John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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To the Victors Go the Spoils: How Winner-Takes-All Politics Undermine Democracy in Sierra Leone

by Guest Blogger for John Campbell
November 8, 2012

Sierra Leone's President Bai Koroma's motorcade goes around the national stadium before his inauguration ceremony in Freetown 15/11/2007. (Katrina Manson/Courtesy Reuters)


This is a guest post by Mohamed Jallow, program development specialist at IntraHealth International. He was previously a program associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Looking at the bitterly divisive elections campaigns in Sierra Leone, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo’s words from the 2007 elections come to mind; winning the elections is literally “a matter of life and death.” In Sierra Leone, as is in Nigeria, the winner-takes-all-system is an integral part of politics. Widespread political patronage and the perception that those who win presidential elections provide sole, unfettered access to the lucrative benefits of political power, makes the electoral process a very dangerous undertaking.

Two weeks before the general elections, the stakes could not be higher. No expense, no level of patronage, and no trick in the book has been spared by the two major political parties to win the presidency. Even Obasanjo himself was on hand to help campaign for the president, following a high profile visit by Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan.

Already, politicians of all stripes have positioned, and repositioned, themselves for the post elections spoils. This is almost a pre-election ritual. These calculated maneuvers are deeply rooted in the notion that losing elections means being reduced to a spectator rather than an active partner in governance. In cases where they are not oppressed or run underground, key opposition politicians are routinely co-opted by the ruling party through token political positions. In effect, the spoils system renders the opposition irrelevant, thus undermining not only the democratic process, but also people’s faith in their leaders.

Just to illustrate how this mentality is hampering rather than solidifying democracy, the main opposition leader, Julius Maada Bio, during a recent speech at Chatham House in London, accused the government of President Koroma of “applying a cruel and crude brand of tribalism, patronage, and nepotism in many state institutions.” According to him, “over 80 percent of the appointments and promotions in the last four years within the public service are of members of selected ethnic groups from northern Sierra Leone, which is the presumed stronghold of the ruling party.” Now, whether this is true or not, the perception is already there. It affects the way people see their leaders, and how accountable they hold them during, and after, elections. However, the most damaging effect of this type of politics is that politicians and voters are more likely to put their ethnic and regional affiliations, the interests of their patrons, before the interests of their country.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Abdoulie

    great article!

  • Posted by Chike Chukudebelu

    Well, that is democracy.

    The man who has 51% has all the power, while the man with 49% has none.

    This is the nonsense peddled by the West in Africa, it is unworkable.

    What does it translate to? Series of rigged censuses, so that tribe A is always bigger than tribe B. Rapidly rising costs of “electioneering”, so only the richest or most corrupt can contest for elections.

    What good can come out of it?

  • Posted by Emile C. Carr

    “The people deserve the government they get”, is so true of Africa. Unfortunately when you have a hughely illiterate electrolate public voting on tribal, regional and patronage lines you get what has just been described. Unfortnately again those who are informed do not make much effort to get others in the same level. A lot of us have been in position of tust, either internationally or locally but have failed to get governments to bring education to the fore. Our people are wallowing in abject poverty so all they are thinking now is their survival. Half a loaf is better than none.

    Ngozi Okonjo-Iwaela a stringent and courageous anticorruption advocate who served some years ago as finance minister and foreign minister of Nigeria, then returned to the World Bank as managing director and later got appointed again as her country’s finance minister in July 2011. She gave a lecture in June 2007 in Washington where she told the story of Rose, a twenty-one year old University student in Nigeria;
    “Rose from a poor rural family,could not purchase the series of class notes sold by her lecturer to students as part of the reading material for her class. The lecturer, who used these moneys to supplement his income, noticed that Rose was not buying the notes and penalised her through low grades for her work. When she explained she couldn’t pay she was asked to make up with other favours, which she refused. The failing grade she was given was instrumental in her withdrawal from the university, which put an end to her higher education. An individual and an entire familylost their hope and pathway to escape poverty. When I followed up on the this story, I found out it was by no means an isolated case. It was part of a systemic rot that had befallen what has once been a very good tertiary education in Nigeria”.

    Sierra Leone was once where all sub-sahara Africa came to school and get university education. Go have a look at that institution now also if you find time to examin its product you will be shocked at what it is turning out these days.

    The crimes of corruption are not abstract issues. Every time an official steals from the public purse, someone suffers. Everytime an official acts as a villain, there is a victim. Corruption must be made a crime against humanity.

  • Posted by Chike

    Emile C. Carr,

    The decline of higher education is not just due to “corruption” – the malign influence of both the World Bank (where Okonjo-Iweala served) and the IMF must also be considered.

    The most precipitous drop in the standards of higher education in West Africa occurred in the 1980s – a period when the word of the IMF and World Bank was law.

    They advocated privatisation and that government should “draw down expenditure” on social services. The result was a stunted and poorly educated generation, with few job prospects.

    Finally, it is one thing to shed “crocodile tears” at the “decline of education in Nigeria”. What percentage of the Nigerian budget was allocated to education under our “tireless and fearless anti-corruption crusader” (Okonjo-Iweala)? I will tell you – a paltry 8%, compared to 31% in Ghana (please check the 2011 budget figures).

    (Many Nigerians beg to differ on your classification of Okonjo-Iweala as a “stringent and courageous anticorruption advocate”, especially with the level of corruption being exposed by OTHER PEOPLE in Nigeria.

    Anyway, I am an ordinary, simple Nigerian and ” I don’t know anything” and I can’t sway the most determined “Okonjo-Iweala groupies”- who almost always tend to be White Westerners.)

  • Posted by Innocent Monya-Tambi

    Even though Sierra Leone’s ills – tribalism, dangerously unquestionable regional and ethnic allegiance, illitracy, patronage, corruption, etc – seem incurable, I believe even if a handful of “educated” Sierra Leoneans commit themselves to various forms of genuine community education and transformation projects within the scope of their fields of study/expertise, it might just be possible to change the political psyche of the populace, reduce the chances of potentially dangerous election outcomes and enhance social stability. It however seems to be the trend that a significant number of Sierra Leoneans who “go back” have only political ambitions and in the process of achieving their goals end up exploiting the very weaknesses in the community to get what they want. The thought of making a positive and enduring contribution to one’s society without political aspirations is something that we as Sierra Leoneans have to adopt as part of our value system. Interest in achieving personal goals supersedes genuine national interest. An organization with the sole aim of creating political education and greater awareness against the ills mentioned above,through workshops over a reasonable time period could transform that society (that is if the leaders of such an organization do not end up themselves vying for political office).

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