In local slang, Sierra Leoneans have begun calling the two parties that have dominated electoral politics since independence “Aluseni” and “Alasan.” These are the most common names for male twins, sometimes used to indicate an unusual closeness or impenetrable bond between two people. But in the lead-up to the 2018 presidential campaign, the names were used to assert that both parties were just more of the same, like Tweedledee and Tweedledum; a popular song called Tolongbo (“Forward”!) established the usage, amidst a plea for national unity and an end to the regional tribalism that make the All People’s Congress (APC) and the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) like two sides of a bad penny. “Change” had come to mean one party giving way to the other, like identical twins passing a toy back and forth.
“Gbassey” is the name given to the first male born after a set of twins, and in the 2018 elections, a Gbassey figure emerged: Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella, a career diplomat affectionately known as “KKY,” who appealed to dissatisfaction with the status quo. After his initial challenge to represent the SLPP was blocked, KKY withdrew from the SLPP and started his own party, the National Grand Coalition (NGC). A younger brother untainted by mistakes of his elder identical twin siblings, KKY and the NGC were seen to represent a new politics of inclusion and national unity, along with a no-tolerance position towards corruption.
KKY could be perceived as representing a new beginning because he lacked negative political baggage. Though he had briefly served as a cabinet minister in the 1990s, he left office relatively untarnished, and has remained something of a political stranger in Sierra Leone. Internationally known and respected for his record of leadership in the UN—including two terms as Executive Director of UNIDO—his meteoric rise was at least in part due to his relative lack of exposure to domestic politics.
Initially, the powers-that-be didn’t pay much attention to KKY and the NGC. But when the NGC movement began to pick up momentum, the incumbent APC took steps to re-establish control: by citing section 76(1) of the 1991 constitution—which bars from most electoral offices anyone who “is a naturalized citizen of Sierra Leone or is a citizen of a country other than Sierra Leone”—then-president Ernest Bai Koroma tried to disqualify KKY for having previously held American citizenship (though he had renounced it before seeking the presidency). If his lack of exposure to local politics was his strength, then his diaspora connections could be made into a liability.
This strategy, however, opened a pandora’s box: several members of the president’s own cabinet hold dual citizenship, and Samura Kamara, the APC’s hand-picked successor, was himself accused of being ineligible for political office, having lived and worked in the UK for many years; though nothing was proven, it was widely rumoured that he was a naturalized UK citizen and had only secretly renounced his citizenship following the presidential debate. A variety of candidates for parliament from various parties were similarly scrutinized.
In this context, the phrase “two-SIM” emerged as a political category. In literal terms, it just means a person who has two SIM cards for their cell phone, switching back and forth as needed. When multiple service providers first became available in Sierra Leone in the early 2000s, a single SIM card had been a sign of wealth and status; the wealthy didn’t need to bother with buying multiple cards to chase the deals and discounted rates offered by different plans. But as time went on, multiple SIM cards became an increasing necessity for anyone who could sustain the expense; beyond the use of separate phones to cultivate and maintain secret relationships, or manage business transactions, possessing multiple SIM cards became an index of their owners’ sophistication and cosmopolitanism, the multiple worlds in which they travelled.
It’s clear that the ruling party tried to use “two-SIM” to politically delegitimize anyone who sought their fortunes or built a life elsewhere. It can seem like a reasonable position: citizenship is a basic requirement for holding political office, and though many countries allow dual citizens to serve in public office, this kind of injunction is far from unusual. And yet it’s no surprise that the ruling party’s attack was so quickly turned back on them; the APC built its own status and power through the social, cultural, and economic capital of diasporic connections. In 2008, President Koroma established the Office of Diaspora Affairs, an office which facilitated the massive repatriation and appointment of “qualified” two-SIMs to government offices. Their qualifications were a foregone conclusion, a function of their transnational movements and affiliations.
For the cynical, these returnees—or “just comes,” as Sierra Leoneans somewhat disparagingly call them—were not to be trusted; just as someone might juggle multiple SIM cards to get the best of both worlds, it could also seem like two-SIMs were benefiting unfairly from their multiple connections, returning to accumulate wealth and status, and to do so through the political connections and positions given to them on that basis. Of course, it’s hard to deny that the diaspora offers crucial remittances, supporting the livelihoods of a great many unemployed and underemployed people; money from abroad buoys up kin and community that have been neglected by state care or international aid. And while a two-SIM relative can serve as an opportunity for those who wish to travel and gain access to opportunities outside Sierra Leone, many leave home only so they can make good and return home with what they have made of themselves. But these flows and connections could also make those at home anxious about the domestic economy’s dependence on the diaspora.
In this way, the figure of the two-SIM represents a double bind: the political order owes so much to the two-SIM, as the members of the diaspora who contribute their economic and cultural resources; yet, their experiential and often physical distance from the quotidian struggles of being in Sierra Leone and being only Sierra Leonean threatens the national social order of things. If the two-SIM is admired, she is also distrusted; if she is held in contempt, she is also feared. She represents the fortunate who escaped, yet remittances are also a form of taxation that supports the state, which regards two-SIMs as outside political representation. She is both interested in politics for self-enrichment, yet she is also aggrieved and excluded because of her dual status. If given a chance, might she alter the political landscape?
In the end, KKY and the NGC came in a distant third in the first round of the election; in the second round, “Aluseni” and “Alasan” competed as usual, and—perhaps wounded by the two-SIM accusation—the APC candidate was narrowly defeated by the SLPP’s Julius Maada Bio. This is not that surprising; it’s difficult for a third-party candidate to pull off a win against the two established parties, especially having broken away so deep into the election cycle. But KKY’s ability to take votes from the APC in the north—having previously been affiliated with the SLPP—was noteworthy, as is the resonance of his message with people looking to change politics as usual. This relative success offers hope to those organizing for change in the 2023 elections, especially given that the NGC managed to make gains in parliament; those constituencies will be watching how their politicians make good on their message of change. Tolongbo, as the song goes; forward!