IT SEEMS that ‘third-termism’ in Africa is far from extinguished, even as Mail & Guardian Africa recently reckoned that those who needed to grab more years in power had done so in constitutional changes in 2015, and therefore the continent might not see more bids in 2016.
We were wrong.
The latest moves from Sierra Leone indicate there’s growing political momentum President Ernest Bai Koroma to change the constitution and seek a third term when his current mandate expires in 2017.
It’s not a wholly new campaign in Sierra Leone – the agitations for extension had started as early as 2013, barely a year into Koroma’s second term. But recently, the calls are getting louder, for an interesting reason this time: Ebola.
Those pushing for a third term say that Koroma was doing good work managing the country until he was “interrupted” by the Ebola outbreak of 2014-2015; the extension of the term will be a way of making up for the loss and consolidating the gains.
On the surface, it seems like a solid enough argument. Sierra Leone’s was roaring ahead before the outbreak, posting an 11.3% growth in 2013, one of the fastest in the world. But Ebola slashed growth projections to 4% in 2014 and the economy itself contracted by a massive 21.5% in 2015, according to Finance and Economic Planning Minister Kaifala Marah.
The epidemic devastated the mining, agriculture and tourism industries in Sierra Leone, along with Liberia and Guinea – already fragile after years of civil war, dictatorship, and coups.
Small businesses collapsed as even the most common transactions were fraught with risk. Nearly 11,000 people, 4,000 of them Sierra Leoneans, died from the disease; the crisis posed a great threat to the region’s macroeconomic stability, human development and poverty reduction efforts.
But it could have been much worse, proponents of the “More Time” bid say. The economy is expected to stabilise this year and pick up strongly to 19.6% growth in 2017, so Koroma should be given a chance to continue his work, they argue.
But there’s a flawed reasoning at work here. If you “reward” a leader for doing a good job, then it implies that being a good, effective leader is something really exceptional – rather than what they are supposed to do.
It smacks of very low standards for African countries – much like the international observers to African elections who gasp and exclaim when they find an election is quiet, peaceful and rather boring. That, because African elections are expected to be messy, so a passable election is something to marvel about.
Furthermore, a leader is elected precisely to solve a problem, not to have a trouble-free picnic in office, so having to deal with Ebola cannot be an “interruption”. It is normal business for a country’s leader.
And in Sierra Leone’s particular case, perhaps attributing success to Koroma himself is missing the real force at play: China. The country’s leading export earner is iron ore; there was a phenomenal 27,705,650% gain in value between 2010 and 2014. China was buying up more than 90% of the country’s iron ore.
But a global glut in iron and steel has now cut short a West African bonanza that was expected to last 60 years. It turns out China had stockpiled far more steel than it needed, so global prices have slumped more than 60% in the past 18 months.
Across the region, dozens of mining projects that attracted investors when iron ore hit $190 per tonne in 2011, stared scaling back or being abandoned as prices fell $60 last year; the free fall continued and is now about hovering around $40.
And according to latest World Bank data, real gross domestic product (GDP) in 2014 in Sierra Leone was 7.1%, but just 1.0% excluding iron ore production. So in essence, there was little happening in the non-mining economy.
Without finding a new market for its iron ore – or a dramatic economic transformation plan – Koroma might not be able to reproduce the boom, and the “more time” bid may have little to show for it.