Countdown to Elections in Sierra Leone

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On the 9th of September, Presidential hopeful and retired Brigadier Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) visited Bo district to begin his quest to defeat the All People’s Congress (APC) in the 2012 Presidential elections. His visit was met with riots and violence culminating in Bio’s injury as rocks were thrown at him. In retaliation, young SLPP supporters burnt down the APC’s offices in Bo. One person died and nineteen were wounded.

Despite international commitment to parading Sierra Leone as the jewel in the crown of external intervention in civil conflict, electoral violence preceding the 2012 election was not entirely unpredictable. This is not because it is inevitable, but because of a set of factors relating to the process of post-conflict reconstruction. Most significantly, the type of violence witnessed in Bo owes much to the neglect of young people’s voices in Sierra Leone’s post-war recovery, and the inability to engage and include them in development processes. Young people were at the forefront of Sierra Leone’s ten-year conflict, and analyses of root causes of the war often focus on the role of marginalised youth and their frustration with a political system that had left them to fend for themselves (Abdullah 1998; Richards 1996). Even in the post-conflict period, the political mobilisation of youth has exacerbated their marginalisation, as leaders tend to enter their communities only at election time to garner votes or to recruit and organise for electoral disturbance. The continued inability to meaningfully include young people in the political system in a consistent way has not only hindered Sierra Leone’s democratic potential, but also facilitated the violent articulation of frustration and a sense of exclusion.

Unemployment in Sierra Leone’s urban centres is staggering. The streets of Freetown are teeming with unemployed youths precariously engaged in the informal economy. Many are ex-combatants; some have lived in the street their whole life. Government officials and donors alike have dubbed them a ‘threat’, or a ‘ticking bomb’. While this sort of terminology has heightened the urgency of the unemployment issue and brought some foreign funds directed at creating livelihoods, it has also reinforced the marginalisation of those who remain untouched by these projects. Indeed, Freetown’s street youth often interpret their inability to gain employment as a result of their criminalisation in the eyes of national and international authorities. A young organiser of a grassroots anti-violence group maintained that the schemes were not reaching the right people because “some people, like some NGOs, fear to come here, they think these people are bad boys, [that] they are robbers”.

Most importantly, the portrayal of youth only as a threat misses the opportunity to focus instead on inclusion and deliberation, which could give all youth a sense of hope and of being on a shared journey with the rest of society. The roots for the articulation of inclusion in these terms exists in the street of Freetown where voting is seen as a civic duty and an opportunity to be viewed as a citizen. As a young street seller asserted: “I vote for development in this country, because I am a citizen I must do that, I will vote”. Unfortunately, these citizenship-based claims for inclusion often fall on deaf ears, and a different logic takes hold. For example, a young man who had fought for the Revolutionary United Front (the youth-led rebel army which thrust the country into civil conflict in 1991) as a child: “the government has to do great things for us, or there is going to be another war; there is going to be great violence for the 2012 elections.” As opportunities are missed to nurture democratic attitudes, violence or the threat of it poses a far more effective means of being taken seriously.

Suggested further reading for those interested:

Abdullah, I. (1998) ‘Bush Path to destruction: the origins and character of the Revolutionary United Front’, Journal of Modern African Studies 36(2).

Richards, P. (1996) Fighting for the Rain Forest: War, Youth and Resources in Sierra Leone, Oxford: International African Institute in association with James Currey; Pourtsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann.

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