A Democratic Transition and the Return of an Ex-Military Leader in Sierra Leone

Supporters of the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) arrive at Siaka Steven Stadium in Freetown on April 7, 2018 for a rally called by President Julius Maada Bio. (SAIDU BAH/AFP/Getty Images)

Sierra Leone has made its third democratic transition between its two major political parties after a decade of cross border and civil war, a successful example of post-conflict adaptation. The election of Julius Maada Bio as the country’s next president is itself a remarkable turn of events. If ever proof was needed that in Africa there is a second chance to lead a country, it is his victory in the second round of the presidential election on March 31. Maada Bio, of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), won the runoff with some 51 percent of valid votes cast, defeating the ruling party All People’s Congress (APC) candidate Samura Kamara, who received just over 48 percent. The big challenge ahead will be for the two major parties to work together in Parliament in the year ahead to deal with the country’s many challenges, thus enabling the new government to attract foreign investment and make Sierra Leone a place where the next generation will see new opportunities and a better future for themselves.

Maada Bio’s Background

Twenty-six years ago, on April 20, 1992, the government of Joseph Momoh was toppled by a group of disgruntled military officers including Maada Bio who, with minimal resources and support, had been sent to fight under the Nigerian-led Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) command against Charles Taylor in Liberia. When the Momoh government failed to pay their salaries or provide medical care for the wounded, the officers took matters into their own hands.  The group, calling itself the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC), forced Momoh into exile in Guinea and took over in Freetown. They inherited a bad situation with army morale demoralized by years under Momoh’s politics of favoritism, his government’s disregard for professionalism, an ongoing civil war against Foday Sankoh’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in the eastern part of the country, and a precarious economy.

Expectation and disappointment soon followed. The NPRC selected Valentine Strasser, then 29 years old, to lead the new government. Maada Bio, just slightly older, was the deputy. Promises of a decisive victory, an end to corruption, improved living standards, and an early return to civilian rule went unfulfilled. As the situation continued to deteriorate over subsequent years, pressure for a return to civilian rule increased. At the Bintumani Conference in August 1995, a majority of Sierra Leonean civil society and political representatives voted to press for elections the following February.

In November 1995, Strasser attended the Commonwealth Conference in New Zealand, which had voted unanimously to condemn Nigeria’s General Sani Abacha for the execution of opposition leader Ken Sara Wiwa and eight Ogoni activists who called out the government’s failure to deal with corruption and abuse in the oil-rich Niger Delta. Strasser voted with everyone else in attendance to condemn Abacha, but this went down badly with his comrades in Freetown. The NPRC was heavily dependent on ECOMOG (Nigerian troops) for military and financial support in its fight against the RUF. Moreover, Strasser, who was by then 35, had decided to run for the presidency even though the 1991 Constitution required candidates to be 40 years old. He was seen as being in it for himself. Maada Bio and his colleagues decided to quickly remove Strasser from power.

On January 16, 1996—six weeks before the election—Maada Bio and his colleagues surrounded Defense Headquarters and put Strasser in handcuffs for the 30 minute helicopter flight to Conakry, Guinea. They had to return a second time with the key to remove the handcuffs. A few hours later, in a private phone call, Maada Bio confirmed that: a) Strasser was in Conakry; b) he had assumed command of the country; and c) the election would go ahead on schedule.[1]

At a second Bintumani Conference exactly one month later, under pressure to postpone the elections given continued fighting with the RUF, Maada Bio called for law and order but did not mention the election. While some were skeptical that he would keep his word, he did so. On March 15, election day, when it became clear that not everyone would be able to vote in one day, Maada Bio agreed to an extension of the election by one day, even if the electoral rolls were incomplete.[2] In sum, Maada Bio kept to his word and then duly stepped down from office to allow the SLPP’s Ahmed Tejan Kabbah to be sworn in as Sierra Leone’s civilian president.

Even though an attempted coup d’état followed a year later, in retrospect this was clearly a positive example of a peaceful transfer of power from military to civilian rule. Kabbah left office in 2007 having served two five-year terms, after which constitutionally he could not be re-elected. During the elections campaign, violence resurfaced and tensions were even more tangible when, as in this year’s election, a second round was needed to determine whether the SLPP would stay in power. Ernest Bai Koroma, representing the APC, won the election and was also sworn in as president the same day the results were announced. Sierra Leone carried out a peaceful transition from one ruling party to another. The transition was smooth even after the UN Mission in Sierra Leone’s (UNAMSIL) deployment ended and was subsequently replaced by the UN Integrated Office (UNIOSIL) and the Integrated Peacekeeping Office in Sierra Leone (UNIPSIL), both integrated peacebuilding offices more focused on the promotion of good governance. For the present election, the Security Council mandate of UNIPSIL was already complete, and the only UN presence was the country team. Despite this, the transition to a new government was peaceful and seemingly smooth.

These transitions have happened peacefully even considering the idiosyncrasy of Sierra Leone’s politics, where beyond ideology, parties have traditionally represented a geographical and ethnic divide between the north and the south. This divide makes it difficult for the “defeated side” to feel represented when the opposition is in power, which also makes it harder for tensions to be quelled. In Sierra Leone now, for example, the APC’s stronghold remains in the north, while the majority of SLPP’s supporters come from the southeast.

Maada Bio’s Presidency: What Does the Future Hold? 

As discussed previously, Sierra Leone faces multiple challenges—above all seeking to revive the fragile economy, attend to the ongoing medical and health crisis in the aftermath of the Ebola epidemic, and develop donor confidence in investing in the country’s future in order to assure the country’s large youth population that a better future lies ahead, with better schools and improved economic opportunities.

In his ten point plan announced just before the election, Maada Bio indicated that he understood the challenges ahead. Whether he can meet them depends significantly, for the moment, on his renewed stature and credibility. These are, of course, fragile qualifications. Furthermore, while he won the second round of the presidential poll, the SLPP will not enjoy a majority in parliament. In the parliamentary election held simultaneously, the APC won 67 seats, while the SLPP only won 47.

Hence, Maada Bio will have no choice but to listen to what the opposition party has to say and will be challenged to rule with low levels of support in the parliament. In his favor is the pragmatism that he has thus far demonstrated. Pragmatism aside, there should still be no doubt about the magnitude of the challenges ahead.

John Hirsch is a Senior Adviser at IPI and a former US ambassador to Sierra Leone. Lidia Cano is a researcher and consultant specializing in peace-building and natural resources governance. She is a Fulbright Scholar and has provided research, inferential analysis and advised governments, international organizations, and the private sector.

[1] John L. Hirsch was the US Ambassador to Sierra Leone at the time; this conversation was between him and Maada Bio.

[2] Maada Bio committed to doing so in an evening meeting with the Electoral Commissioner James Jonah, UK Ambassador Ian McCluney, and US Ambassador John L. Hirsch.