Sierra Leone goes to the polls tomorrow 7 March in elections fielding five Presidential candidates including Kandeh Yumkella, the former Director General of UNIDO and special adviser to former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. There are 3.1 million eligible registered voters and it is estimated that 650,000 of these are new – representing the youth, a segment Yumkella – leader of the National Grand Coalition Party – has been targeting during his campaign. He spoke to New African on his hopes in tomorrow’s vote.
New African: You’ve been up and down the country, what is the mood like, the atmosphere? Is it one of hope; one of frustration; one of boundless opportunity?
Kandeh Yumkella: It’s all three combined. There’s a lot of frustration because youth unemployment is almost 70%. Inflation is well in double digits. Up country in some areas, it’s even worse than that. Interest rates are very high in this country, so business is not growing. So, there’s a lot of frustration and people want change. They’re also fed up with the blatant corruption. People are angry and frustrated. I have been preaching hope and opportunity and transformation. The youth are responding. I have told them you cannot be hopeless, otherwise you can’t innovate. So, I am giving them hope that change can come; giving them examples of Rwanda, Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana that they can realise that change is possible.
I’ve also been giving them the message that they should be in charge now. Just like Emmanuel Macron in France, it is up to the African youth to take control and lead. I’ve been encouraging throughout the campaign the youth to contest as members of parliament and also as councillors.
And there’s opportunity because, of course, we know every day we are discovering one mineral or the other, in a tiny country with seven million people. So, I’ve told them they cannot lose hope, if you are depressed you can’t innovate. You have to be excited about the future. So, as I told you, it’s a mixture of all.
I was reading that there were 650,000 new registrants on the electoral register. Do you think that’s going to be the turning point for you in terms of who wins these elections, the youth vote?
I believe so and I have been targeting them heavily; I’ve been doing public lectures across this country for two and half years. They were not used to that. Town Hall meetings; public lectures; and the kids have been responding in thousands. Just amazing. And some of them are just so excited that ‘wait, there’s something new about a politician – actually talking sustainability, growth, trade, energy systems.’
But it’s not just the youth. The professional class as well and also, we’ve done well with our message of change. You go to villages now they use the word ‘changes’ and I am surprised to hear little people saying, “Changes.” And you say, “What is it?” And they say, “The new party says that the thing because we don’t like our condition.” So, the message has resonated with illiterates, professionals, but a lot of young people: university kids, secondary school kids. They are not tied to parties. But within the existing political parties people have been frustrated with the lack of governance and [collusion] between the two [main] parties.
We have seen you campaign a lot about corruption, and from the government’s side, when it’s been to do with you anyway, a focus on the issue of citizenship [the law says that anyone with a dual citizenship argument is ineligible to be running for presidency]. Has this campaign been more about personality rather than policy?
The credit people have given me is that I raise the debate to talk about policy. Now in the last two months, the President decides to make it personal. So, he’s leading the campaign for his chosen candidate. So, of course, I’ve been hammering him back heavily and because I am more specific about corruption than the others. I’ve been naming companies, and disclosing amounts of money that is disappearing. But he is just making the campaign personal and it has now kind of come down now, to personal issues. But still we’ve tried to stick to the issues of more schools, better healthcare, jobs for the youth and growth in the economy, reducing debt and making sure there is better discipline as well because the government is just spending money they don’t have.
And you mentioned Macron earlier on. You created a new party; will yours also be a coalition on the ministerial front and then on the parliamentary front? Will you be able to amass the support that you need?
There has been a group called the Kandeh Yumkella movement, in politics since 2013. This has made it easier to transition into a formal political party called the National Grand Coalition last year. So, put into context, there was already a foundation for four years; we didn’t just come out. But of course, the Macron effect has emboldened us and we’ve called ourselves a coalition of progressives. It’s not necessarily a coalition of parties but a coalition of individuals of like minds and we’ve old people that have never been in politics, the most of them, but also the people from the two traditional parties, hence why they [the ruling party, the APC and also the traditional opposition, the SLPP] are worried.
We’re not regionally based as the two old parties. They are very ethnic. One is northern; the other one is southern and they’re pushing the ethnic divisions and that’s what worries us. If we’re not careful, these two entities will drive us back into civil conflict, unless we take the middle ground showing that we can unify.
And would you say that the country is divided?
It is very divided. It has been divided since 2011. And this government reinforced that division deeply, deliberately. The party I broke away from used [SLPP] to preach deep ethnic division within our party which made me say, “No. You are not serious about governance, you just want power.” So, I broken away from them. If we are not careful, these two entities, feeding on each other’s hatred and ethnic agenda, they could push us back into civil conflict in this country.
Are you anticipating free and fair elections?
When I see it I will believe it. I’m meeting with the observers, I just finished a meeting this morning [Monday], with HE Goodluck Jonathan [former President of Nigeria] and his team. Last week we met with Mahama [former President of Ghana], we’ve been meeting with the EU observers as well. We’ve told them to spread around; they shouldn’t just stay in the cities where the votes are paved. So, I’ve said the same, to the AU and other observers, go into the villages, because that also gives our people courage, that there is a foreign person here watching and there are cameras. They should also pay attention to the North, because this is the biggest threat to the ruling party.
Okay, and but you think it’s going to be a two round affair? No one is going to win outright in the first round?
I have always thought for three years that we’ll get a 1996 scenario, no party being able to hit 40 percent. That’s what my instinct tells me. The arrogance in me tells me that I win first round. And you know sometimes you have to have a little bit of that ego, you know.
Kandeh Yumkella was an advisory board member of IC Publications, a non-fiduciary position. He has given up this position after deciding to run for Presidency. This interview was conducted independently of his past links to IC Publications.