Abdulai Mansaray, author

The US Secretary of State, Antony J. Blinken issued a press statement on 31 August, 2023 on the visa restriction policy to be applied in Sierra Leone. Here is the full statement.

“The United States is committed to supporting and advancing democracy in Sierra Leone and around the world.  Today, I am announcing a new visa restriction policy under Section 212(a) (3) C) of the Immigration and Nationality Act for undermining the democratic process in the June 2023 Sierra Leone election.”

Under this policy, the United States will pursue visa restrictions for those believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining democracy in Sierra Leone, including through the manipulation or rigging of the electoral process; intimidation of voters, election observers, or civil society organizations through threats or acts of physical violence; or the abuse or violation of related human rights in Sierra Leone.  Family members of such persons may also be subject to these restrictions.  Persons who undermine the democratic process in Sierra Leone—including in the lead-up to, during, and following Sierra Leone’s 2023 elections—may be found ineligible for U.S. visas under this policy.”

“The visa restriction policy announced today will apply to specific individuals and is not directed at the Sierra Leonean people.  This decision reflects the commitment of the United States to support Sierra Leoneans’ aspirations to have free and fair elections that demonstrate the will of the people and strengthen democracy and the rule of law”.

One of the key parts of this statement is the US proclamation that “This decision reflects the commitment of the United States to support Sierra Leoneans’ aspirations to have free and fair elections that demonstrate the will of the people and strengthen democracy and the rule of law”. No well-meaning Sierra Leonean can argue with that, and many will welcome such a stance from our outside partners. In previous statements, the international community lauded the people of Sierra Leone that against all odds and short comings, the citizens turned out in their numbers to demonstrate their civic rights. Those rights are worth protecting.

So, what why is this policy important for Sierra Leone?

When you consider how young our democracy is, it’s obvious that the recent elections was a litmus test for our nascent democracy. When you consider the high price Sierra Leone and its people had to pay in loss of lives and property to get to this democratic highway, you begin to see why “the commitment of the United States to support Sierra Leoneans’ aspirations to have free and fair elections that demonstrate the will of the people and strengthen democracy and the rule of law” becomes imperative. No well-meaning Sierra Leonean would wish to see our country return to those dark days of our history. There can be no better recipe for such a repeat (astaqfulai) than to preside over a system that stifles the aspirations to have free and fair elections that demonstrate the will of the people and strengthen democracy and the rule of law”.

As welcoming as this policy may be to many people and especially the opposition and all those standing up for democracy is, it is worth noting that at this stage, the United States has just issued “a policy statement”. This is a blanket statement that will require patience to calibrate its impact. The devil is in the detail.  While Sarah Van Horne, Head of Public Affairs in Freetown said that the “US is considering taking further actions against those responsible for denying the democratic freedom of the people of Sierra Leone”, thanks to the “US government concern about the election process and vote tabulation” (thesierraleonetelegraph.com-02/09/23), social media and many media outlets have gone ahead of themselves to provide a speculative identity parade of the suspects for the proposed visa ban. Who can blame them when they claim to have a catalogue of evidences to prove the case? So, Mr Blinken and Madam Sarah Van Horne, the people whose aspirations to have a free and fair elections that demonstrate their will and strengthen democracy and the rule of law ARE WAITING. Hallelujah. The devil is in the detail.

In case you forget, American democracy is on trial with Trump’s MAGA brigade. The world is waiting to see how this great nation navigates its way out of the quagmire of the rule of law between the constitutional courts and the courts of public opinion. There is no running away from the fact that the conduct of our recent election has left a trail and whiff of questionable credibility. It is therefore a welcome boost for any attempt or effort to restore the credibility and trust, deserving of our country’s democratic credentials.

Despite this heart-warming turn of events, some sceptics seem to draw some parallels with the geo-political Tsunami that is sweeping across the Sahel region. The Middle East had their Arab Spring and Africa is having its Sahel Harmattan.  Last Wednesday, Gabon joined a band of brothers from Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Guinea in the Society for the preservation of African emancipation. Comparing junta rule and democracy is like comparing death and sleep. Military intelligence is a contradiction in terms.  History teaches us that all roads that are paved with military cobblestones easily transform into civilian boulevards, only to end up in cul-de sac of dictatorships.

The relentless condemnation and calls for a return to civilian rule is no surprise. It’s like night follows day. The Regional bloc, the Economic Community of Central African States ECCAS) “has urged partners led by the United Nations and the African Union to support a rapid return to constitutional order”. Like all political “usurpers” in uniform, they sing from the same hymn sheet and promise to return their respective governments to civilian rule…….with time.  In response and in a televised address to his people, Brice Clotoaire Oligui Nguema, the newly appointed “transitional president” promised his people that “our aim is to move as quickly as possible, quickly but surely”. However, he cautioned that “moving as quickly as possible doesn’t mean organising elections in a rush where we’ll end up with the same mistakes, where the same people will continue in power, and it all comes back to the same thing”.

It is no secret that at the start of the 21st century, Africa took giant steps towards democratic transitions with shifting norms and stronger institutions. Africa witnessed the decline of coups to a point that it was considered a taboo and a relic. So, with this Sahel Harmattan, is it surprising that since 1990, two-thirds of the coups in Africa have been in Franco-phone countries? Is it surprising that like the cold/flu during the Harmattan, coups are becoming contagious across the continent?  Will these coups transform into the kind of wild fires we get during the Harmattan seasons? Just like post-colonial era, these recent coups seem to re-enact the fight for independence. Unlike the previous fight for political independence, something tells me that this time, it is about the economic and moral emancipation of the Black Consciousness. This is not a tacit approval of coups in the region, just thinking aloud.

So, what does the Gabon case tell us about democracy in Africa?

It is worth noting that the sub regional bodies like ECOWAS and ECCAS are quick to condemn these coups and rightly so. Ironically, while ECOWAS is demanding a return to democracy in Niger, ECCAS is calling for return to constitutional order in Gabon. What’s the difference? Semantics? This is why the coup in Gabon throws up a whirlwind of political, ethical and moral questions. My civics teacher in primary school taught me that democracy is for the people, by the people and of the people. Gabon has been ruled by the Bongo family since 1967. This was not a dynasty. It was monarchical, as power shifted like inheritance, from father to son for 56 years. So, where is the democracy in that? Where were the French, ECCAS, and all those High Priests of democracy when Gabon, with the fourth largest GDP per head in sub-Saharan Africa is mired in severe unemployment and poverty, while Bongo and his 54 children live in largesse you can only imagine?

To all intents and purposes, does it mean that democracy as a concept in Africa, is completely different from that in the West? Is democracy calibrated by different yardsticks in Africa? Who decides what is democratic and what is not? Was the Gabon democratic under the 56 year rule? Why is the EECAS now calling for a return to “constitutional order” instead of “democratic” order? By this sleight of semantic gymnastics, is the EECAS acknowledging that the Bongo era was not democratic but ordained by the constitution, and hence the call to constitutional order?

Following the recent elections in Sierra Leone in June this year, the country is now caught in the grip of a political and diplomatic gridlock. Among other reasons and factors, the ECSL’s brazen refusal to publish the aggregated results that declared President Maada Bio the winner is a major sticking point of angst. This has the potential to throw the spanner in the works of our young democracy. In political terms, there cannot be a simpler request as APC asks, “Show us how you won this elections”. It goes without saying that the refusal to do so, poses a significant risk to our democracy.

Though understandable, I do not support the opposition APC party’s stance to boycott government and parliament. The APC might profess that it is fighting to maintain and protect the country and its people’s democratic credentials. If the conduct of the elections has conjured such political and diplomatic angst, you cannot make the situation better by throwing fuel over the fire. You cannot defend democracy by misguidedly giving president Bio and his government a get out of jail card to a seemingly “one party democracy”.

What the country needs is a dialogue, and both the APC and SLPP should remember that they cannot shake hands with clenched fists. The wind that exposes the chicken’s nakedness blows from the back. Both parties should re-calibrate their mind-set from one of confrontation to one of negotiation. But that can only happen if both decide to put the country above their respective parties. Both parties should remember, they are the people’s prospect, and the people their customers. No one is asking the APC to negotiate out of fear. Equally, you cannot fear to negotiate.

Where is Mr ECOWAS when you need him?

This is what brings the relevance of ECOWAS into question. At face value, ECOWAS was supposed to be the UN of the sub region. We cannot summarily dismiss ECOWAS as an echo chamber of some endangered interests, but was the creation of ECOWAS a way of keeping the West’s fingers in the region’s resources pie? Who decides when, how and where these sub regional groups intervene? What has ECOWAS done to intervene in the ongoing political stalemate in Sierra Leone, other than telling us that the results lacked credibility, which is like saying that water is wet or the Pope is catholic? Have there been any attempts to mediate and foster dialogue between the APC and SLPP to address this impasse? Why does the APC have to look faraway to Uncle Sam when our in-laws are just next door?

The potential to undo all the gains made these past years in our country’s collective effort towards democracy is real. Is that why America is taking a dim view “against those responsible for denying the democratic freedom of the people of Sierra Leone”? Is this a pre-emptive strike to mitigate against issues that ferment the kind of situations that are fast becoming vogue in Franco-phone speaking countries? Does ECOWAS only close the barn door when the horse has bolted? Bird’s born in a cage, think flying is an illness. (Alejandro Jodorowsky). France and its allies including ECOWAS and their subsidiaries have always seen Africa as a caged bird in subservience. Now that its birds (the colonial countries) are learning to fly, they treat that audacity to fly like a plague. Restore democracy, return to constitutional order, and release the democratically elected leader, blah blah blah.

By the way, the APC should go back to the drawing board and negotiate by way of dialogue. The world has heard you. However, you cannot profess to protect and defend democracy by behaving in a way that gives succour to a de-facto one party atmosphere. You can’t eat your cake and have it back. The policy of non-participation produces no winners. Just losers, the people. Protest beyond the law can be a departure from democracy. “One finger nor dae pick banga”. You can’t shake hands with a clenched fist. One proof of leadership is the ability to engage in difficult conversations. Throwing the toys out of the pram is not one of them. Or do we need some adult supervision here? Mugabe once said “We don’t mind having sanctions banning us from Europe. We are not Europeans”

Don’t forget to turn the lights off when you leave the room.