Concord Times (Freetown)

5 November 2012

Sierra Leone: Verdict 2012 - Now That November Is Here!

Photo: Tommy Trenchard/IRIN
Youths campaign in Freetown.

Time goes, you say? Ah no! Alas, time stays. And here we go again. Time, they say, is like the wind: 'it lifts the light and leaves the heavy'. The political chronometer in Sierra Leone has never stopped ticking. In fact, it gathered invigorated steam as soon as the outcome of the 2007 presidential run-off was announced by the National Electoral Commission (NEC). There is hardly a discussion that is spared of political tinges, even those having religious bearings. Losing the contest, the SLPP immediately started strategising its return to power while the APC - with a culture of clinging on to power - began the process of consolidating its hold on State House. This perhaps explains why more attention is being given to political issues than on development and other social concerns.

As Sierra Leoneans and the world, if you like, await what the final verdict of the November 17 general elections will be, it is now evidently clear that the contest is going to be a two-horse race between the two traditional rivals: the APC and SLPP. The People's Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC) is still a potent political force that should not be viewed as a mere pushover though it may have lost huge grounds and the pedigree that had earned it a place in the political history of the country for its impressive debut in 2007. Charles Francis Margai, the PMDC leader and presidential flag-bearer, is still a cult figure among his southern people who repose so much confidence in him as the "president that never was" that they may still cast their votes for him. Whether he will replicate his 2007 performance and retain and/or add to the 10 parliamentary seats he mustered then, only time will tell.

Political rallies and violence

The campaigns have been moderately encouraging in spite of isolated reported cases of violence in Kono and the Western Area. But such 'minor cases' should not be ignored lest they serve as catalysts for bigger skirmishes that may blight the peaceful conduct of the November polls. Elections should serve as means by which competition can be channelled into a constructive process with common rules to choose representatives of the people. We, Sierra Leoneans, must serve as the ultimate guarantors for peace to reign throughout the electioneering process. Yes, electoral processes are intrinsically about the attainment of political power often in high-stake contexts but as a process of competition for power, heightened tensions should be tempered down so that the potential for conflict could be foiled.

As the campaigns get thicker and thicker, the election atmosphere is being scented with political jibes such as 'Una Dae Go' sputtered by the SLPP clan as against 'De Pa Dae Wok' being chorused by the Reds. As the SLPP blares 'Faileeh Koroma', the APC retorts 'Gee Dem Road'. All these political matrixes, or undertones, if made devoid of violence and insulting statements against political parties and their leaders will make for a peaceful process. November 17 will be even sweeter!

The ability of a country to successfully conduct non-violent elections is a crucial indicator of the consolidation of its democracy and a necessary condition for free and fair citizen participation. Unfortunate as it may be, democratisation is rarely a smooth path. The competition and contestation char­acteristic of the entire electoral process can, in the extreme, result in electoral violence of the magnitude seen raging starkly in different countries around the world. In Africa, with its high degrees of societal and cultural diversity, and relatively weaker mediating institutions, electoral violence remains a crucial challenge that requires deeper investigation and collective action to address. The belief and sometimes unfair portrayals by some sections of the media and the citizenry that the upcoming polls will descend into conflict and violence should be dispelled. Subsets of political violence deserve more attention due to the proclivity of them happening regularly and the threat they may pose to the legitimacy of the elections.

Credible results save our blushes

Violence mostly takes place during the pre-election or campaign phase. Zimbabwe stands out for its repeated violent episodes through all phases of the election cycle. More recent high profile cases in Kenya (2007), Côte d'Ivoire (2010), and Nigeria (2011) draw attention to post-election violence despite the electoral commissions in each case having been initially credited for running credible polls. For example, Nigeria's recent elections were praised as the fairest in that country's history, yet the post-election violence was the worst ever with more than 800 people reportedly killed when Goodluck Jonathan was declared the winner of the April presidential election. After his swearing-in ceremony, a series of explosions killed another 16 people. In hindsight, perhaps, we should not have been surprised that post-election results were violently contested despite largely peaceful polling in Kenya, Côte d'Ivoire, and Nigeria since the pre-election politics in each country was characterized by rising regional, ethnic, and religious polarisation.

Preventing violence in these elections is therefore a unique subset of political violence that needs to be incorporated into the country's democratic process and treated as an explicit and integral component of the policy dialogue and interventions required to manage successful elections. Understanding the structural and proximate causes of election-related violence will support developing practical policy guidance for its mitigation, especially by strengthening institutions and amending certain regulations.

The Running-mates choice

The issue about who to run alongside the presidential candidates of the APC and SLPP became a very contentious subject to the extent that some political pundits were suggesting the balance of power on November 17 will be dependent upon who Koroma and Bio would have as their mates. To me, this is a very weak postulation especially when judged from the viewpoint of the country's geopolitical makeup and from what each of the political parties and their flag-bearers represent. I have argued on several unofficial forums that the November 17 presidential contest is going to be a straight fight between President Koroma and Julius Maada Bio. The running-mates definitely have their roles to play in garnering votes for their respective leaders but who wins the race will largely depend on the candidate's pedigree and how trustworthy enough he is, in the eyes of voters, to be entrusted with the destiny of this country.

Sierra Leoneans take the coming elections seriously. The throng of people that come out to grace each rally is testament to this fact. Though a good number of voters will go for colour, region or tribe, others (perhaps in the minority) will make informed choices based on what each candidate stands to offer. These 'minority' votes are important too and may contribute to the process of electing the right candidate that will manage the affairs of the state for the next five years.

NEC, PPRC and the youth

The centrality of free and fair elections to democracy cannot be downplayed. It therefore behooves NEC, the PPRC and all Sierra Leoneans to ensure that the conduct of the November polls is not only peaceful but credible and the results acceptable to all parties in the race.

The key element in the exercise of democracy is the holding of free and fair elections which enables the people's will to be expressed. Let's don't allow the bad legacies of the past creep into elections that will contribute to the strengthening of our peace and democracy - that is if they are credible, or throw spanners into our collective achievement in bringing peace - if conducted in suspicious circumstances. An election judged as free and fair will be a sufficient con­dition for a violence-free outcome. Now that November is here, all eyes are focused on the golden number - 17!

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