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A fractious poll defined by economic crisis

 

Julius Maada Bio

President Julius Maada Bio

In the comfort of his vast presidential villa in the capital, Freetown, President Julius Maada Bio was on the defensive. The villa was crowded with vehicles, gun-toting security and hundreds of boxes containing campaign materials for the ruling SLPP — the Sierra Leone People’s Party.

As Sierra Leoneans prepared to cast their vote on Saturday, the 59-year-old president’s hold on power looked precarious.

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The election is too close to call and many voters are blaming Bio for the huge increase in the cost of living in the West African nation. The price of basic goods, such as rice, has nearly tripled in recent years, while year-on-year inflation was up by a staggering 43% as of April.

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This is not his fault, Bio says. Nor is there much he can do about it: “The prices are already high from the countries where these commodities are coming from … It’s been difficult for any country to escape this global economic crisis because of the nature of the problem itself.”

Bio is right that the cost-of-living crisis is not just a Sierra Leonean problem, with global inflation fueled by the Covid-19 pandemic and exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Nevertheless, he will be judged on his administration’s response from him. (A fractious poll defined by economic crisis)

“We have been supporting the most vulnerable in the country through our social protection safety programs since Covid,” he said. “And millions of dollars have gone into that just so that they’re able to cope during and after Covid.”

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Unfortunately for the president, most Sierra Leoneans do not share his perspective.

According to the most recent data from Afrobarometer, released earlier this month, during their survey this time last year, only 8% of the population thought that the government was doing enough to stabilize prices and just 32% agreed that it was effectively managing the economy .

And that was before economic hardships sparked nationwide protests last August, which were met with a brutal police response in which 21 civilians and six police officers were killed.

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Bio, however, remains optimistic that he will secure a second term as the democratically elected president of Sierra Leone.

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Should he be successful, it will be his third stint as head of state. In 1996, in the midst of a civil war, Bio led a palace coup that unseated the junta of President Valentine Strasser, who had himself seized power in a military coup.

Bio held power for two months, overseeing the transition to a civilian-led democratic government. During this time, he appointed economist Samura Kamara as his secretary of state for finance — the very same Samura Kamara who now leads the main opposition.

“There is enough data to justify the fact that my re-election will lead to the consolidation of the foundation that we are laying for sustainable development in this country,” Bio concluded. “I have worked quite hard in the past couple of years to not be the people’s favorite choice.”

The opposition’s golden chance

Kamara is not so sure about that. The 72-year-old opposition leader is at home in a compound in a quiet suburb of the capital city. A huge poster of his face hangs on the outside wall. His gate is painted red and white, the colors of the APC — the All People’s Congress, which he has led since 2018.

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Although Kamara narrowly lost the presidential election that year, after a run-off, his party did secure a majority in parliament (63 of 132 seats, versus the SLPP’s 48). But he lays the blame for the stuttering economy squarely at the president’s door.

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He also accuses Bio of abusing his office to pursue political vendettas, noting that Bio began his term by firing civil servants suspected of supporting the previous administration.

“If I was president, I would never have started the way they did. The economy can never grow with the decisions they have made,” Kamara said.

He himself is one of dozens of officials who served former president Ernest Bai Koroma, and are now being investigated for corruption, but strongly denies all the allegations against him.

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Kamara is one of the country’s most prominent economists, having worked for the World Bank and led the country’s ministries of finance and foreign affairs. For him and his party, the stuttering economy is an opportunity, and he has made it the focus of his campaign.

“We have prospects in the mining sector but this requires proper management and huge investments,” he said. “We need to put enough emphasis on iron ore and gold.”

Before he gets the chance to implement his vision, Kamara needs to win the election — but he has been vocal about what he describes as attempts to subvert Sierra Leone’s democratic processes, including allegations of bias within the electoral commission and state security forces.

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As if to highlight this point, security forces responded violently on Wednesday to an opposition protest outside the opposition’s party office in Freetown.

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Police fired tear gas to disperse the protest and, according to the APC, one of its supporters was killed and over 70 were arrested.

“My supporters and I have been attacked many times but we have not retaliated,” said Kamara. “To defeat an incumbent is not easy but we allowed a smooth transition of power in 2018. Why is the SLPP making the election process so very troubling for the opposition?”

A fractious poll defined by economic crisis

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A fractious poll defined by economic crisis

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