On March 7, 2018, voters in Sierra Leone will go to the polls to elect a president, national legislature, and local representatives.
Since the civil war ceasefire in 2002 (and even before the war), violence has been a persistent feature of elections in Sierra Leone, and the elections next year possess unique vulnerabilities for such violence to recur.
The president is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term in office. As a result, since this is the conclusion of President Ernest Koroma’s second term, the seat is open.
This open seat is intensifying intra-party and inter-party conflict, within the ruling All People’s Congress (APC), but particularly within the main opposition party – Sierra Leone’s People’s Party (SLPP) – among those seeking to become the ‘flag bearer’ as the party’s nominee.
Women candidates are reported to be experiencing smear campaigns and intimidation during the nomination process.
The state institution mandated to mediate among and within political parties, the Political Party Registration Commission, is currently unfunded and, for all intent and purposes, inoperative. The National Electoral Commission (NEC)’s capacity is stressed with an active electoral calendar and managing the introduction of biometrics into voter registration.
Public confidence in the NEC will be a factor in the acceptance or rejection of outcomes by losing parties and candidates. In a recent poll by the Institute for Government Reform (IGR), public confidence in the NEC was 68 per cent.
Additionally, youth remain at risk of recruitment by politicians into becoming agents of electoral violence. In fact, some youth in Freetown are forming “cliques”, ad hoc gangs for hire as groups by politicians for security at rallies or to exert muscle in other ways.
The border areas with Liberia and Guinea remain porous and there are reports of firearms smuggling.
Conventional media is widely seen as being captured by political interests, with independence in covering of electoral incidents a rare commodity. Social media, in particular WhatsApp, is being viewed with caution for its potential to spread disinformation and hate speech and to convey smear campaigns.
And, the Sierra Leone Police (SLP) have three strikes against them: 1) under-resourced; 2) perceived to be being partisan in favour of the ruling party; and 3) employing excessive use of force in crowd control. The same IGR poll showed that 48 per cent of those surveyed did not believe that the SLP could provide a secure environment for the election.
While these factors point to potential trouble in electoral security, there are mitigating factors which can be leveraged to reduce the threats.
With respect to the open seat, the fact that Sierra Leone does have a history of peaceful transfers of power from one party to another indicates that if there is confidence in the electoral outcomes, the risk of post-election violence may be reduced.
There is an active and moderately funded civil society engaged in elections and peace-building through monitoring, mediation, peace messaging, and training programs.
There are district geographical/political/tribal divisions – with the APC dominant in the north and west (Temnes tribe); and the SLPP dominant in the south and east (Mendes tribe).
Sierra Leone is a majority (60 per cent) Muslim country but does not possess religious-based tensions or acts of terror. Cross-communal friendships, activities, and marriages are not uncommon.
And, while some concerns over illicit firearms are cited in border areas, guns do not appear to be the weapon of choice for perpetrators, who prefer knives and physical assaults as tactics. This can be expected to translate into manifestations of electoral violence which are less lethal than would be the case if firearms were more prevalent.
That said, preventing electoral violence will require deliberate measures to be implemented.
First, efforts must be undertaken to de-mobilise youth away from electoral violence through educational and vocation opportunities. Such solutions cannot only be directed at the pre-election phase; they must also be a long-term activity to engage this generation of citizens.
Next, any void in political party mediation opened by the lack of PPRC capacity needs to be addressed through CSOs and/or traditional leaders. Programming needs to be directed at protecting and empowering women in public life.
And, social media needs to be monitored as a potential conduit for hate so that counter messaging can be put forward.
The people of Sierra Leone experienced a ravaging civil war from 1991 to 2002 leaving 50,000 dead. While memories of this national tragedy may be slowly fading, its lessons serve to demonstrate the extremes to which a society devolve in civil strife and how actions must be taken to prevent any such history from recurring. And, elections must be viewed as an alternative to such violence as a means of achieving governance.