Sierra Leone Elections

The peaceful transfer of power from ruling party to opposition after democratic elections still merits headlines in West Africa. When this happens in a country with a history of political violence, coups and a brutal civil war (only recently ended), the effect is chastening. There is, of course, an added bonus if it comes after the theatrical incompetence and corruption that marred elections in the region’s largest and most important state, Nigeria, a country that seems simply incapable of doing anything – even simple theft – right. This is the recent story of Sierra Leone, a country which until 2002 was wracked by a devastating war (which led to the death of an estimated 70,000 people), the near-total collapse of the state, and three coups, one of them extremely bloody.

Elections, first conducted on 11 August to chose a successor to Ahmed Tejan Kabbah and a 118-member Parliament (dominated by Kabbah’s Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) for the past ten years), proceeded to a run-off on 8 September. The opposition All Peoples Congress (APC) party, the SLPP’s old nemesis, won 59 parliamentary seats in the first rounds to the SLPP’s 43. A brand new party, the Peoples Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC), which is in effect a breakaway from the SLPP, won 10 seats. In the presidential polls in August, the APC’s Ernest Bai Koroma got 815,523 or 44% of the votes cast, compared to the SLPP’s Solomon Ekuma Berewa, Kabbah’s Vice President (and until the polling the frontrunner), who won 704,012 or 38% of the votes. The PMDC’s Charles Margai came third with 255,499 or 14% of the votes. Several minor parties also contested, barely gaining votes at all in the tightly contested three-way run. The polls were entirely violence-free and without controversy.

Because none of the presidential candidates gained the required 55 per cent of the votes, the presidential polls had to proceed to a run-off, on 8 September. Shortly after the September date was set, apparently carefully-choreographed series of violent clashes were reported in parts of the country between supporters of Koroma and those Berewa. Both campaigns suffered attacks of one form or the other. Koroma’s convoy was reportedly assaulted in the east of the country (an SLPP stronghold) and the SLPP’s offices burnt to the ground in the incident. There then followed frantic assaults on the SLPP’s offices in Freetown by supporters of the APC. Alarming incidents; but in fact no one was hurt throughout (let alone killed), and controversy remained over who exactly set fire on the SLPP’s offices in Segbwema.
The run-off votes were held on schedule, and the atmosphere was largely peaceful and free. The final results were announced after over a week of controversy-wracked vote counting, on 17 September. The results showed that Koroma won 950,407 (54.62%) to Berewa’s 789,651 (45.38%), representing a difference of 160,756 votes – a clear win for Koroma, since, unlike the first rounds, the run-off is won by a simple majority. The problem was that results from 477 polling stations were invalidated by the head of the National Electoral Commission (NEC), Christiana Thorpe. Thorpe, a former Catholic sister and (subsequently) education minister under the corrupt National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) junta, had improbably emerged as a single-minded, courageous and incorruptible electoral boss, but her decision to invalidate the votes – which led to the apparent disenfranchisement of an estimated 250,000 – left many observers baffled. She explained that voter turnout in these polling stations exceeded 100%, and that those who perpetuated this fraud should take the blame for the disenfranchisement. Thorpe added that the invalidation did not, in any case, affect the outcome of the ballots in any significant sense, a point which would have carried more weight if – as the SLPP demanded – recounting in the presence of agents of both parties had been done, and the excess votes eliminated. In fact, the SLPP contended that 426 of the invalidated stations were in their strongholds, and a recount would have tilted the elections in favour of its candidate. In the event, two of the five electoral commissioners refused to endorse the final results, and walked out of the press conference where Thorpe announced the results.

A few hours later, the SLPP candidate, citing a desire to maintain the peace, accepted the results, and Koroma was sworn in as President. What happened next bewildered most observers. Hundreds of young people, in apparent celebration of the APC victory, stormed the National Secretariat of the SLPP, and thoroughly vandalised it. Glass windows were destroyed and equipment completely looted. The party’s newspaper and radio station were all destroyed. The homes of several leading members of the party were also attacked. Some arrests have since been made, but ultimate culpability for the attacks has yet to be determined.

The elections were the third in the West African state since its war ended. The first, held in March 2002, re-elected Kabbah and the SLPP in a landslide. The second, nation-wide local government elections held in 2004, led to important gains by the APC, including a win of the strategic municipality of Freetown, the capital.

Nor were they the first to see the APC defeating an incumbent SLPP government. This happened in 1967, when Sierra Leone’s first post-colonial government, the SLPP, was defeated by the APC under Siaka Stevens. The outcome of those elections was also disputed, with consequences far graver than the tepid protest of the SLPP after the recent APC win. The SLPP was then led by Albert Margai (father of the leader of the PMDC), who had appeared to have lost grounds to Stevens. Shortly after Stevens’ APC was declared winner, the army, under Margai protégé Brigadier David Lansana, stepped in at the crucial moment to prevent Stevens’ swearing-in as Prime Minister, and suspended the constitution.

About those vertiginous days, a perceptive writer for the left-leaning British magazine New statesman wrote at the time words which still have strong resonance: "The inability of outsiders to take West Africa seriously does injustice not only to the complexities of political societies like that of Sierra Leone, but also to the seriousness with which the people take their own politics. For, far from it being the case that the Sierra Leonians [sic] cared so little about their democratic party system that it just collapsed, they cared enough about it for as many as (probably) 26 of them to be killed trying to make it work. Nor was it the case that an African election…was unable to produce a change of government through the ballot box – that was exactly what it did do, and the real trouble began as a result of the successful exercise of democratic change."

Junior officers later restored the electoral mandate, and the APC was brought to power. Afterward, it was downward spiral for the country – a trajectory that included the banning of opposition parties, the introduction of a one-party state, widespread corruption, the collapse of state institutions and a brutal insurgency. No doubt both Kabbah and Berewa had all of this in mind when they decided to conform to the apparent will of the electorate: if the electorate wanted the SLPP, a party whose record they were all too keenly aware of, to remain in power, they would have voted overwhelmingly for it, as they did in 2002.

The new APC government, with well-known and credible figures like the veteran journalist Ibrahim Ben Kargbo (as minister of information) and the political activist Zainab Bangura, certainly inspires some confidence. It has taken a platform of zero tolerance for corruption, a necessary campaign that must, however, be accompanied by real and visible changes in the ordinary life of Sierra Leoneans, which is currently characterised by high unemployment, drudgery and the lack of reliable mains electricity and running water in the capital and other cities.

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