CDC has been basking in victory over the Unity Party (UP), which was ousted from power, the defeated party has unceremoniously jettisoned Johnson Sirleaf from its ranks on the grounds that she undertook “acts inimical to the existence and reputation of the party”. This, for Liberian politics, is an unprecedented move.

Johnson Sirleaf had made no secret of her lack of enthusiasm for her Vice President of 12 years, Joseph Boakai, who competed with Weah for the presidency and lost. So, for her failure “to support the Unity Party’s candidate through campaigning for the election of the Unity Party candidate and to provide any other support within [her] capacities for any candidate of the Unity Party at any election”, Johnson Sirleaf was expelled from the party with three others.

The UP said in a statement:
“The decision to expel took the NEC of the party a long time because it had to be established that those expelled had actually violated the constitution of the party. The behaviour of the expelled persons also constitutes sabotage and undermined the existence of the party.”

Johnson Sirleaf was said to have backed Weah because Boakai had surrounded himself with people who had fallen out with her due to her failing to act against corruption and nepotism under her watch. However, supporters of Weah are cautioning against Johnson Sirleaf, a Nobel Prize winner, cosying up to the new regime. They want a clean break from the past by the new president.

 

SIERRA LEONE

Thanks, but no thanks

The political ambitions of Sierra Leoneans living in the diaspora have been shot down over the issue of dual citizenship. As the country prepares for presidential and legislative elections in March, the All People’s Congress (APC) government has made it clear that the section of the 1991 constitution that bars people with dual citizenship from seeking political office will be adhered to strictly. 

It is not that Sierra Leoneans with dual nationality have never held political office in the past. After all, a number of current political appointees are believed to be holding dual nationality. Indeed, as admitted by the APC’s National Secretary General Osman Yansaneh, out of the 70 members of his party in the last parliament, “53 of them are from the diaspora”. 

He did not say whether any held dual citizenship. But he promised that that section of the constitution would be one of the first laws to be tabled before the new parliament for amendment.

Dr Kandeh Yumkella (right), the presidential candidate of the nascent National Grand Coalition (NGC), has been accused of holding dual citizenship. His supporters deny this, but the debate will continue until the elections.

The recent political change in Liberia has clearly rattled the established political parties worried about the momentum being gathered by Yumkella, similar to what Weah achieved. 

The issue, though, was not flagged by politicians but by a local lawyer, Francis Gabbidon, and as a result the APC has not chosen candidates from the diaspora to contest the 7 March elections.

Yansaneh explained that they were not selected “as a precautionary measure because Section 76 of the Constitution, which has long been neglected by all the governments since 1991,” had been brought to the fore. “We don’t [want] to continue ignoring it, otherwise any opposition party would have used it to [challenge] our candidates and we would [have] suffered the consequences. We don’t want to fall into the trap.”

Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora are rather peeved that they are being slighted in this manner. They point out that it is all well and good for them to be financially supporting political parties but not fit enough to hold political office. In a country where the government does not provide a safety net for financially vulnerable people, remittances are the mainstay of
many.

It is not always easy to get proper figures on remittances to Sierra Leone locally. But the APC’s presidential candidate, Samura Kamara, has provided some insight on the matter. He said that when he was Governor of the Bank of Sierra Leone between 2007 and 2009, he ordered a survey of remittances to the country: Sierra Leoneans abroad remitted up to $200m annually – contributing significantly to the economy.

It is not surprising that Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora are not happy – sidelining them seems a strange way to say thanks.

 

GHANA

Wooing a canny electorate

In Ghana, where a smooth political transition is taken for granted, President Nana Akufo-Addo has laid down a marker for the 2020 election.

After a year in office, he appears confident enough to be making plans for the future – although he said that it would depend on his New Patriotic Party (NPP) giving him the opportunity to do so.

But Ghanaian voters are a canny lot. They have come to realise their power with the ballot paper and as such, their politicians do not take them for granted. The country has held successful elections since 1992, when it returned to civilian rule – seven such exercises since then. So, the Ghanaian electorate is well versed in such matters.

Look at how they ditched John Mahama in 2016. Even though he was eligible to run for a second term, his National Democratic Congress (NDC) had been in office for two four-year terms. Mahama, as Vice-President, had completed the remaining five months of the first term of John Atta Mills, who died in office in July 2012.

Mahama won the presidential election in December 2012, which then gave the NDC two terms in office. So, when he confidently went for the high office again in 2016, he was spurned by the electorate. And it did rankle with him. He admitted as much when he was head of the Commonwealth Observer Group to the Kenyan elections in 2017. “It is not easy to lose an election [because] it can be very disappointing,” he told journalists in Nairobi.

But Akufo-Addo is talking up his chances for 2020. Like Weah, he was rebuffed twice (in 2008 and 2012) when he contested the presidency in Ghana. Like Weah, it was third time lucky for Akufo-Addo.

Last month, he told journalists in Accra: “I do not have a difficulty facing the Ghanaian people. I have been trying to do so all my life with various degrees of success, and I do not have any difficulty, and especially with the opportunity that has been given me to serve them in this capacity.” This is the clearest indication that Akufo-Addo will go for a second term – amid rumours that he will not because he would be 76 in 2020.

Akufo-Addo boasted that after a year in office, his administration had taken robust action against corruption, while he took a swipe at Mahama, the man he defeated in 2016. “It is important to note that in my first year of office, two separate bipartisan probes have been established to inquire into allegations of corruption as against zero in the Mahama years, despite the persistent calls by the then minority [party],” he said. “I have a greater interest in my appointees not being corrupt than any critic could possibly have. Try me, produce evidence to back the allegation, and see what the reaction will be.”

Akufo-Addo said that “so far, every single act of alleged corruption [levelled] against any member of my administration… [has] been investigated and no evidence has been produced to suggest the perpetration of any act of corruption. However, some people appear determined to stick to their politically motivated view that there has been corruption.

“We should be careful about the new trend that appears to be emerging whereby any allegation, no matter how spurious, gains the character of a scandal or an act of corruption even when it is shot down,” he added. NA

Written By
Desmond Davies

A former Editor of West Africa magazine in London Desmond Davies, originally from Sierra Leone, has been a journalist and commentator on African affairs for almost 40 years in the press, radio and television such as BBC World TV, Al Jazeera, Press TV and CNN. He has covered Africa extensively and has a wide range of influential contacts in the continent. Desmond holds an MA in Mass Communications from the University of Leicester in the UK. His specialities are strategic and political communications. Media and Communications Consult, Due Diligence Expert on Africa.

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