FREETOWN (Reuters) - Sierra Leone's main opposition party is locked in a court battle that has so far prevented it from choosing a candidate for next year's presidential election, threatening its chances against the ruling party.
The poll will be the West African country's third since the end of a devastating civil war in 2002, and will serve as the latest test of its fragile recovery and the strength of its multi-party governance.
"What is happening is a level of dysfunction in the secretariat and the current leadership," said Dr. Lansana Gberie, a Sierra Leonean researcher and author of a history of the 11-year civil war.
"It may drag on and on; that's going to be a very serious problem for them, and for competitive politics in Sierra Leone."
At stake is whether the former British colony can hold a smooth poll and go on to build an economy able to benefit from offshore oil finds and resource riches such as iron ore.
Since coming to power in 2007, President Ernest Bai Koroma has improved road and energy infrastructure and overseen large-scale minerals deals, but the country remains one of the poorest in the world.
The opposition Sierra Leone People's Party was meant to hold its convention in early March to select its candidate, or "flag-bearer", to run against Koroma, but two months later it has not taken place.
The delay came about after one of the party's would-be candidates, Bu-Buakei Jabbi, took the party to court claiming it had wrongfully extended the mandates of some of its officials.
Sierra Leone's Supreme Court upheld Jabbi's case, and passed an injunction blocking the convention.
While the party has subsequently held a series of internal elections to renew the mandates of most of its officials according to its constitution, the injunction remains in place and Jabbi contends the party is still in violation.
"The injunction is still on, the court case is still on," Jabbi told Reuters. "There has been no fixed time for the selection of the flag-bearer candidate," he said, adding there was still sufficient time before the election.
The SLPP leadership argued in March both that the Supreme Court did not have the authority to adjudicate on the party's internal issues, and that the court's judgment reflected government pressure on the judiciary.
They alleged too that Jabbi was acting as a mole for Koroma's ruling APC to jeopardise the SLPP's flag-bearer selection process, a charge Jabbi has denied.
"Whoever made that allegation does not believe it themselves," he said in an interview last week.
Sheka Tarawalie, a spokesman for Sierra Leone's government, would not comment on the suggestion that Jabbi was in the pay of the APC. However, he denied that the government had put pressure on the Supreme Court to pass the injunction.
SLPP National Secretary General Jacob Jusu Saffa said the party was "negotiating an out of court settlement" with Jabbi in order to be able to hold a convention. However, Saffa admitted there was no clear timeframe yet.
The standoff has raised tensions in the party. In April supporters of two of the SLPP aspiring candidates clashed outside the party's headquarters in central Freetown, until police broke up the fracas with tear gas.
The SLPP impasse also serves as a reminder of the extent to which individuals' war records cloud contemporary politics, nine years after the end of hostilities.
One of the leading contenders for the SLPP nomination is Julius Maada Bio, one of a group of junior army officers who took power in a coup in 1992 that installed 26-year-old Captain Valentine Strasser as the world's youngest head of state.
Four years later Bio deposed Strasser in another coup and briefly served as a military head of state before stepping down after elections. Today there is long-standing bad blood between Bio and the SLPP's national chairman John Benjamin.
Benjamin was also involved in the organisation of the 1992 coup and served as the senior civilian in the subsequent military administration, until he fell out of favour.
Speaking in an interview with Reuters in Freetown, Bio, who moved to the United States after his stint as head of state, blamed Benjamin for the party's failure to choose a flag-bearer.
"Now what he's basically doing is foot-dragging," he said, adding that the SLPP will be able to choose a flag-bearer "as soon as John stops being an obstacle."
The last election in 2007 went relatively smoothly and achieved a peaceful transition of power from the SLPP to Koroma's APC, thanks in part to strong interest and financial assistance from donor nations.