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Sierra Leone's elections may look like a party – but pride in the polls is serious

Sixteen years after the end of hostilities, memories of Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war keep enthusiasm for elections high. But that's just one factor contributing to typically high turnout.

Olivia Acland/Reuters
Supporters of the ruling All Peoples Congress party attend a rally ahead of the March 7 presidential election in Makeni, Sierra Leone, March 5.

The crowd making its way down the windy stone streets at the center of Freetown could easily be mistaken for a carnival. Women shaded by wide-brimmed hats stroke feather boas curled around their necks and cool themselves with red plastic fans. Men dressed in skin-tight suits pose on top of cars. Children dance to the beat of Nigerian pop music. A man standing on top of a van shouts “A, P,” into a loudspeaker, to which the crowd responds with a deafening “C!”

A mix of festival-like excitement and tense pre-election jitters pervades the streets of Sierra Leone as the country prepares to go to the polls this week, voting in a new president, parliamentarians, and local council members.

Sixteen years ago, Sierra Leone had just emerged from an eleven-year civil war: a conflict in which more than 50,000 people died, thousands of children were recruited as soldiers, natural resources (most famously diamonds) were looted, and the already dismal infrastructure was destroyed.

The scars remain today – not least in a still-struggling economy, one of the poorest in the world. And on March 7, voters will decide whether to stick with the incumbent All People’s Congress (APC), switch to their historical rival, the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), or give a chance to a handful of smaller opposition parties.

Around the world, belief in the importance of elections remains strong, but belief in their integrity is another matter. In a Gallup World Poll, fewer than half of respondents reported confidence in their country’s elections – and voting-day turnout is on the wane, as well.

But in Sierra Leone, turnout has averaged near 80 percent for all elections since the end of the war. Widespread belief that the ballot box is the path to political change stems from more than the party-like rallies that have gripped the capital over last week – though the festive atmosphere and candidate freebies no doubt add to the enthusiasm. Memories of the war have bolstered voters’ resolve to make change by more peaceful means, but so has the growth of an increasingly robust civil society, and increasing inclusiveness in politics, from new parties to newfound interest among youth.

Standing on his second-story balcony, Mohamed Alieu Bah looks out at the gyrating crowd of red and white. “It is a party today,” says Mr. Bah, who works at a youth-empowerment nonprofit. “But when it comes to peace, Sierra Leoneans don’t joke with that.”

“We have learned the lesson of the past,” he adds. “We have learned that war is no good. Power is only achieved through voting.”

Votes and peace

In 1996, Sierra Leone began its transition to democracy after decades of coups, counter-coups and one-party authoritarian governments. In the midst of the civil war the country held an election, won by SLPP’s candidate Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.

“1996 was the first time many Sierra Leoneans voted, and they took pride in doing it,” says Joseph Bangura, a historian and director of the African Studies program at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. “Tejan played a major role in bringing about peace. That experience made a lot of Sierra Leoneans take the issue of voting very seriously.”

The SLPP won the next election in 2002, too, attributed to its role in delivering peace. However, after the 2007 election’s tense campaign and run-off, the APC’s Ernest Bai Koroma was declared the winner. The SLPP contested the results, although the complaint was ultimately dismissed by the courts. 

“The fact that in 2007 there was very smooth and peaceful transfer of power from one civilian administration to another civilian administration – the ordinary voters of Sierra Leone felt pride in that development” and in their role in it, says Dr. Bangura. The transition “injected a high degree of confidence… And so they are motivated. They are motivated by the fact that they have the power to change things.”

Past elections have been marred by violence: in 2007, after clashes in the capital, the president threatened to impose a state of emergency. In recent weeks several incidents have taken place between supporters of rival parties, some of them fatal. But the violence has decreased compared to previous election campaigns, says Susan Shepler, an associate professor at American University in Washington, D.C., who studies African politics. “If there is violence it will be clashes between drunken young men and security forces, more than political parties intimidating voters,” she says.

Civil support

In part, Sierra Leoneans’ belief in change through the ballot box may be attributed to the increasing independence of the National Electoral Commission (NEC). In the past year the NEC has been involved in a number of high-profile disputes with the ruling APC involving requirements for candidacy, missing census data, and setting the date for the election. 

But the NEC has been supported – and held accountable – by an increasingly vibrant civil society that has been working since the end of the civil war to build up democratic norms shattered during the conflict. For the upcoming election, groups like the National Election Watch (NEW) have been engaged in a range of voter education activities, according to Ngolo Katta, spokesperson for the group.

“It starts with direct contact with voters in communities through town hall meetings,” explains Mr. Katta. “We also do radio jingles, public services advertisements, and music. We just did a training for citizens to understand the electoral process and address some of the rumors that spread on social media,” from bizarre stories about candidates’ origins to claims of rigging.

Last year a broad coalition of civil society organizations conducted a country-wide survey and put together a “citizens’ manifesto,” whose demands include campaign-funding transparency, candidates’ asset declarations, and the nomination of traditionally marginalized groups – women, youth, and the disabled – as candidates.

Not all demands have been met. But the manifesto has had an influence, says Andrew Lavali, the executive director of the Institute for Governance Reform, a Sierra Leonean think-tank that helped spearhead the initiative. Among the effects: Political parties’ own manifestos putting more focus on transparency and accountability, one opposition candidate publishing his assets, and the SLPP committing to a proposal to require all party and government leadership to publish their assets within their first 100 days in office.

New voices

Mr. Lavali points out that nearly half of down-ballot seats are being contested by people under age 35 – a key demographic in a country where one-third of the population is between 15 and 35, and more than two-thirds of youth are unemployed or underemployed.

Young Sierra Leoneans have registered to vote in record numbers and are approaching the election with an “unprecedented sense of duty,” citing a lack of education and opportunity as their biggest concerns, according to a study by Restless Development, a youth-led development agency.

Part of that newfound interest may also be a result of the opening up of the traditional two-party system by the National Grand Council (NGC) party. Led by Kandeh Yumkella, a former United Nations official, the NGC has branded its movement a “third way.”

“We are tired of the red and the green” says Samson Stevens, a first-time voter from the outskirts of Freetown, referencing the colors of the APC and SLPP. “Yumkella has policies for education, agriculture, and healthcare. He has a plan for the nation.”

While Mr. Yumkella’s support is largely limited to the diaspora and educated elite in Freetown, observers say he is opening up new types of political debate, with less of the traditional appeal to ethno-regionalism. In addition to the presidency, he is contesting a parliamentary seat in an APC stronghold – meaning his party has the potential to remain a force in politics, with or without the presidency.

“Whether or not Yumkella wins the election,” says Lavali, “the effort himself and other opposition parties have injected in this, the standards they have raised, and the force of civil society and by extension social media is really changing the narratives in Sierra Leone.”

Observers say Wednesday’s election is too close to call. If none of the candidates receive 55 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held between the top two, expected to be the APC and SLPP.

“Here in Sierra Leone we want democracy,” explains Amadu Jalloh, the owner of a small used appliances shop in the eastern suburbs of Freetown. “We had dictators, we had a war, we had coups. We know the alternatives, and we want to vote.”

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