Last month, the youth wing of Sierra Leone’s ruling All People’s Congress (APC) endorsed a motion declaring President Ernest Bai Koroma chairman for life.
It was unclear what that eyebrow-raising move means outside the party, but it certainly fuelled an already fiery atmosphere occasioned by the so-called ‘More Time’ campaign.
Sierra Leone’s constitution provides for two five-year terms limit for the president. President Koroma and his supporters have repeatedly denied he intends to overstay. But the assurances come on the backdrop of cyclic suspicious moves.
The latest such moves, coming on the eve of the election year, have set the country in an unparalleled electrifying mood.
It all began shortly after the 2012 polls, when President Koroma’s handpicked campaign manager, Mr Leonard Balogun Koroma, took to the airwaves to campaign for a third term. A strong public opposition to the move forced State House to issue a disclaimer.
And as the nation struggled to grasp the rationale behind his campaign, Mr Koroma was appointed to a senior ministerial position – Transport and Aviation, a move interpreted as a reward for initiating what would be the dominant subject of discourse throughout the rest of the following five years.
It went on and off, sometimes justified with some of the most bizarre arguments. One goes that the president should be “rewarded” with more time in recognition of his development achievements.
Even the Ebola epidemic provided a pretext, with proponents arguing that much of the president’s second term was not spent doing developmental and therefore he should be “compensated” with a longer tenure.
At one point, at the height of the debate, the president infamously defended the pro-more time campaigners, saying they were entitled to freedom of expression guaranteed by the constitution.
The 'chairman for life' declaration came at the backdrop of a chain of events that appeared to further consolidate APC’s preparedness for the inevitable.
At that Youth League conference in the northern Port Loko District, there were familiar scenes of youth groups demonstrating in support of more time.
And a few days later, news of an attempt by parliament to debate a motion seeking to extend the president's term spread on social media like wild fire.
While the government continues to insist that no such attempt was made, the issue persistently makes headlines, fuelled by yet more suspicious moves, like the APC dominated House questioning the legality of the ongoing voter registration and pushing for activities pro-democracy campaigners say risk derailing the electoral process, with the potential of postponement of the March 7, 2018 polls.
The government’s insistence on pursuing a controversial boundary delimitation based on the disputed 2015 census has left the civil society unsettled. There is also the planned referendum for the revised constitution, the approval of which could occasion a whole new barrage of squabbles.
The Executive Director of Campaign for Good Governance (CGG), Ms Valnora Edwin, says civil society is concerned these and several other governance processes rolled out on the eve of the elections could provide an excuse for the derailment of the electoral calendar.
CGG, one of the country’s foremost civil society groups, is part of a seven-member NGO coalition which recently warned against any attempt to change the election date.
“We are thinking if all these things are coming now, whether it’s a ploy just to delay the process,” Ms Edwin said.
Presidential Spokesman Abdoulay Bayraytay says government had long closed the chapter of the term extension. He told the Africareview that their preoccupation now was bridging the funding gap for the electoral process.
“He [president] remains committed as provided for in the 1991 constitution.”
The election was costed at $48 million. The government says it has allocated $28 million, hoping to raise the remainder from development partners.
But the opposition and civil society also fear that the slow pace disbursement to the Electoral Commission offers another opportunity for exploitation in favour of the third term agenda.
Ms Edwin says the track record of the government in terms of conflicting statements made it hard to gain public trust. She says the background of the more time campaign explains why every step the government took was being weighed against the third term issue.
Change the date
“We are on a wait and see process now and even thinking ahead of what could be any further steps to change the date and move on with the more time agenda,” she says.
Even within APC, the third term is a divisive issue. It is said that former Vice-President Samuel Sam-Sumana’s sacking was accelerated because of his uncompromising desire to replace his former boss.
Some analysts believe that the party's apparent intolerance to the outpouring of presidential standard bearer aspirants may also explain the hostile reactions from people, including the president himself.
At last month’s Port Loko meeting, President Koroma left even some of his admirers in awe with a dismissive statement to “over ambitious” aspirants. Those who did not want to toe the party’s line could form their own party, he said, to a thunderous applause from his supporters.
Curiously, former parliamentary Majority leader Ibrahim Bundu’s dismissal came just after that.
Next year’s election is crucial for the international community, not just because it marks the first post-war polls without their direct involvement, but also it serves as test of the resilience of a democratic process started in 2007, when Sierra Leone made history with the first peaceful transfer of power - from one democratically elected president to another.
As an indication of the concern of the international community, the UN Special Envoy to West Africa, Dr Mohamed Ibn Chambas, has visited Freetown twice within the last six months. And his message has been consistently on the “need to meet constitutionally required timelines”.
The last two decades witnessed major progress in Africa’s democratisation journey as many countries adopted term limits. But recently, there have been concerns over a growing list of countries seeking to reverse the trend.
Nearly 40 of the 55 AU-member states have term limits in their constitutions. Majority have two five-year terms.
Egypt, Ghana and Nigeria - have two four-year terms. Ethiopia and Liberia have two six-year terms, while Equatorial Guinea has two seven-year terms.
The rest, among them three monarchies, have unlimited terms.
Senegal’s President Macky Sall in 2016 fulfilled a campaign promise to cut down the presidential term from seven to five years two terms. Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has been reported expressing support for suggestions to reduce the number of years per term to five.
Presidential term limits is one of the most urgent reforms pro-democracy campaigners in Gambia were angling for after the recent dramatic fall of the 22-year-old regime of former strongman Yahya Jammeh.
On the flip side, Rwandan President Paul Kagame in 2015 prevailed against international pressure and amended the country’s constitution, paving the way for him to contest after the end of his second term later this year.
Neighbouring Burundi was plunged into chaos in 2015 when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced and later succeeded with similar plans.
For some, it did not get so well, like in Burkina Faso where Blaise Compaoré’s attempt to change the constitution prompted mass protests that ended his 27-year rule.
The Sierra Leone civil society fears that the third term agenda could reverse the country’s democratic gains, barely 15 years since its devastating 11-years war ended.
“Definitely, there might be some adjustment and some processes obviously need to be followed, but that should not require that we have a change of date of the elections or any extension for any government,” says Ms Edwin.