Sierra Leone is currently in the middle of two rounds of presidential elections. So far, no candidates have reached the 55 per cent threshold necessary to get elected directly in the first round. Consequently, the two leading candidates, Samura Kamara from the incumbent All People’s Congress (APC) party with 42.7 per cent of the votes, and Julius Maada Bio from the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) with 43.3 per cent of the votes, will stand in a runoff.
Voting will start on March 27. The Daily spoke to Mohamed Sesay, a Postdoctoral Fellow from McGill currently conducting fieldwork in Freetown, the country’s capital city, about the current situation in Sierra Leone following the first-round of the elections.
Mohamed Sesay, a graduate of the University of Sierra Leone, is part of the Yan Lin Centre’s Research Group on Global Justice. Sesay holds a PhD in political science from McGill University, which he received in 2016. His current research engages with the institution of chieftaincy in post-war Sierra Leone, and how this traditional authority can be restructured to conform to rules of modern governance without undermining its contemporary social relevance. On top of that, Sesay is also contributing to a global project examining the nexus between conflict, justice, and development.
The McGill Daily (MD): How would you describe the current atmosphere in Freetown, and Sierra Leone in general? What has been the public’s response to results of the first round?
Mohamed Sesay (MS): The current situation in Sierra Leone is peaceful. It is getting back to normal as public offices are reopening and kids are going back to school after they were shut down a week or two ago. A few weeks before the elections, there were expectations that there would be violent outbreaks. There are several reasons for that. First, these elections are contested, as the incumbent government has been in power for two terms, and the current president cannot run for re-election. The current minister of finance is the presidential candidate of the party in power, the All People’s Congress (APC), which seeks to maintain power. Second, new opposition parties, other than the traditional Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), have been created. These include the New Grand Coalition (NGD), and Coalition For Change (C4C), which have contested the elections and made opposition very serious. Potential violence led the Office of National Security to raise the level of security threat to the second level. The international community worried. Yet it turned out to be largely peaceful, even though there was some violence, which nevertheless remained very localized.
The general public accepted the results as representative of their will. Several factors have acted in favour of this positive response. First, the National Electoral Commission (NEC), which announced the results, has become a largely credible commission to the people. Before results were announced, a coalition of civil society organizations, the National Election Watch (NEW) projected that there would be a runoff. Results confirmed this prediction, lending the group credibility and respect. Second, an important factor to the democratic process in the country is the provision that a candidate needs at least 55 per cent of votes to get elected directly in the first round. If this number is not reached, candidates need to build alliances with other parties. That provision has made it possible for smaller parties to see themselves as a stake in the electoral contest, as alliances have become an inevitable part of the electoral contest. Third, international observers wrote statements about the elections that were largely positive, and concluded that the elections were fair. On top of that, local observers unanimously concluded that they were fair. One last factor I wish to put forward is the progressive announcement of results, in a 25 per cent increment, which prepared the minds of Sierra Leoneans to what the results would be.
MD: Have outbreaks of violence happened during the current elections? How are politics changing in the country?
MS: There was never, in fact, widespread violence following elections in Sierra Leone. Some level of trust is building nationally in the institutions responsible for conducting elections. The NEC has been able to establish itself as the credible institution to monitor elections, and a majority of Sierra Leoneans accept results they announce as reflective of the people’s will.
There have been shifts in the political culture of politicians. They too put more trust in institutions. For example, in 2012, when the opposition party was not satisfied with the results, it went to the Supreme Court. This very fact shows change in the country’s political culture. The media is changing too. I was impressed by the role of the national broadcaster. Ten years back, the incumbent party dominated it clearly, and it served as a tool for propaganda. Now, it creates greater space for opposition parties, and even allows some criticism of the incumbent party.
There has also been some shift in the political culture of the general public. Before and after the war there existed a high degree of political intolerance. People were very attached to their ethnic group, and to their region, and political elites emphasized differences to gain votes. Each political party depended on one particular region. Now we see that a sizeable portion of Sierra Leoneans are voting across regional and ethnic lines.
For example, the APC (whose historical electoral base is located in the North of the country) won the elections in 2007 because it got votes from people living in South. I recently heard people say that they were voting because the government did not perform, which is something that was not common practice in the past, and shows an evolution in the political culture of the people.
MD: There have been lots of discussions about the use of blockchain technology in the elections (originally used to keep track of cryptocurrency transactions, this technology consists of a digital ledger, a book, in which all transactions are recorded and which is widely accessible thus permitting accountability). What is your opinion on the question?
MS: I would expect technology to be a trend in Africa, and not just Sierra Leone. One reason for this would be an increasing interest to use technology to run elections, in order to reduce the ability of politicians and voters to engage in fraudulent practices. However, for Sierra Leone to be the first country to use it shows that the level of trust for the voters and institutions is still quite low, and I am no sure whether we should be happy about that.
Also, there has been a lot of reporting about this new technology, but I don’t think we know for sure that it has created any impact in the credibility of the election. When the NEC announced the results, 154 polling had to go through a recount stations because of irregularities, following requests made by parties. That’s the reason why there was a two-day delay in the announcement of results.
Furthermore, after the final results were announced, votes were annulled in 221 polling stations due to overvoting (when the number of ballots cast is superior to the number of people registered to vote). In total, there were 139,427 invalid votes, which is a huge number, and we are yet to know why we had so many. Consequently, I am not sure of the extent to which the blockchain technology was able to prevent malpractices.
MD: Is the peaceful transition of power that occurred in Liberia influencing Sierra Leone? How so?
MS: Yes, in some ways. The building of a democratic process needs to have a regional perspective. Twenty or thirty years ago in West Africa, there were a lot of military coups. Even though countries have internal dynamics, there are regional factors and norms, and there has been progress in consolidating democratic governance. If democratic overturns in West African countries become common, it will create a trend. Liberia and Sierra Leone come from the same past of bad governance and conflict. The conduct of elections in Liberia could become a sort of inspiration for actors in Sierra Leone to be committed to institutionalizing the democratic process. As democratic norms develop and expand, it will become increasingly difficult for politicians to stand against them. It is however important not to give too much weight to these external forces, but I would not rule them out either.
MD: Where do you see Sierra Leone going from these elections?
MS: I am not sure, but I think elections are here to stay. Nonetheless, I am not too sure what they mean for the broader democratic process, as the political elite may be using elections to provide a facade that we have democracy in Sierra Leone. What I mean is that we are yet to see democratic norms being played out in the daily lives of the people with improvements in the socio-economic situation of the country.
On top of that, the number of women that voted in the elections is very low, and even lower than in past elections. Elections have not translated into an inclusive space that would allow women to fully take part in the democratic process. I believe that this can be explained by the fact that structures of exclusion and injustices are still intact even though we have elections. Politicians will present that to the international community to get investors in the country. We have democracy, but not fully yet.
Also, the peace building process will continue. I don’t see the country relapsing into violence anytime soon. Given what the country has gone through, many Sierra Leoneans would not want to go back to those days of violence. In terms of reconciliation we have made progress, as people just want to move on.
Overall, I would say that I am cautiously optimistic about the future of the country. I am looking forward to the second round of the elections. If the incumbent wins we will have a continuation in the governance of the country, which has not been able to transform the lives of Sierra Leoneans. But when you look at the opposition party’s manifesto, it is not that different. If we don’t have alternative way of promoting socio economic development, it will also impact in the rate at which the peace building process will be continued.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.