12 March 2018

Sierra Leone: Vehicle Ban On Elections Day 'Intimidated' and 'Disenfranchised' Voters - Observers

As Sierra Leoneans at home and abroad patiently wait for the final release of official results of the March 7 elections, local and international observations have been releasing interim reports of their observation.

While they agree that the crucial elections were relatively peaceful, the consensus among them is that the controversial ban on vehicular movement and deployment of security operatives, some heavily armed, intimidated some voters and created an atmosphere of fear and intimation.

Although the ban on vehicular movement was first pronounced during the 2012 elections, the main opposition parties - Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP), National Grand Coalition (NGC), and Coalition for Change (C4C) - vehemently opposed this year's ban and refused to sign a memorandum of understanding with the police in the regard.

Also, a couple of credible civil society organisations condemned the imposition of the ban by the Sierra Leone Police, saying its lacks any basis in law. Executive Director for the Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law, Ibrahim Tommy, said the ban has "no legal foot to stand on", while Andrew Lavalie, head of the Institute for Governance Reform expressed that the controversial ban could disenfranchise voters.

In previous democratic elections in 1996, 2002 and 2007, no such controversial ban was imposed despite heightened tension, especially in the 2007 elections.

A last minute Court Order, after a legal challenge to the ban by Lawyers Charles Francis Margai and Mohamed Pa-Momo Fofanah on behalf of one voter, gave the police boss the all clear to go ahead with the ban. Judge Adelaide Dwarzack had pronounced an interim injunction restraining the police from disseminating any information about the ban on Monday, 7th March, but in a dramatic U-turn refused to grant a perpetual injunction.

On elections day, our reporters, who were out and about in the Western Area, Kenema and Moyamba districts reported the deployment of armed police and military officers, some of whom appeared quite menacing to voters. Also, road blocks were mounted by the security forces, who routinely stopped and searched vehicles with accreditation pass issued by the National Electoral Commission.

Some voters in opposition strongholds and rural areas told our reporters that the presence of soldiers and armed police officers made the atmosphere tense and frightening. They further reported that the vehicle ban posed serious challenges to voters in far-away communities to access polling stations.

The trepidation expressed by voters has been validated by local and international observers as they release their interim reports. A release by the West Africa Network on Peacebuilding (WANEP) on Friday, 9th March, noted that "deployed military personnel voting while carrying their weapons created tension among voters in some polling stations" as well as the "alleged forceful police entry into residence/office of a presidential candidate [of the SLPP, Retired Brigadier Julius Maada]." As part of their recommendations, WANEP urged that "security personnel should continue to exercise the highest level of professionalism."

The Commonwealth Observer Group to Sierra Leone, headed by former Ghanaian President John Dramani Mahama, also noted that while the restriction of vehicle movement and mounted checkpoints on elections day "created a conducive security environment, elections remain one of the most vibrant and participatory expression of citizens' democratic rights", adding that the "measure could have disenfranchised citizens and we therefore recommend that it should be reviewed."

"The presence of the police and in some cases heavily armed military personnel, to some voters appeared intrusive and intimidating," says a release from the Commonwealth Observers.

They further reported that an incident that occurred immediately after polls closed, involving the police and standard bearer of the SLPP, Retired Brigadier Julius Maada Bio, "could have been better handled".

The police and military besieged a house reportedly owned by the SLPP standard bearer for several hours over allegation of "sophisticated IT equipment being used to hack the Electoral Commission's systems". The heavily armed police and military were refused entry when they couldn't produce a search want, according to the SLPP, describing the action as "intimidation antic."

It took the intervention of Mr. Mahama and other international observer mission heads to diffuse the tension. The Commonwealth Observers described the joint police and military action as "disproportionate".

The European Union Election Observation Mission, headed by Ms. Jean Lambert, put out a release last Friday which says the elections were "well organised... but the campaign was affected by intimidation."

Ms. Lambert noted that "an increasing number of acts of intimidation and violence against candidates and activists affected the electoral process. While the police played a constructive role managing crowds at polling centres, their intervention at the main opposition party's situation room and presidential candidate's home on late Wednesday [7th March] afternoon was disproportionate and could have been interpreted as a provocation," adding that the police should exercise "their duties in an impartial, proportionate manner and duly investigate all acts of violence."

Observers from the sub-regional group, ECOWAS, said the restriction on vehicular movement was a challenge in many areas their seventy (70) observers visited. They reported that several voters got stranded and couldn't vote as a result of the ban on vehicle movement.

"In Kenema, observers witnessed cases of some voters who were intimidated by the presence of heavily armed military men, as a result of which some of the aged voters had to leave the queue for home, out of fear."

They added that in a bid to further strengthen the electoral process, the incoming government should "endeavour to review the restrictions on vehicular movement on election day."

As part of their recommendations in an interim report, the African Union Observation Mission, which deployed 40 observers, led by former South Africa President, Kgalema Motlanthe, urged the security forces to "ensure security measures such as restriction of vehicular movement on election day does not affect the participation of voters in the electoral process."

Meanwhile, the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA), led by former Nigeria President Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, on Friday declared last Wednesday's elections peaceful and orderly.

However, an interim report by EISA recommended that the authorities "reconsider the ban on vehicle movement to ensure citizens are able to move freely to exercise their franchise."

The report said: "The Mission notes with concern the presence of heavily armed security personnel at the SLPP presidential candidate's premises at Goderich in the late afternoon on election day. Thanks to the presence of high level international dignitaries, the situation was de-escalated. The EISA EOM urges the security forces to refrain from such acts of aggression which are a potential threat to the existing peace and security in the country."

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