Thursday, February 28, 2013

Sierra Leone: An election without violence

Source: ISS

Sierra Leone: an election without violence

On 17 November 2012, the republic of Sierra Leone simultaneously held presidential, parliamentary, municipal and local elections. These elections were awaited not only by Sierra Leoneans but also by the international community, as they were the first to be fully organised by the country since the end of its 11-year civil war. They were also a decisive step for the country during its peace consolidation phase.

The event was all the more significant because the damage caused to the economy by the civil war is still visible and the security structure remains fragile, despite the participation of the former rebels in the political life of the country. In spite of the security and political challenges, the elections went smoothly. The reasons for these were two-fold: on the one hand, a number of measures were put in place to guarantee the transparency of the voting and, on the other, the opposition generally accepted the results announced by the National Electoral Commission. Nevertheless, Sierra Leone still has to address a number of challenges in order to firmly establish democracy and consolidate peace across the country.

Regarding transparency, the elections were found by local and international observers to be free, transparent, credible and peaceful. Indeed, no acts of violence were reported on the polling day or after the results were announced. A few minor incidents were, however, noted during the electoral campaign. These included clashes between supporters of the APC (All People’s Congress) and the SLPP (Sierra Leone People`s Party), some of which occurred in Kono, where ten people were injured during the beginning of the campaign.

One of the factors that contributed to the transparency of the elections was the presence of not only political party representatives and local observers, including the New Electoral Watch, a coalition of civil society and non-governmental organisations, but also international observers, including the Carter Centre, ECOWAS, the African Union, the European Union and the Women Situation Room, who observed all the stages of the voting. There is also the important role played by the media, who were present at the polling stations and transmitted the results in real time.

Electoral transparency was confirmed by the compilation system put in place. At regional and national compilation levels, journalists, observers and political party representatives had access to the rooms where the election results were processed and could ask questions. The compilation system comprised three processing units in three rooms on three different machines, limiting the risk of error and making it practically impossible to cheat. As soon as any data recorded differed from other corresponding data, the tally sheet automatically underwent a verification process. This was one of the reasons why the observers were able to describe the election as transparent.

At the end of the presidential election, President Ernest Koroma of the APC was re-elected in the first round with 58,7% of the vote, followed by Julius Maada Bio of the SLPP, who obtained 37,4%. The Electoral Code of Sierra Leone stipulates that a candidate must obtain at least 54% of the votes to be elected President of the Republic in the first round.

On the day after the results were announced by the Electoral Commission, 24 November 2012, Bio protested. He stated in a press release: ‘The process has been marred by fraud and the results do not reflect the will of Sierra Leoneans.’ But after the inauguration, all the opposition parties, with the exception of the SLPP, paid a visit to the President to congratulate him. During that meeting the President called for a frank dialogue with his main opponent, Bio, who agreed to meet with him on 4 December 2012.

At the end of that visit, Bio accepted the verdict of the ballot box and said: ‘President Koroma’s position as President of Sierra Leone is not in dispute. I have issues with the results and in a democracy I have the right to say that I am not satisfied with these results. But at this point in time, for the sake of development, progress, democracy and peace in Sierra Leone, I have come to State House in response to President Koroma`s call for reconciliation.’ This acceptance of the results by Bio and, more generally, by all the other opposition parties, seems to indicate that the culture of democracy is growing in this country emerging from crisis.

There are, however, a number of lessons to be drawn from this process. The Electoral Commission should, for example, address a few defects. Firstly, it should put in place ballot boxes that meet the requirements of vote secrecy: during the voting last November, some ballot boxes did not meet those conditions. Secondly, polling officers should be better trained in order to avoid delays and hiccups on polling day. Further, the use of additional lists should be carefully regulated to eliminate certain problematic practices, particularly voting by witness, so as to avoid any risk of fraud. An additional list is one to which people who are not registered can add their names in order to be allowed to vote under certain conditions.

Since the elections there has been no progress regarding women’s representation in governance institutions. As in the previous dispensation, about 12% of women were elected as MPs. The conscious and widespread participation of women in the management of public affairs can make a difference in politics, including in peace building and the rule of law.

Sierra Leone has experienced a long period of political instability, characterised by a series of military coups. Among the latter were the one of 29 April 1992, in which General Joseph Saidu Momoh was ousted by Captain Valentine Strasser, and that of 16 January 1996, in which Captain Strasser was overthrown by General Bio, the opposition candidate in the last elections.

The country also experienced a terrible civil war following the armed rebellion launched in 1991 by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) against the government. The RUF became a political party in 1996 after the signing of a peace agreement in Abidjan with then President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, before taking up arms again in 1997, following the arrest of Fode Sanko. This armed movement became the Revolutionary United Front Party (RUFP), which took part in the last election with Eldred Collins as its leader.

The most recent elections in Sierra Leone may be considered a success in a country where political leanings often reflect ethnic divides: re-elected President Koroma is mainly supported by the communities of the north and west, the Themnes, whereas the SLPP is supported by those of the south and east, the Mendes. The fact that the political leaders exhibited exemplary behaviour by avoiding ethnic rhetoric is a very important factor that contributed to the peaceful conduct during both the electoral campaign and the voting. Sierra Leone is going through an important stage towards the consolidation of its democratic process in which all the stakeholders demonstrated a certain commitment that made it possible to organise peaceful and transparent elections. These elections also showed that the population is involved in the democratic process, expressing their will without taking up arms.

This work was carried out with the aid of a grant from the International Development Research Center (IDRC), Ottawa, Canada.

Awa Faye Daou, Intern, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Dakar