Apart from his engagements with ECOWAS and the African Union (AU) on elections observations across Africa, former President of Sierra Leone, Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma (2007-2018), had maintained a relatively low profile since retirement. In this exclusive interview, Koroma shares his experience in elections observation and peace mediation efforts in Africa. He talks about his advocacy for establishing an African Peace Engineering Corps and his membership in the global committee on biodiversity, insight into governance in Sierra Leone and his stewardship as Chair of the main opposition APC party.
Sierraeye: Lately, you have been very busy serving ECOWAS and the African Union in promoting democratic elections and peaceful political transition. What are your reflections on your engagements in the ECOWAS sub-region and the continent? What is your impression about public participation in elections you have observed?
EBK: First of all, I want to thank the AU and ECOWAS for giving me the unique opportunity to play the role I am now performing. I have been engaged in several elections and in all of them, the people showed great determination by ensuring that they registered and came out to vote. In Zambia, for example, the quest for change was manifested in the public’s determination to elect a new government. Young men and women in universities and the private sector, including those in the informal sector, volunteered to help organize, mobilize, and serve as polling agents. They knew their civic and political rights and were vigilant at every step of the electoral process. At voting, they ensured their votes were counted.
Sierraeye: What is your assessment of the management of the processes and conduct of elections you have observed?
EBK: The elections management bodies are central to the acceptability of the outcome of elections. The smoothness, credibility and peacefulness of every election depend on the inclusiveness, neutrality, professionalism and sense of national duty of particularly the leadership and personnel of the electoral commission. Voter registration should be done in good time, the register prepared and published well in time so that voters and political parties would have enough time to verify. Where there are doubts, the commission should be willing and open to an audit of the voters’ register. Voting, sorting, counting, tallying, validation and publication of results should take place with the full participation of all political party polling agents— no interference or obstruction of state apparatus.
Sierraeye: How do you view the timely and decisive engagement of the international community in engendering peaceful elections and transitions where you have observed elections?
EBK: It is essential to continue the engagement, but we need to drill down deeper. You just don’t come in a week or two before the elections and observe the process from that point. My view is that AU and ECOWAS must stay engaged in countries that conduct elections, maybe a year before the elections or at the start of the preparatory process, because most elections are won before elections day. They have to be engaged at the phase when countries are creating constituencies, the voter registration process, the registration of political parties and giving space for political parties’ participation. Where opposition parties are stifled, it makes it impossible even where the processes are seemingly transparent, a lot of work would have been done before the elections to give advantage to the governing parties and that is why we need to be fully involved. I have made the point that even the governance process of every country must be monitored because where there is no democratic transparency, there is no rule of law, there is no freedom of the press, human rights are violated and you cannot create a democratic environment that will guarantee a free and fair elections. That is why we must drill down and engage more because this is critically important. In most countries, the source of civil wars is the outcomes of these elections. ECOWAS and AU are now working to see how they can further engage countries to deepen our democracy and ensure that we have peaceful and credible elections.
The role of the international community, local and international observers is extremely important in ensuring fairness in the electoral processes and the smoothness, credibility and, of course, peacefulness of the outcome. All of these are interconnected and mutually reinforcing.
Sierraeye: What, in your view, could be useful lessons for SL regarding how incumbent governments, like The Gambia and Zambia, conducted themselves in the run-up and during elections?
The whole process has to be transparent and participatory. Opposition parties must be fully involved at every step of the way so must civil society groups and members of the international community. Elections are about acceptability. If you conduct a process that is faulty from day one, then the outcome cannot be accepted. To have acceptability, we must ensure that every process, from the registration of voters to counting votes, must be open. There must be an audit. Voters must know exactly where they should be voting because it is not suitable for voters to be running around on polling day, looking for where to vote. The tallying, collation, and announcement of results must be done in a manner that everybody will understand where one or two votes are coming from. If it is done like it was done in past elections…on a percentage basis, it will not augur well and that is most unacceptable. That was what I insisted on in Zambia. We should spend one week processing results that will be acceptable to everybody than meeting deadlines and announcing results that will not be acceptable.
Sierraeye: Apart from elections observation, you are also an avid campaigner of the environment, serving as a member of the Global Steering committee for the campaign to nature. From your beautiful green environment, I can see that you are adding action to what you are advocating for. Why is this important to you?
EBK: Well, they say charity begins at home. The Global Steering Committee for the Campaign for Nature, of which I am a founding member, advocates for the protection of 30% of the planet by 2030 through the protection of conservation areas. We want to ensure that we don’t suffer from the effects of climate change. You don’t need special knowledge to know what is happening to our environment…we experience it everywhere, every day. If we have to preserve humanity, we have to ensure that we continue to enjoy the comforts of our God-given environment; we have to maintain a certain equilibrium in the environment; otherwise, the future is very bleak. We are working with the UN Biodiversity Commission and other agencies to continue to advocate to leaders of the world, civil society organizations, funding organizations by providing adequate information that will help them to fully appreciate the doom that is ahead of us.
Sierraeye: As a country, do you think Sierra Leone has done enough to protect its environment?
We have obviously not done enough. You see widespread deforestation now; a lot of logging is going on. Our coastal front is not managed properly. So, there is a serious concern, and these are issues we will be sending letters to heads of states. Climate change advocacy is seriously ongoing, and we have to know that this is for the future of generations yet unborn. If we continue to deplete our environment very soon, nothing will be left. And it will affect farming, and yields will be low; you will have fires and storms all over the place. It is about the future of the country and the world.
Sierraeye: As part of your advocacy for sustainable social and economic development in Africa, you are championing the establishment of an African Peace Engineering corps. How is this advocacy going?
It is going very well, but I believe that such a great idea will not be implemented overnight. We are still at the outreach stage, sending letters to heads of states because they must make the decisions at the end of the day. We are canvassing them about the need to have a new approach to our militaries. We don’t have to send them to fight wars all the time. When there is peace, we can use their capacity and discipline to go out there and help countries to build the infrastructure and social services required. When a community is provided with the necessary infrastructure and service, you create an environment of peace. This is all that the African Peace Engineering is all about. We will continue the advocacy and it is now beginning to receive the nod from heads of states.
Sierraeye: How Optimistic are you that your advocacy will succeed given the unpredictability of Africa’s geo-political terrain?
EBK: I always share my experience during my advocacy campaigns. We deployed the military when we had Ebola and the mudslide in this country. In the case of Ebola, the military did not only assemble treatment centers, but they also organized a treatment center all by themselves. It ended up being one of the most successful treatment centers. This tells you there is a technical and professional sitting capacity that is not being fully utilized. I see other countries are now utilizing theirs. We have the 34 Military Hospital; we had the engineering and agricultural divisions of the army. We have been deploying contingents, battalions, companies to countries to help in addressing war situations to maintain peace and that aspect of hidden professionalism in the army is what we want to bring out so that even when a country is in peace, we need to consolidate the peace. We need to help countries build their infrastructure. For example, a battalion of soldiers can build all the schools in Koiandugu and Falaba Districts, build the health centers and feeder roads, they have the capacity. With that, you enhance the peace. It’s like a preventive measure. You don’t go in when there is war; you go in and address the issues that will consolidate the peace. There is so much rationale in the argument and I think it is now beginning to hold. That is why I believe that in the end, whilst we address the issues of peacekeeping and building, consolidating the peace and enhancing democracy and social service provision will help in the development of Africa.
Sierraeye: You have been quite vocal in condemning the re-emergence of coups in the sub-region. Please share your thoughts.
EBK: We have to continue building our democratic credentials in the sub-region and coups always create reversals to our gains. That is why ECOWAS and AU are very tough on regimes that take over power by force. What has happened in West Africa in recent times is most unfortunate. We see and an upsurge of coups and this should be condemned. However, in condemning the coups, we also have to look at the issues that have prevailed before the coups. That is why I am advocating that we should not just monitor elections but also monitor the governance of countries. We have to ensure governance is within democratic norms. There is democracy, there is freedom of the press, human rights are respected, and there is a tough fight against corruption, not a cosmetic or targeted fight against corruption. The people will have to see some kind of effort, what I will refer to as the democratic dividend. We cannot talk about democracy when the cost of living is increasing, my democratic space is restricted, and human rights are violated every day. We must also send early signals because it is a culmination of these that will lead to outbursts that are normally not acceptable. Democracy is not empty talk and propaganda. It is about how the people feel and think about it because they are the best judges.
Sierraeye: Coming home, the APC party has gone through great difficulty. Now the party has a new constitution and is bracing for its National Delegates Conference. What is your message to party stalwarts, flagbearer aspirants and grassroots alike regarding final resolutions of the internal conflicts?
EBK: We have come a long way as a party with great difficulties within and also challenges that are meted out by the current government. We now have a new constitution, and it is up to the party to implement the provisions of the new constitution. We must start behaving like a democratic party and it is time for everybody to come together and support each other. There has to be a contest where there will be a winner and losers. If you contest and lose, you must accept the outcome and move on.
Removing a bad government through legal means is and should be a national service and a patriotic call to save the country. This requires personal sacrifices in many ways but also hard work and all hands on deck. Central to all these, the main opposition political party must be unified, well organized, prepared, well-resourced and dogged in its campaign and throughout the electoral process. It must also seek to coordinate and collaborate effectively with other parties. This country cannot afford another five years of this terrible regime. Already, colossal damage has been done to our economy. Hunger is widespread as Sierra Leone is the second hungriest country in sub-Saharan Africa. There is considerable anger as well as frustration among the public. The reversal in Sierra Leone’s unity and national cohesion is alarming. Therefore, the nation is looking forward to the APC party to save it from the current misery. We must step up to that challenge and restore sanity in governance, unify our citizens and build back our country.
Sierraeye: What would you expect between the APC, the COPP and other opposition parties in the 2023 elections?
EBK: Unity, a sense of purpose and commitment to remove this regime from power. It is an appeal from the suffering masses for everyone to put their individual differences aside in the interest of all those who have lost their lives, livelihoods, freedoms, those who have been maimed and so many others suffering under the bad governance and economic mismanagement of this government. As I have stated, this is an emergency call to national service, which every patriot must head. All well-meaning opposition parties must effectively collaborate to get this job done.