from Africa in Transition

To the Victors Go the Spoils: How Winner-Takes-All Politics Undermine Democracy in Sierra Leone

November 08, 2012

Blog Post

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Sub-Saharan Africa


Elections and Voting


Heads of State and Government

This is a guest post by Mohamed Jallow, program development specialist at IntraHealth International. He was previously a program associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Looking at the bitterly divisive elections campaigns in Sierra Leone, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo’s words from the 2007 elections come to mind; winning the elections is literally “a matter of life and death.” In Sierra Leone, as is in Nigeria, the winner-takes-all-system is an integral part of politics. Widespread political patronage and the perception that those who win presidential elections provide sole, unfettered access to the lucrative benefits of political power, makes the electoral process a very dangerous undertaking.

Two weeks before the general elections, the stakes could not be higher. No expense, no level of patronage, and no trick in the book has been spared by the two major political parties to win the presidency. Even Obasanjo himself was on hand to help campaign for the president, following a high profile visit by Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan.

Already, politicians of all stripes have positioned, and repositioned, themselves for the post elections spoils. This is almost a pre-election ritual. These calculated maneuvers are deeply rooted in the notion that losing elections means being reduced to a spectator rather than an active partner in governance. In cases where they are not oppressed or run underground, key opposition politicians are routinely co-opted by the ruling party through token political positions. In effect, the spoils system renders the opposition irrelevant, thus undermining not only the democratic process, but also people’s faith in their leaders.

Just to illustrate how this mentality is hampering rather than solidifying democracy, the main opposition leader, Julius Maada Bio, during a recent speech at Chatham House in London, accused the government of President Koroma of “applying a cruel and crude brand of tribalism, patronage, and nepotism in many state institutions.” According to him, “over 80 percent of the appointments and promotions in the last four years within the public service are of members of selected ethnic groups from northern Sierra Leone, which is the presumed stronghold of the ruling party.” Now, whether this is true or not, the perception is already there. It affects the way people see their leaders, and how accountable they hold them during, and after, elections. However, the most damaging effect of this type of politics is that politicians and voters are more likely to put their ethnic and regional affiliations, the interests of their patrons, before the interests of their country.