I didn’t understand what is what and, to be completely honest, I still haven’t quite figured it out, but when I stepped into Freetown in February this year, I immediately felt a peace, a kinship, a connection.
These were my people and, somehow — again I can’t explain it to you — their aspiration is the same as mine.
I never feel this way when I am in Cape Town or Johannesburg, despite how much inspiration I get from South Africa’s towering thinkers and doers, from Winnie Madikizela-Mandela to Thabo Mbeki. I never feel this way in Kenya, which I have visited more times than I can count on one hand, even though I am deeply motivated by its firm grasp on innovation and enterprise. I certainly have never felt this way in Addis Ababa, defined on the one hand by the heaviness of tyranny and on the other by a discomfiting attachment to imperial China.
But I know precisely where I have felt this before — I have felt it in Senegal, I have felt it in the Republic of Benin, I have felt it in Côte d’Ivoire, and I have felt it, over and over and over again, in Accra. It must be a West African thing.
This is not an exercise in romance. Sierra Leone still has an excruciating 60% of its population living on much less than $2 a day; with 857 deaths per 100 000 live births, it still has one of the highest rates of child mortality in the world.
And, as you navigate a country with more aid workers than investors, you have the distinct sense that it may have put time between the present and its devastating 11-year civil war that tore it apart. But its heart, its fears, its very identity are still tied to the trauma and the aftershock of such pain, such theft of hope.
I was in Sierra Leone on behalf of a company I co-founded, StateCraft Inc, to advise one of the candidates who would be contesting the elections. That privilege enabled me to spend time poring over data, commissioning polls and arranging focus groups, and crunching numbers and storylines in a short time — and the voters themselves confirmed my intuition.
They didn’t really believe their country was about to change. Julius Maada Bio, who was inaugurated as president on Saturday, was always the likeliest candidate to win but he is a less than decisive break from the past, even though he hails from a former opposition party.
As the former leader of a military junta — albeit one that handed over power to a civilian government — he still bears responsibility for the violence that has scarred this country.
The only candidate who appeared to symbolise change, the relatively young and charismatic Kander Kolleh Yumkella (not the candidate we were advising) had been hobbled by spurious but sticky questions about his citizenship. He was unable to emerge from that to build a winning coalition. That broke my heart, even as it broke the hearts of many Sierra Leoneans.
Despite the lack of attractive options on the ballot, many citizens were excited to be able to go to the polls and vote. They made it clear they would exercise their power to determine their future, even if it wouldn’t lead to the change they desperately wanted and needed. It doesn’t make any sense — except, of course, to me it does.
After all, we have spent the past few years in African democracies — Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia and Kenya — helping citizens to make the choice to move their nations even an inch forward, even if they don’t have the candidates that they deserve. I have discovered democracy is both a continued search for the ideal and a choice between available options.
In Nigeria, we had to swallow the bitter pills of Goodluck Jonathan and now of the incoherent Muhammadu Buhari to get to a place of desirable options. And we are almost there. We — Nigerians, West Africans, Africans — first have to keep the faith before we can win the war.
And so as Sierra Leone, with another peaceful election, celebrates a hard-fought and well-deserved milestone, I join them in celebration and congratulation.
You have proudly held your head high. You have stubbornly kept your hope alive and you have refused to fan the flames of fear or populism. You have chosen a competitive democracy, a society of liberties and freedom and the endless possibilities of faith.
Thank you for linking arms with the rest of the continent to keep this precious hope alive.
Chude Jideonwo is co-founder of StateCraft Inc, which has consulted for presidential candidates in Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya. He, with Adebola Williams, is author of How To Win Elections in Africa