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Sierra Leone presidential candidates on education, civil war, and Koroma's administration

media Posters for presidential candidates are placed around the Cotton Tree, the historic symbol of Sierra Leone, in Freetown LA Bagnetto

As the campaigning period winds down before elections on 7 March, candidates are promoting their policies on economy, education, health, and women’s rights. The 16 presidential hopefuls are touring around the country in an effort to win the top job in Sierra Leone. Candidates are no strangers to controversy-- from a certain interpretation of the civil war to plans for missionaries to return-- each aspirant hopes to garner the most votes on election day.

Significant foreign investment is key to revitalizing Sierra Leone, says Musa Tarawally of the Citizens Democratic Party (CDP), one of the six frontrunners for the office of the president. Citing the country’s mineral wealth, water resources, and forests, Tarawally, a former housing and lands minister, says that the government needs to catalogue what the country has in order to be able to attract foreign capital.

“We need to do surveys of what we have so we can negotiate from a position of strength,” says Tarawally, speaking to RFI from his home in the western part of the capital.

Sierra Leone presidential aspirant Musa Tarawally of the Citizens Democratic Party LA Bagnetto

As one of the older parties, he hopes to break the two-party system of ruling All People’s Congress (APC) and the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP), as power has previously rotated between the two. Tarawally had served in both parties in ministerial positions before going out on his own, and says that these two parties do not serve the interests of the people. The CDP formed in 2012.

“We have to establish a new era that will believe in the nation’s growth. More than region, more than tribe, more than [party] colors,” he says, referring to factionalism within the two main parties.

His candidacy ran into problems earlier this year when he placed campaign posters with “Allah is one” as his motto. The Sierra Leone 2015 census shows that 77 percent of the population is Muslim, but election officials met with Tarawally because he used religion in his campaign literature.

“I’m a Muslim and I’m proud to be a Muslim… It’s just an establishment of my faith, that I will rule people with the fear of God,” says Tarawally. He has proposed to encourage missionaries to come back to Sierra Leone to provide free education for all, “because the government has no capacity to create a free education program,” he says.

“Sierra Leone reached its peak in education when they were running the schools,” he says, referring to the role of the church during colonial times.

“What we need is to put moral values in our people. Ethics,” adds Tarawally.

Sierra Leone presidential candidate Musa Tarawally of CDP wants to bring foreign investment, missionaries

Presidential hopeful Samuel Sumana of the Coalition for Change party (C4C) maintains that ethics also brought him to run for president. A former two-term vice president of Sierra Leone under President Ernest Bai Koroma, he was unceremoniously sacked in 2015.

“Because of my stance against President Koroma’s third term ambition, which was unconstitutional, he realized I was the only obstacle in his way. So him and his cohorts executed their diabolical plan against this country,” says Sumana, speaking to RFI from his residence in the hilly western district of Freetown.

“What I did was un-African,” he says, citing the current crisis in South Sudan and issues in Zimbabwe. Sumana says he was taking the higher moral ground, and not acting like other African strongmen.

“I took the civil approach, I went to court,” he adds.

The regional ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) court ruled that he had been unconstitutionally removed from office. Although allowed to keep his position, Sumana says he preferred to return a contender for the top job. He did not return to his old job despite the court ruling.

Sierra Leone former VP and presidential candidate Samuel Sumana of the Coalition For Change party LA Bagnetto

“For me, C4C is not a party to seek grudge, revenge, whatever,” says Sumana, who says that he is investing his time into essential services for Sierra Leoneans.

Healthcare, especially preventative medicine, is one of his top priorities. Calling the nationwide high infant mortality rate “appalling”, he says that while vice president he implemented a health program as pro-tem minister in a record seven months. Most recent Human Development Indicators show that the country ranks as one of the lowest, at 179 out of 188 countries worldwide.

And in an election that brings ethnic identity to the fore, Sumana, an ethnic Kono, says that he will be president for all Sierra Leoneans, not just Konos.

Free preschool and secondary school education for children is key to lifting up the country.

“Sierra Leone was once known as the ‘Athens of West Africa’ we lost that position,” says Sumana. “We have to re-ignite that, especially with what happened with the civil war, which created a large number of illiterates in our country,” he says.

Sierra Leone presidential candidate and former VP Samuel Sumana of C4C party says he bears no grudges

Positioning herself as a “strong woman” and as only one of two female presidential candidates, Jemba Gbandi Ngobeh would disagree with the statement that the civil war brought illiteracy. As candidate for the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) party, the former rebels-turned-political-group is advocating for free education in Sierra Leone, specifically, women’s education.

Ngobeh says she coordinated schools during the civil war under the RUF.

Jemba Gbandi Ngobeh, presidential candidate for the Revolutionary United Front party, Sierra Leone LA Bagnetto

“In the time of war, I took care of women and children. I made sure all children went to school, and child combatants went back to school,” she tells RFI from her office in the east of the city.

Ngobeh says that she wants to set the record straight as to what the RUF did for Sierra Leone.

“In 1991, people were calling for war in this country, because there was no democracy, and they blamed the RUF,” she says, referring to the bloody 1991-1999 civil war that cost 100,000 lives.

In a report by Human Rights Watch, the RUF were accused of purposely targeting civilians, crimes which included murders, mutilations and rapes.

“And because of the civil war, that is why we are here today, that is why we have the democracy,” says Ngobeh. “But [Sierra Leoneans] do not want to know. And they do not want to recognize us.”

When asked if she would change textbooks to reflect what the RUF brought to the civil war, Ngobeh says that most things would be changed, especially creating free education.

“We, the RUF, one of the things we fought for in this country is free education. One of the things that brings this country backwards is because of the illiteracy problem,” she adds.

Ngobeh wants to create mandatory schools for women, who score among the lowest worldwide in terms of literacy, as well as teach local languages in school, not just English or Krio.

“And I want the whole world to know is that RUF is not the cause of the war. War is from the Sierra Leoneans, of themselves,” she says.

Sierra Leone RUF party presidential candidate Jemba Gbandi Ngobeh speaks about the civil war as part of her political platform

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