Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Sierra Leone: Why Stevens quit

by Kofi Andoh

With the recent declaration of Major-General Joseph Saidu Momoh as the elected President of Sierra Leone marks a watershed in the country's political history. This writer examines the politics of the country against the background of the general political situation of Africa.
In spite of understandable attempts by the largely partisan Sierra Leonean press to lay down the significance of the resign tion of President Siaka Stevens, the issue continues to arouse passions in several and/or quarters and resurrects the dormant themes of democracy totalitarianism in Sierra Leone and Africa in general. Furthermore it brings into sharp focus the continued dominance of the All Peoples' Congress of Sierra Leonean politics.

Ex-President Siaka Stevens has been variously described as a stayer, a flamboyant leader and the father of Sierra Leone. In his chequered political career, he successfully slithered through many straits; he survived imprisonment, house arrest, army interregnum, assassination and coup attempts. His contemporaries included Presidents Houphouet-Boigny of Ivory Coast, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Jawara of Sene-Gambia and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania. Like them, he is acknowledged elder statesman of Africa and like them he also rules in a one-party political system.

In terms of political temperament and ideological inclination, they are all moderates, with strong capitalist bent and are, all non-aligned. (On the part of the west). Collectively, their rule are punc- tuated by periodic civil unrests, gross economic mismanagement, administra- tive incompetence, general lack direction, and above all corruption. The exits from the political arena, are remembered more for their suppressive and totalitarian policies than for any feelings of nostalgia.

However, like these despots, ex-President Stevens' resignation assumes significance for various reasons.

As already stated the resignation should never be mistaken for a demonstration of the virility of the democratic process in the country. Rather, it confirms the opposite. Even in retirement, he exercises enormous power in the choice of his successor, General Momoh. What this indicates is that, baring the unexpected President Stevens could rule forever. His resignation is therefore the condescending act of a political tin-God, and confirms the fact that democracy still seems illusory in Africa and that political pluralism, tolerance, of accountability and probity are unattainable ideals on the continent.

And just as expected, reactions to President Stevens' resignation have been varied. Within opposition ranks, the reaction ranged from elation to skepticism. Elation, in the sense that it marks the first stage in the struggle to institutionalise democracy in the country, inasmuch as the ex-president symbolised totalitarianism in Sierra Leone. Skepticism in the sense that the resignation might not represent any significant change in political character and policies. At best, it is just a musical chair exercise whose impact would be insignificant in terms of the ex-President. It comes as a call to close ranks, whilst to others it is an opportunity to advance personal political ambitions. To the outside world, the resignation is a healthy comment on the political maturity of the leadership of the country, as it marked a departure from the rule. However, this is slightly diffused by the fact that the new leader, far from being an acceptable leader, comes from the ranks of the military and marks an unhealthy trend in the politics of the country.

It is pertinent to question the reasons behind Stevens' resignation. Officially, the resignation is on health grounds. However, it is felt within certain circles that the resignation confirms and signifies the ex-President's loss of grip on the political and economic life of Sierra Leone. In other words, it indicates an ad- mission of failure in the management of the economic and political life of the country. Furthermore, the timing of the resignation when opposition is gradually mounting, makes it difficult to escape the conviction that Stevens' bowing out, is not due to increased pressure, and the inabili- ty to cope with increased demands for reforms.

If this view is true, then President Stevens' decision to quit was influenced by instincts of self-preservation. Those who hold this view cite the circumstances surrounding his intended resignation in 1982. Then as was alleged, the major determinant factor in his resignation was the September 1981 labour strike which had several casualties and deaths and which led to a humiliation of the president when he was booed and nearly assaulted at Makem, in the Northern Province of Sierra Leone.

It is pertinent to question the reasons behind Steven's resignation. Officially, his resignation is on health grounds. However, it is felt in certain circles that the resignation confirms and signifies the ex- President's loss of grip

Another view - the one mostly believed links the resignation with a deal with the army. The army has always been very powerful in Sierra Leonean politics and since 1968, when Stevens assumed power, it has been playing a behind-the- scenes role. It is widely known that ex- President Stevens managed to come this far because of his ability to walk the delicate tightrope of playing the game according to the dictates of the military and aligning the same forces on his side against the opposition. The choice of General Momoh therefore pre-empted a military take-over in the wake of unprecedented economic hardships, the result of a devaluation which created an uneven distribution of its impact.

Whichever speculation or view is true, the major consequences of the resignation would not be in the upsurge of opposition or the decline in the fortunes of the APC. The opposition is not likely to make any impact in the political life of the country. It is still disorganised, lacks popular base and presents no visible threat to the institutionalised one-party rule of the APC.

There is, though, no denying the fact that the resignation and the election of General Momoh eases the way for the covert take-over of the country by the military. To the APC, though, if General Momoh does not become a turncoat, its only major loss would have been its father-figure and national leader.

It must be noted that in the final analysis, the resignation makes room at the top and within the party, for young contenders. The snag is that, in spite of the resignation, the status quo remains unchanged Africa is still a long way from the democratisation of its political institutions, and Sierra Leone, for that matter still remains in the political backwoods.

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