Clear losers, but no clear winners
A few images from yesterday’s Presidential Candidates’ Debate summed up for me, the significance of the event:
David Fraser writing on Facebook: “I watched last night's debate in a church hall in South London attended by over 500 Sierra Leoneans.” Hussine Yilla describing Makeni last night, as a town brought to a standstill, with people crammed into Attaya Bases, or huddled around radios. Across Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter, it was the sole topic of conversation, and instead of turning in at 9.30pm, my mother’s entire household – cook, maid etc - stayed up to watch it from beginning to end and proceeded to mull over the finer points first thing this morning.
The debate wasn’t so much notable for the quality of the conversation or the candidates’ grasp of the issues - their combined presence on the podium seemed to garner more excitement than anything they said. There were a few flashes, the odd code red and some clever ideas, but on the whole, the process was tightly choreographed. It allowed little opportunity for spontaneity. Candidates were kept strictly on topic and exchanges between them, or attempts at rebellion were quickly quashed by moderator Hassan Arouni. This meant that no one really ever had the chance to show the others up. There were clear losers, but that was largely because a couple of candidates insisted on shooting themselves repeatedly in the foot.
Nevertheless, yesterday’s debate was hugely important.
It was a largely successful attempt to enrich the campaign conversation. It signalled that our electorate expect a more sophisticated form of engagement from their candidates.
It ensured that there was a debate about policies before we head to the polls, instead of the usual Pegapak fuelled showboating that used to pass for campaigning in Sierra Leone.
It gave those who don’t have the time or ability to analyse election promises, leadership skills, personality, presence or any of the other qualities that make us choose one leader over another, an opportunity to size each candidate up against the others on a range of criteria.
The initial line-up was a chance to study their body language. Samura’s typically templed fingers, Bio’s slightly skewed tie, Kamarainba’s moment of indecision over whether his hand in pocket stance was appropriate in the circumstances and Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella’s talent for clothing as metaphor – both aesthetic and ascetic.
Each was given an opportunity to address the audience. Some had clearly not taken the 90-second time limit to heart, and this was probably the first time in their recent adult lives they experienced being cut off mid-sentence.
During the ensuing Q&A section, 30 seconds was more than enough time for some candidates to respond to complex issues, while others relished the later section of the debate, where they had more time to reply.
As if the all-male line-up had failed to alert us, the first question – to do with violence against women - was a clear reminder of gender inequality in Sierra Leone’s society. It was a pity that candidates only had 30 seconds to respond to such a defining issue.
With a clear eye on the electorate, Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella broke ranks early on in the process to speak in Krio. He was quickly followed by his competitors. An admonishment to speak English from Hassan Arouni later in the programme failed to bring them to heel.
There were technical issues, but given the ambition of the event and its pioneering approach, why wouldn’t there be? We had live TV with a live audience, intercut with pre-recorded segments, simulcast, live streaming, autocues and the rest. Next time there will be less glitches. Anthony Navo, Hassan Arouni, Ransford Cole, Angela Angwenyi, John Conteh and all the rest of the team should be congratulated on the scale of their achievement yesterday.
Of course it was show business - I even heard Alpha Khan ask a nearby audience member if he was enjoying the show.
But withal, it gave people a voice and even if only for a moment, it gave them the whip hand.
Here in Sierra Leone, we are used to men at the top having almost unquestioned power. Yesterday we saw six men rendered almost powerless. The event was remarkable in the willingness of our candidates to subject themselves to strict rules, to stand to attention for three long hours and answer questions on demand, to be cut off mid-sentence, expected to justify themselves, applauded, and despite Conteh’s long list of rules to be heckled, laughed at, tutted and jeered. They were deprived of their entourages, their advisors, their sycophants. It was salutary lesson in the loneliness of true leadership.
It was exciting. It was unifying. It was ground-breaking. It was empowering. This is how elections should feel - the sense that we have, in our hands, literally the power of decision.
When we come to the 7th March, I hope everyone voting remembers how they felt yesterday.