Happily making her vote count
Sierra Leone: Making the votes count
By Udo Jude Ilo* and Joe Hindovei Pemagbi**
In November of this year, Sierra Leoneans will go to the polls for the third general election since the end of armed conflict in 2002. The elections come at a very auspicious time. The mining industry is booming and there are bright prospects for oil windfall. However, the poverty level in the country remains high; youth unemployment and illiteracy continue to be challenges and corruption is still endemic.
The elections provide an opportunity for appraisal and could be a defining moment for repositioning the country; hence the huge interest it is generating. Given the need to consolidate the gains of the past decade, the general elections in November must address the yearnings of the people for peace, prosperity and stability and genuinely reflect the voice of the people, as expressed through the ballot. But these are only possible if the elections are peaceful, inclusive, credible and fair.
A lot has been done in preparation for the general elections. After the 2007 election, the National Electoral Commission (NEC) conducted an internal review of the handling of the elections to identify challenges and ways of improving on its operations. The conclusions of that review provided the basis for developing a five-year strategic plan to ensure efficiency and sustainability. The Public Elections Act 2012, has also given the NEC more powers, especially with respect to its oversight role in the announcement of results and establishment of the Electoral Offences Court. Sierra Leoneans agree that the biometric registration exercise conducted by NEC was remarkable and would go a long way in curbing incidents of vote rigging. There is a general perception that NEC has so far performed well, signaling the possibility of delivering credible elections. Funding has also been provided to the Commission by government and development partners when due.
The Political Parties Registration Commission (PPRC) has the onerous task of managing inter and intra party relationship. With two major political parties (All Peoples’ Congress - APC and Sierra Leone Peoples’ Party - SLPP) constantly at logger heads, maintaining discipline has been a major challenge. The inadequacies in its Constitutive Act made it difficult to wield the big stick and ensure that political parties adhere to rules and regulations. Fortunately, those constitutive lacunae are being addressed. Political parties have unanimously agreed – agreement among them in itself is a rarity – to send the law establishing the PPRC to the parliament for amendment. This amendment will strengthen the PPRC’s regulatory powers and ensure that it actually regulates political parties. The Political Parties Registration and Regulation Bill is remarkable in that it is the first of its kind in the region and provides extensive oversight powers on political party activities. While the opposition is busy criticizing the government, there is uneasiness that they are yet to clearly articulate alternatives to current government policies and criticized for being very reactive.
Risks to smooth elections
Sierra Leoneans are attuned to their civic responsibilities, and civil society groups are carrying out various activities to ensure that the elections run smoothly. Political parties have all committed to non-violence, yet many people are very skeptical that the elections will go well. It takes only one missing link to torpedo elections. There is therefore a great need to ensure that all stakeholders are aware of their roles and responsibilities and that all the processes of the election are adequately defined and ensured for everyone to understand and respect. Sadly, the recurring refrain at every interaction has been the fear that the security agencies pose the greatest risk to the election process. The police in Sierra Leone are hemorrhaging credibility. They are not trusted and are perceived to be unprofessional, corrupt and inefficient. Their handling of the violence in Bo in September last year, demonstrations in Bumbuna in the Northern Province, Wellington and Goderich both in the outskirts of the capital, as well as previous incidents, was condemned for their indiscriminate use of firearms. There is also a general belief that the police can be easily manipulated during the election and that they are ill-equipped to deal with any major outbreak of violence. The government's recent purchase of arms, worth about $5 Million USD for the police was seen by many as a misjudgement and ensure that they muscle any form of opposition to their activities during the elections. The recent commitment by the government to provide a bag of rice for each police officer is seen as an attempt to buy out the police. The government’s recent efforts to provide additional vehicles and communication equipment to the police may not necessarily allay fears of the police’s capacity to quell violent or even peaceful demonstrations without the use of disproportionate force. An ineffective or partisan police can only undermine the credibility of the election process and create reasons for even more violence.
Elections require an impartial judiciary to interpret the laws and resolve disputes. The enforcement of sanctions for electoral offences also rests with the Court. The judiciary in Sierra Leone suffers from credibility deficit and latent ineffectiveness. People do not believe in the courts, and rightly so. The case brought before the court in 2007 – a case that questioned the power of NEC to cancel elections in certain districts during the 2007 presidential elections — was only decided by the Supreme Court in late May 2012. This is nearly five years after the matter first came before the court! People believe the judiciary is beholden to the ruling party and lacks objectivity. This perception, combined with the inadequacies of the judiciary, pose a major danger to the elections in November.
The media in Sierra Leone are also not immune to engendering public mistrust, as they are generally considered skewed in the government’s favor. It is alleged that there is no level playing ground and that media reports largely favor the ruling party. It seems the majority of the media outfits are guided by money, rather than providing people with credible and fair representation of events. The capacity of the media to influence election process is huge, as is their capacity to create disaffection. This can ultimately work against the credibility and success of the November polls. It also depends on how professionally the Independent Media Commission (IMC), the media regulatory outfit, handles election-related matters in the coming months and thereafter.
Perhaps the greatest challenge to the elections is the attitude of political leaders across the divide. Of course political parties want to win elections, but there must be some basic thresholds that are respected. Inciting ethnic sentiments, vote buying and undue influence on the electoral process are acts that must stop. Current rhetoric from both APC and SLPP suggests that losing is not an option. In a fragile democracy such as Sierra Leone, political parties must be willing to sacrifice their ambition for national stability and ensure that the politicking process is devoid of actions that undermine the democratic process or the stability of that country. The situation is further compounded by the weak and sometimes absence of effective political parties’ codes of conduct to regulate membership and cases of indiscipline.
Democracy 'no longer a choice'
The shadows of war are still present in Sierra Leone and should serve as constant reminders that democracy is not simply a choice. It is the only viable option. With five months to the polls, a lot can still be done to ensure that the November elections are successful. The political class needs to recommit to non-violence – not just on paper, but also by toning down their rhetoric. Efforts should be made to build a constituency of followers who are committed to play by the rules. It is also important that Sierra Leoneans see their leaders commit to respecting the outcome of the elections, whatever those outcomes may be, and that these elections are not a “do or die” scenario for any political party. Security agencies must start an in-house reorientation and training process on how to police elections, providing clear rules of engagement that are both democratic and measurable. Civil society groups, such as the National Elections Watch (NEW) and political parties should closely monitor the activities of the security agencies and timely flag any perceived threat to the elections. It is important that the police are trained on non-lethal crowd control mechanism. The security agencies should demonstrate professionalism and non-partisanship, both in the run-up to, during and after the elections. This could be partly addressed by improved civil-police relations for confidence building in communities especially potential flashpoints identified by the security agencies.
Regulations related to media operations during elections must be implemented. Sierra Leoneans should hold their government accountable on this front. Most importantly, media outfits need to see themselves as Sierra Leoneans first, bef
ore being entrepreneurs. The practice of “dancing to the tune” of government, because of the economic opportunities that it brings, is to the detriment of the electoral process and must end. If the elections fail because of the media, there are chances that there will not be any business to do post-November anyway. They must be pragmatic and take the high road – it is the only road to protect Sierra Leone’s nascent democracy.
Civil society groups must ratchet up their activities and provide the necessary citizen- driven oversight. They must remain impartial and objective in all their interventions. Events must be regularly monitored closely; inadequacies must be flagged and government must be held accountable. This is also an opportunity for the judiciary to remake itself and shed the cloak of incompetency that has been its undesirable identity for years.
International community and development partners must seek ways and means of addressing these weak links, while putting pressure on government to provide the necessary political leadership required for a successful election. The November elections should be a stepping stone, not a stumbling block, for stability and democracy consolidation in Sierra Leone. The only way is for every stakeholder to rise above parochial interests and perform their duties with professionalism and patriotism. It is only in this way that Sierra Leone can contain its weak links and amplify its various strengths.
Udo Jude Ilo* is OSIWA's Advocacy Officer in Abuja, Nigeria
Joe Hindovei Pemagbi** is OSIWA's Country Officer in Freetown, Sierra Leone.