Friday, November 16, 2012

Sierra Leone: Ethnicity trumps policy in upcoming polls

Photo: Tommy Trenchard/IRIN. President Ernest Koroma seeks a second term on 17 November

Source: IRIN

FREETOWN, 15 November 2012 (IRIN) - Supporters of the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) will today take to the streets of the capital Freetown for the last time before presidential, parliamentary and local elections on 17th November.

Sierra Leone has seen democracies fall in many neighbouring countries, including most recently in Mali, but the country has now seen over 10 years of peace, and has had two elections, the second of which, in 2007, saw the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) concede defeat to the opposition All People’s Congress (APC) party - a rare democratic transition of power in Africa.

A recent report by the non-profit Carter Center has commended the performance of institutions such as the National Electoral Commission, which has overseen preparation for the vote, and said it was encouraged by the integration of the Electoral Offences Court into the 2012 Public Elections Act, which is designed to punish those caught committing electoral related offences.

The local media has also been allowed to operate more or less freely, with publications sympathetic to the opposition frequently printing stories critical of the government, though there have been reports of APC-leaning journalists having been harassed and intimidated.

So far the campaign period has also been devoid of the high levels of political violence feared by many observers. Richard Howitt, head of the European Union Election Observer Mission, said on 13 November that the campaign had been “largely peaceful”, despite isolated incidents of political violence in Freetown and the eastern town of Kono, which have seen several people injured, and at least one man killed.

Women’s participation low

Areas highlighted requiring improvement are the minimal engagement of women in the electoral process: just 38 of the 586 candidates running for parliamentary seats are women, despite an attempt to pass a private member’s bill to up women’s representation to over 30 percent. None of the nine presidential candidates is a woman, though several, including the SLPP, have chosen female vice-presidential running mates.

Women currently make up just 19 percent of female councillors in local government. Women running in conservative districts in this male-dominated society have spoken of facing intimidation and threats. Navo Kai-Kai of the SLPP, who contested the chairmanship in Kailahun District Council said upon winning, she was confronted by a gang of armed men, singing a war song. “The situation is terrible for women, we must speak out to make this intimidation stop.” She subsequently stepped down (see box).

Efforts at democratization have been constrained by the ethnicization of political parties, which are largely divided between the Mende who predominate in the south and east voting for the SLPP, and the largely northern Temne supporting the APC.

During a speech at think tank Chatham House in London in May 2012, Julius Maada Bio, leader of the SLPP, accused president Ernest Koroma’s APC government of “tribalism, patronage and nepotism… It is clear that a process of ethnicization is well under way in key institutions of the Sierra Leonean state,” he said. “Government contracts are still largely awarded to supporters, financiers and relatives of those in leadership positions in the ruling party.”

Secretary-General of the APC Victor Foh denied the allegations of tribalism. “I am a Mende. And the president is married to a Kono. The SLPP are like drowning men, clutching at straws,” he told IRIN.

Because of the widespread expectation that those in high office will aim to distribute patronage and resources to their traditional support bases, many feel their path is written for them. Mohamed is a motorbike-taxi driver in Freetown. “I love Maada [Bio]. I am a Mende, so it is hard for me to get a better job while the APC are in power,” he said.

Policy not the point

Two scheduled public debates between the main presidential candidates - which aimed to challenged candidates on their policies and intentions - were boycotted.

“This election will not be decided by policy,” said Umaru Fofana of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, which helped organize one of the events. “People will vote with their hearts, not their heads. Regionalism and ethnicity will be more important than policy,” he continued. “Even in urban areas, awareness of policy is low, as most people don’t read.” 

Roughly two thirds of adults in Sierra Leone are illiterate.

Political support for sale?

Another worrying feature of the pre-election period has been the alleged use of monetary incentives to mobilize support at political rallies. Musa Conteh* from Kroo Bay slum near central Freetown, told IRIN he would attend a political rally only if he was paid.

Over recent weeks most political parties have turned up to Kroo Bay to recruit residents for campaign support.

“Usually they give us 20,000 Leones (about US$5) each, but sometimes just 15,000,” explains Musa. “Or they give a large amount for us to share between the group.”

Sometimes they also give us T-shirts,” added his friend, whose name is Soda Water. Students and unemployed people in Kono, eastern Sierra Leone, had similar stories.

SLPP chairman Benjamin denied his party was involved in buying support, saying “we have no money, so we cannot offer it to people.” He did, however, accuse the APC of widespread vote-buying, and produced a photograph that appears to show President Koroma dispensing handfuls of 10,000 Leone banknotes to supporters at a rally.

APC Secretary-General Foh denied the allegations. “We don’t need to do that. We have over a million members already,” he told IRIN.

All eyes are now on election day when, as long as there are no last-minute setbacks, Sierra Leoneans will be able go to the polls with the freedom to choose who they would like to govern them for the next five years.

*not a real name