The Challenges of Third-Party Politics: The Rise and Fall of KKY

by Sierraeye

From 2005 to 2017, Dr. Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella (KKY) was the Director-General of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), United Nations Under-Secretary-General, and Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All. In 2017, he left the UN system to pursue a political career in Sierra Leone with the aim of overhauling our politics. His ultimate goal was to become the leader of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) and clinch the presidency after ex-President Ernest Bai Koroma. As an agricultural economist and development expert, he was convinced that Sierra Leone needed him to revamp an economy that had been wrecked by what past governments referred to as “twin shocks” (the Ebola outbreak and the fall in the Iron Ore price).
The euphoria generated by Yumkella’s arrival in Sierra Leone in 2017 was second to none. His name was sung on rooftops, and almost every Sierra Leonean wanted to get a glimpse of a man who many said was ready to right the errors of the past. His fame grew like a bushfire in the harmattan in a short time, and all hopes were placed on him. A considerable number of Sierra Leoneans threw their weight behind him, praying for a better Sierra Leone.

Yumkella’s arrival on the political scene was reminiscent of President Tejan Kabba’s ascension to power in 1996. Both were former UN officials who left the international system to pursue political careers in Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone needed peace, and Kabba, a former UN official, became the ultimate choice for the presidency. Yumkella was poised to revamp Sierra Leone’s economy, but his quest to become President was not as smooth.

As a man who had served for years in the UN, Yumkella possessed a deep knowledge of geopolitics that would have enabled him to manipulate the international environment to promote national development objectives if he were President. However, a third party was in the drama. The then flag-bearer, President Julius Maada Bio, remained equally ambitious for the party’s flag.

Bio contested the 2012 elections with ex-President Koroma and lost, but his zest for the presidency did not waver. He was poised for a second presidential bid, although some party stakeholders were against his move. Bio’s transfer of power to civilian rule in 1996 made him a national icon of democracy. Such enviable history still lingers in the sands of time and is a trump card for Bio’s campaign. Bio was dubbed the “Father of Democracy,” especially by his party’s grassroots, for his role in Sierra Leone’s democratic transition. Then SLPP Chairman, Chief Somano Kapen, endorsed Yumkella for the party’s flag as both hail from the Kambia district in Northern Sierra Leone.

But, within a twinkle of an eye, events took a sudden twist in the SLPP. Yumkella’s ally, Somano Kapen, was forced out of the party during an SLPP conference in Kenema in the Eastern region. Many saw the move as the product of a conspiracy among SLPP stalwarts.

Thuggery and humiliation did not initially water down Yumkella’s political ambition. He fought hard but later backed out of the race when it became clear he did not enjoy the support of the party’s rank and file. He left the SLPP and aligned himself with firebrand ex-SLPP politicians, mostly academic elites, to form the National Grand Coalition (NGC) to advance his political objectives. In a short time, Yumkella established branches all over the country. He enjoyed a smooth journey in the NGC as he was unanimously elected flag-bearer fueling hopes for a third political force in Sierra Leone.

In the 2018 elections, he campaigned with great vigour and received votes from almost every village, town, chiefdom, district, and region in the country. He got the highest votes in his home district of Kambia, securing four parliamentary seats, including his own in Constituency 062. Yumkella, however, lost the presidential elections to the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), receiving only 6.86% of the votes, but the hope that NGC would one day govern Sierra Leone remained alive.

Despite setbacks, he remained resolute and spoke out on national issues. He criticised the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and called for more transparency and accountability in the country’s governance system. He also remained vocal on sustainable development, energy, and the environment using his platform as a former UN official to advocate change.

Sierra Leoneans appeared tired of the governance styles of the two main political parties, the opposition All People’s Congress and the ruling SLPP. Many citizens believe they haven’t seen much progress since the country gained independence in April 1961. As an NGC parliamentarian, Yumkella was highly critical of President Julius Maada Bio’s regime, which he repeatedly referred to as a “junta democracy.” He branded the two main political parties as Alusine and Alhassan, twin figures that have wrecked the country. People believed and followed him, hoping for a change from the status quo and a new hope for their country’s future.

Against all odds, in April 2023, he formed an alliance with the SLPP, resulting in several resignations, including that of the erstwhile Chair, Dr. Denis Bright. Yumkella cited the need for unity and collaboration in the country’s politics and expressed his willingness to work with President Bio and other SLPP leaders to move Sierra Leone forward. His return to the SLPP was met with mixed reactions, with some of his former supporters expressing disappointment and others welcoming his decision. Many see the alliance as the first step towards Yumkella’s return to the SLPP, especially after President Bio presented him with ‘Bora and Kola’ during a visit to his hometown, Samu.

As it stands, Yumkella’s popularity in the country is steadily dwindling. He has been unable to deliver on the promises made during his election campaign as a member of parliament. His decision to form an alliance with one of the worst human rights violators in government has caused disappointment and anger among many Sierra Leoneans who see him as a traitor.

The announcement of the alliance led to a backlash on social media, with many branding Yumkella as incompetent and lacking sound political judgment. Yumkella’s political future appears bleak as he has failed to maintain the hope and trust of many of his supporters.

With the 11.9% threshold to secure a parliamentary seat under the proportional representation system, Yumkella’s NGC is unlikely to perform well in the upcoming elections. He has endorsed President Bio and will not be running for the presidency or his parliamentary seat.

Yumkella’s chances of winning the flagbearership within the SLPP are slim, as many within the party do not trust him and have not forgiven him for leaving the party, a move that would rob SLPP of victory in the 2018 elections.

Many say his dream of becoming the President of Sierra Leone may have all but dissipated as he lacks sound political judgment and has lost the trust of his supporters. The Rise and Fall of Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella is a complex and nuanced story highlighting the challenges of Sierra Leone’s politics. His initial popularity was driven by his vision for socio-economic reform and sustainable development, which struck a chord with many Sierra Leoneans who were frustrated with the status quo. However, the reality of party politics proved a significant obstacle, and Yumkella’s attempts to create a third force in the country’s political landscape ultimately failed.

Despite his efforts to create a viable alternative to the two main parties, Yumkella could not gain significant traction in the 2018 elections, winning just 6% of the presidential vote. His subsequent decision to form an alliance with the ruling party, SLPP, was met with widespread criticism and accusations of political opportunism. This move further eroded his support base and damaged his reputation as a principled politician.

Yumkella’s story underscores the challenges facing politicians in Sierra Leone and the difficulty of uprooting the entrenched two-party system. Despite his passion and commitment to change, Yumkella was ultimately unable to navigate the complex web of political alliances, power dynamics, and entrenched interests that characterise the country’s political landscape.

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