Following the elections in Sierra Leone this Saturday, Zoe Marks explores the progress that the country has made towards securing peace and forging a robust democracy, and challenges that still remain. Zoe Marks is a DPhil candidate at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford.
Vote counting is now underway in Sierra Leone, which saw high electoral turnout this weekend (17 November) in the country’s third post-conflict elections since its decade-long civil war ended in 2002. The election illustrates several promising signs of democratic vitality, but as only the third election since the war, it remains too soon to tell the extent to which we are seeing the institutionalization of a transparent and responsive two-party system with meaningful political engagement by the electorate. In light of the country’s excruciatingly violent history, the most notable aspect of the election was the relative peace and calm at the 9,493 polling stations. Queues began forming early in the morning, as the 2 million-voter electorate mobilised to decide on presidential, legislative, and local representatives. Even more historically significant than the lack of violence this weekend is the prospect of consolidated peace and multiparty democracy that these elections might signify for Sierra Leone over the long term. Several characteristics of Sierra Leonean democracy in this election indicate cause for cautious optimism as the country, its vested elites, and the international community await the 27 November results and possible run-off 8 December, if no candidate secures 55 percent of the vote.
The first major indicator of healthy democracy in the country is the thus-far-successful execution of free and fair elections, which saw widespread, enthusiastic participation from the electorate. The independent National Electoral Commission led the election process (as opposed to donor-driven international agencies), thereby consolidating the institutions that enable and support democracy, ensuring they have the technical expertise required to perform their duties, and reinforcing the NEC’s own transparency and legitimacy. Reinforcing the NEC’s mandate was a vast international contingent of 10,000 election observers from the EU, AU, ECOWAS, the Carter Center, and other organizations, with over three dozen long-term observers keeping watch on pre-election campaigning. (Comparatively, less than 150 observers were deployed for Angola’s perfunctory electoral exercise in September.) Under the president’s control, the police have been largely non-partisan, ensuring a peaceful campaign and free election with light policing of crowds. This has helped allay the international outcry over artillery and automatic weapons being delivered for the Operational Support Division earlier this year, after which the arms were re-dispatched to 850 Sierra Leonean peacekeepers serving in Somalia. Of course, the vote count and validation of the results on 27 November will be the true test of the NEC and of political elites’ willingness to honour the outcome.
Second, regime turnover remains a real possibility in Sierra Leonean elections. With over 75 percent voter turnout, the 2007 presidential election led to the peaceful handover of power from the war-end SLPP, to the pre-war dominant APC. This alternation in power has positioned the country to pass Huntington’s ‘two turnover’ test—a prominent litmus of the robustness of any democracy—with the next opposition victory. It would, however, be a surprise if it happens this electoral cycle. Going into the elections with the advantages of incumbency, President Ernest Bai Koroma is the marginal favourite. Early returns being announced by the Independent Reporters’ Network suggest he is winning in the Western Area, which, immediately surrounding Freetown, has the largest share of ‘swing’ voters and thus usually determines the election outcome.
Third, the party system is robust. Sierra Leone has one of Africa’s few true two-party systems. The incumbent All People’s Congress, which held power through the autocratic one-party era, and the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party have overwhelmingly dominated the political landscape since independence in 1961. The 2002 elections that, for the international community, marked the end of the civil war, saw SLPP incumbent Ahmed Tejan Kabbah re-elected with over 70 percent of the vote, to Ernest Bai Koroma’s 22.4 percent for the APC. In 2007, however, the electorate shifted dramatically, giving SLPP 38 percent of the vote to Koroma’s victorious 44 percent. Fourteen percent was garnered by a third party, People’s Movement for Democratic Change, which, under the Margai Southern political dynasty, leads the pack of other opposition contenders by a stretch (including the Revolutionary United Front Party, the vestigial political arm of the rebel group that waged the civil war). Sierra Leone has a long track record of ethno-regional voting, with the Temne- and Limba-dominant North being largely beholden to APC, and the Mende-dominant East and South remaining reliable SLPP strongholds, while Freetown and the diamond-rich Kono region present the most politically competitive grounds for both parties. Opposition parties tend to also be regionally based and will inevitably be co-opted at the national level after the first round of voting. As a result, political competition is fiercest at the local level, followed by some daylight for non-dominant party participation in the legislature (PMDC took ten parliamentary positions in the last elections).
Within the parties and their tickets, elite behaviour and the ambiguous prospects for gender equality are both important markers of democratic attitudes and consolidation. For one, Koroma’s main opponent, Julius Maada Bio (SLPP) has been excoriated by opponents for his role in extra-judicial executions by the NPRC, but stands out in post-independence African history as one of the few military heads of state to relinquish power to an elected civilian regime. Having served first as deputy and then as head of the National Provisional Ruling Council military junta during the civil war until 1996, he became the flag-bearer of the SLPP—the civilian party to whom he abdicated—after intense intra-party competition earlier this year. If he continues to respect the electoral process and its outcome, it will be an important sign of elite acceptance of the democratic regime. The second half of the SLPP ticket is also notable: it presents Sierra Leone’s first major female vice-presidential candidate, former head of the National Commission for Democracy and former Minister of Trade and Industry, Kadi Sesay. The prominence of women in the top bills for the executive, however, belies the relative losses women in politics have faced in this electoral cycle. Only 6.5 percent of parliamentary candidates are women, and a campaign for women’s political quotas was scuttled just before the legislative session closed. Women represent 15 percent of MPs and 19 percent of local officials, well below the Rwandan ideal of nearly 50 percent, but not far off from the 16.8 percent in the US legislature (though still well-below the 24 percent state-level representation women have in America). The relatively closed, male-dominant coterie of political elites that control and contest office in Sierra Leone remains a barrier not only to women’s participation, but also the permeability of higher office more generally.
Fourth, despite the country’s ethno-regional voting blocks, political issues are prominent in the public discourse and may play an increasingly salient role in electoral behaviour as urbanisation changes the country’s demographics. Sierra Leoneans regularly intone development, progress, education, healthcare, and the consolidation of peace as the key issues they consider in selecting political candidates. Sierra Leone eked out from last place on the Human Development Index in 2010, but the 35 percent economic growth cited by the president as proof of his developmental stewardship is the predicted increase on a relatively paltry (less than 6 percent) current growth rate and is due almost entirely to the resumption of iron ore extraction and other mining activities. These commercial developments bring fewer jobs than the public anticipate, and no respite from inflation and food price shocks for the country’s impoverished majority. Resource extraction has historically been a major opportunity for elite graft, the most recent example of which was the ‘timbergate’ scandal involving vice-president Samuel Sam Sumana and the sale of large tracts of forest to foreign logging firms. The slow and underwhelming exploration of off-shore oil reserves raises further concerns about government responsiveness, transparency, and accountability to the people, vis-à-vis both its mandate to rule and management of the country’s resources. Koroma has relied primarily on road construction and improved provision of electricity to demonstrate development gains for everyday Sierra Leoneans, with major improvements made in the past two years.
Unable to supplant Koroma’s economic claims or military patronage, Maada Bio has focused instead on the youth vote. The admixture of fomenting young people’s political grievances and his military political profile is risky in a fragile postwar society recently wracked by the militarisation of thousands of marginalized youths by all armed groups. But, it is perhaps inevitable. Sierra Leone has one of sub-Saharan Africa’s youngest populations: with an average life expectancy of just 48 years, youth represent over a third of the population. They are disproportionately affected by the country’s sky-high 60 percent unemployment rate, with up to 70% of youths unemployed or underemployed. This makes young people all the more critical in the country’s democratic progress: They represent a major issues-driven electoral constituency, as their mobility and age makes them less beholden to ethno-regional voting patterns and through activism, music, and partisan youth wings they add much to the country’s democratic vibrancy. However, their marginal economic status makes them more susceptible to vote-buying and other material forms of political influence, and their lack of steady employment makes them relatively easy prey for mobilization (peaceful or violent) by political elite. Ultimately, the youth of Sierra Leone represent a vector of uncertainty, which, if engaged with productively, can foster political competition and force politicians to address grassroots economic issues, but if instrumentalized and manipulated, could be (and have been) exploited in such a way that threatens peace and democratic stability.
Fifth, civil society has played a critical role in fostering an active and engaged electoral process, an important criteria for the development of liberal democracy. Although free and independent, Sierra Leone’s press has a long legacy of partisan coverage, often reading more like a political tabloid than objective reportage. In light of the media’s partisan tendencies, other civil society organizations banded together to inject the 2012 election with greater attention to issues and candidates’ claims to power. The country’s first presidential debate was organized (twice, as the president cancelled his participation in the first round) by a consortium calling itself the Sierra Leone Elections Debate Group. The debate was described by SLEDG board member Chief Raymond Aleogho Dokpesi as, ‘a complete departure from the road dancing, hand shaking and where no promises are made and where people are voting along the lines of ethnicity, religion, and other considerations. The candidates are supposed to tell the entire nation before a live radio and television audience, what their commitments are, and Mr President will tell everybody about his stewardship, his successes and why he wants to have another mandate.’ On election day itself, a ‘CNN-style’ situation room was organized by civil society groups who collated SMS updates from over 2,000 polling stations throughout the country. Both positive and problematic reports were posted in live time online and reported on the radio, described memorably by one commentator as the best thing since gari or sliced bread. This public monitoring process was particularly important given the introduction of a new biometric voting system and the election day ban on all vehicular traffic.
There is, thus, much room for optimism about the 2012 elections in Sierra Leone, and the consolidation of the country’s democracy more generally. But, in addition to the many caveats above, as the votes come in over the next week, several hurdles remain. First, the candidates must accept the results announced by the NEC and validated by the international community. This includes abstaining from any tacit or overt endorsement of violence or destabilization. Second, if the presidency goes to a run-off 8 December, the interim week preceding that vote must remain calm, without egregious vote buying or intimidation, followed again by acceptance of the results. Third, although it is inevitable that some of the losing opposition parties will ‘deliver’ votes to the dominant parties in the case of a run-off, under a robust democracy the newly ‘swing’ voters would re-allocate their support somewhat independently, engaging with the key issues. Fourth, the opposition elites who are co-opted into the winning regime should bring some degree of political debate to the democratic process and not be simply bought and silenced. Finally, the support of youth and ex-combatants that has been mobilized by political elites will need to be acknowledged and compensated in some form. They are losing patience with manipulation and exploitation in the face of continued unemployment and marginality, and could undermine the peace they have thus far worked to consolidate. For a little country with a big conflict footprint, the people of Sierra Leone have an unparalleled opportunity to make history and recreate their legacy in the region. Whether the electorate and its political elite do so will be seen, in no small part, over the events of the coming weeks.