Sierra Leone, Egypt’s fate tied to March elections

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi

Sierra Leone reaches a Turning Point: Will it turn?

In Sierra Leone, a sharply contested presidential election is due in March.

Last year President, Ernest Bai Koroma — who is ineligible for a third term — arm-twisted the ruling party, the All People’s Congress, APC, to nominate Samura Kamara, the foreign minister, as the party’s presidential candidate bypassing vice president Samuel Sam-Sumana.

Mr Sam-Sumana, whose sacking was illegal according to the Ecowas Court, is now the candidate of the Coalition for Change, a new party.

The form-book would say the battle is between Sam-Samura and Brigadier General Julius Maada Bio, former military leader and candidate of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) the main opposition party.

TECHNOCRAT

However, politics has changed in Sierra Leone, a post-conflict country devastated by the Ebola virus from 2014 to 2016.

The SLPP is in decline and the APC is more worried by Dr Kandeh Yumkella, the urbane, technocratic candidate of the National Grand Coalition (NGC), a breakaway faction of SLPP.

Dr Yumkella is a former UN Under-Secretary-General and a two-term former Director-General of the Unido.

Like Sirleaf Johnson next door in Liberia, Dr Yumkella has formidable diplomatic skills and connections.

The NGC is energetic and bristles with ideas and technocrats.

Kande’s running mate is Andrew Keillie, a mechanical engineer.

The chairman is Dr Dennis Bright, a former Cabinet minister with a PhD in French.

DUAL CITIZENSHIP

The APC has filed a suit to knock out Dr Yumkella on dual citizenship grounds.

This could backfire. If the Supreme Court bars him, a disgusted public might vote for the opposition in sympathy.

Nor does APC’s own practice bear scrutiny. Nearly 50 of its MPs in the just dissolved parliament had dual citizenship.

The technical issue is whether Dr Yumkella — as with Miguna Miguna in Kenya — lost his citizenship on becoming an American citizen.

It seems not. America allows its citizens to become foreign nationals without losing US citizenship and does not require foreigners to renounce their old nationality when they naturalise as Americans.

RUN-OFF

The opposition’s best strategy is to force a run-off.

A candidate can only win outright if he gets at least 55 per cent of the vote.

Bar rigging, none of the top candidates is likely to win in the first round.

In the run-off, the winner needs 50 per cent plus one, meaning that a united opposition can unseat the APC in the second round.

Public confidence in the National Electoral Commission is reasonably high.

But the country has a youthful population: 60.1 per cent are below 25 and many of those who are of working age are jobless, an easy group to draft into violence.

HAND OVER

The Sierra Leone police are not seen as neutral but the country has had a peaceful transition before.

In 2007 Ahmad Tejan Kabbah handed over power peacefully to Koroma.

The question is whether Sierra Leone has left its violent past behind.

SISI OPPONENTS

Egypt has a presidential election in March but it won’t be a contest.

Weeks to the poll, every credible candidate against the pharaonic president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has either been imprisoned or forced out of the race.

Sisi’s main challenger was Sami Anan, a former member of the Supreme Military Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF).

He was first barred from running, then arrested and imprisoned along with his principal aide and 30 of his campaign staff.

He faces charges of incitement against the military, because he failed to quit his commission properly when he joined the race. Sisi has banned the media from covering the investigation.

SHAFIK WITHDRAWS

Another candidate, former prime minister Ahmed Shafik, withdrew after rumours spread he was under arrest in a Cairo hotel.

A nephew of the late Anwar al-Sadat, Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat, mulled whether to run but demurred in January, saying the climate of fear doesn’t allow a proper election.

Only Mussa Mustapha Mussa, a known Sisi supporter and candidate of the Ghad party, is still in the race. The opposition is thinking about a boycott.

Egypt has a structural democratic deficit and it won’t be making a transition soon. At every election, Egypt faces two tests: Voter apathy and meddling by the armed forces.

Since the Free Officers deposed King Farouk in 1952, all but one — Mohammed Morsi — of Egypt’s six presidents have been military men.

They invariably win with large margins but voter turnout is rarely above 50 per cent.

VOTER APATHY

In 2014, Sisi won 97 per cent of the vote with a turnout of 47.5 per cent.

Though Morsi won the 2012 re-run with 51 per cent of the vote, his first round vote was 24.8 against a turnout of 46.4 per cent.

In 2005, Mubarak won 88.6 per cent of the vote with a turnout of 22.9 per cent.

Sisi’s actions are a sign the military doesn’t want to risk another unpredictable civilian like Mohammed Morsi.

The armed forces are businessmen: The military runs a commercial empire that straddles every important economic sector, including pasta-making.

That the economy is not doing well is a serious worry to them.

MOSQUE ATTACK

A stubborn Islamic State insurgency in the Sinai has also helped. On November 2017, an attack on a Sufi mosque in Sinai killed 311 people and injured 122 others.

A December 2017 attack on a Coptic church near Cairo killed 10 more. A further 75 were killed in attacks in April and May. The government’s response has been brutal.

The UK daily, The Independent, estimates that 60,000 people — many of them jobless youth — are in jail for ‘terrorism’.

Sisi’s anti-terrorism credentials sell well in the West. US president Donald Trump thinks Sisi has “done a tremendous job under trying circumstances”.

AMMUNITION

France has concluded major arms deals with Egypt. Meanwhile, a ‘grateful’ Sisi has been busy bursting Western sanctions. Last year, a shipload of 30,000 North Korean rocket-propelled grenades was seized off the Egyptian Coast.

According to The Washington Post, quoting the UN, this was the “largest seizure of ammunition in the history of sanctions against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”.

So Sisi runs with the hares and hunts with the hounds: An ally of the West against Islamic State and a friend of North Korea when he needs contraband materiel.

The alliances of convenience in Egypt do not portend well for democracy.

Sisi will be a shoo-in for president in March but the Egyptian State’s legitimacy crisis will not go away. One day it will bite.