Africa, Headlines

SIERRA LEONE: Partisan Politics Threatens Peace

Mohamed Fofanah

FREETOWN, Aug 15 2008 (IPS) - A violent showdown on August 13 in the heart of Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital, demonstrated the political tension that has been brewing between the country's two main political parties, the ruling All People's Congress (APC) and the main opposition Sierra Leone's People's Party (SLPP).

Police have failed to prevent sporadic political violence. Credit:  Mohammed Fofana/IPS

Police have failed to prevent sporadic political violence. Credit: Mohammed Fofana/IPS

Scores of young men armed with sticks, stones, and machetes – and allegedly aligned with the APC – attacked the SLPP party headquarters and completely vandalised it. They also beat up some SLPP supporters they found in the building, before police were able to quell the fighting.

Jacob Jusu Saffa, the SLPP secretary-general, says that party offices all over the country have been attacked and party supporters beaten on many occasions.

It is barely six years since peace returned to a country that endured 11 years of gruesome and barbaric civil war. Tens of thousands were killed and an estimated 20,000 brutally mutilated as the Liberian-backed Revolutionary United Front (RUF) led by Foday Sankoh initially sought to overthrow an APC government which had in 1991 held power for over 24 years. By the time the war ended in 2002, as many as 2 million people had been displaced.

"We are moving in a circle. This was the same government in power when war broke out in 1990, and they are doing the same things that caused the war – suppressing opposition with thuggery as they are doing now," said Mohamed Turay, a lecturer at the Fourah Bay College.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up after the war found that among the main causes of the war were marginalisation, a disregard for human rights and fundamental freedoms by all parties involved, the suppression of free expression and political dissent, and an absence of good governance.

A nation divided

The results of the 2007 presidential elections spelled out clearly the political divide that, sadly, is accepted by many Sierra Leoneans. The APC won the majority of votes in the north and west of the country, whilst the SLPP had strong support in the eastern and southern part of the country.

"This division is bad for the country," observed civil servant Saidu Kamara. "Especially when (each of) the different regions are dominated by the two major tribes in the country, Mende in the south and Temne in the north."

When he took office, President Ernest Bai Koroma promised to form a government of national unity. However, the makeup of his cabinet was roundly criticized from all quarters when 17 of the 20 Ministers were either Temnes or from the north. SLPP secretary general Saffa pointed out that when they were in government, the SLPP included ministers from all parts of the country.

Defending the appointments, the APC information minister Alhaji Ibrahim Ben Kargbo said that it was only prudent to draw a team from amongst loyalists of the party.

SLPP member and former finance minister John Benjamin told IPS that concern about the widening rift led the SLPP to suggest that APC Minister of Presidential Affairs, Alpha Kanu, set up a peace building committee which would broker peace between the two parties.

"We were at the stage of putting a peace building team together when the August 13 attack on our party headquarters and supporters made it impossible to continue," Benjamin said.

He explained that the president called an SLPP delegation to a meeting, but APC supporters poured water on them and insulted them right in front of State House and neither police nor security did anything. "This totally defeated the talks we had with the vice president," Benjamin told IPS. "It might get to a time when we will not be able to control our own supporters."

The Secretary General of the APC, Victor Foe, flatly denied that APC supporters have been attacking the SLPP: "It’s all lies, They are the ones attacking our supporters,"

The Director of Campaign for Good Governance (CGG), Valnora Edwin told IPS, "Sierra Leone has moved past the issues of APC and SLPP. What we should be concerned with is the development of the country. We are tired of sitting in last position in the UN Human Development Index. If we continue to have unrest, investors will not come to the country."

Calm has returned to the capital, as the police made several arrests. But there has been no contact between the two parties to defuse the tension.

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