Sierra Leone’s fourth post-war presidential, parliamentary, and local elections, scheduled for March 7, 2018, will be the litmus test to assess whether democratic principles are entrenched in the country’s post-conflict electoral politics. This is because the upcoming elections are the first to be organized solely by the government since the end of the civil strife in January 2002, and the departure of the United Nations (UN) peacekeeping mission in 2014. Earlier elections in 2002, 2007, and 2012 were supervised by the UN.
Multiparty politics since independence in 1961 has been ethnically and regionally focused and has been dominated by the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) and the All People’s Congress (APC), the current ruling party. SLPP’s tenures in government, from 1961-1967 and 2002-2007, ended in orderly transfers of power to the APC through democratic elections. On the other hand, the APC’s first attempt at governing, which began in 1968, ended 24 years later with a military coup in 1992. The APC’s rule was characterized by poor governance, political thuggery and intimidation, one-party authoritarian rule, rampant corruption, and the abuse of the rule of law and human rights. 1
The APC’s current tenure mirrors the party’s governing style in the pre-conflict era. As a result, some political observers wonder whether the 2018 elections will be free, fair, and credible and if the APC would hand over power peacefully if defeated at the polls. The answers to these questions are not straightforward as the APC has deployed both legal and non-legal means to weaken opposition parties and undermine their participation in the elections. On the non-legal front, violence has been used as a political tool against the opposition. While there are many reports of violence between the APC and opposition parties, there are no reports of such violence between the various opposition parties. On the legal front, the APC attempted to change section 42(2) (e) and (f) of the 1991 Constitution to lower the minimum threshold for victory in presidential elections from “55 percent of valid votes” cast, to “more than fifty percent.” The government argued that the change was being advocated to avoid the unnecessary financial cost of organizing a run-off election, and due to national security considerations. The bill, presented on December 7, 2017 (the last day of the parliamentary cycle), was defeated.
The APC’s actions have given credence to the widely held belief that the first round of voting in the 2012 election, in which they won 58.7 percent of the vote, was rigged. Some pundits believe that the APC is currently in panic mode because the prospect of stealing the elections this time around is highly unlikely due to the presence of new actors in the political arena. Although there are sixteen political parties contesting the elections, the emergence of the National Grand Coalition (NGC) and the Coalition for Change (C4C), and the groundswell of support for them in the APC’s traditional strongholds in the Northern Province, Kono District in the Eastern province, and in the capital city Freetown, will likely cut into the APC’s traditional voting bloc.
Having failed to pass the bill changing the winning percentage for the presidential election, the APC opened a new legal frontier to shrink the democratic space and edge out their most feared competitor in the presidential election. The APC challenged the candidacy of Dr. Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella (KKY) in court—both as the NGC presidential nominee and a parliamentary candidate in constituency 062 in Kambia District—even after he was duly cleared by the National Electoral Commission (NEC) to contest the March 7 elections. In their petition, which invoked section 76(1) (a), a largely ignored clause in the country’s 1991 Constitution, the APC claimed that Yumkella, as a dual citizen of Sierra Leone and the United States of America (USA), is not eligible to contest in any election in Sierra Leone.
The Constitutional Review Committee (CRC) report, submitted in January 2017, recommended the inclusion of a specific ‘Chapter on Citizenship’ in the revised Constitution. It further suggested the inclusion of an amendment to Sections 75 and 76 to enable naturalized citizens to hold public and elected offices, except for the presidency, and to allow citizens (by birth) to keep their citizenship even if they acquired another. However, the only recommendation the APC Government included in the 2017 Citizenship Amendment Act presented to parliament on July 5, 2017, was one that gave citizenship rights to children born of Sierra Leonean women with foreign partners. The APC’s so-called ‘recourse to justice’ in the name of democracy is seen as yet another political shenanigan aimed at strengthening the party’s hold on power.
The Supreme Court’s verdict on whether Yumkella is eligible to contest this week’s election was expected on February 28. The ruling was first adjourned to March 2 because one of the judges reported sick; another adjournment was made to Monday, March 5 after the defendant’s legal team requested the recusal of two of the judges hearing the case. Whatever the Supreme Court’s verdict, the genie is out of the bottle. Sierra Leonean politics has moved beyond primordial loyalties to embrace a broader national character. The NGC’s message of change, transformation, and equal opportunity, focusing on the poor state of the economy, endemic corruption, youth unemployment, and the misuse of funds set aside for Ebola and mudslide victims, resonates with both urban elites and ordinary citizens regardless of ethnicity. The NGC’s introduction of issue-based campaigning has rattled both the APC and SLPP and forced them to defend their track records vociferously.
The new political activism across all sectors of society has resulted in the organization of Sierra Leone’s first post-UN withdrawal elections, as well as public opinion polling (though imperfect) to assess how the various political parties will fare on March 7. Whatever the outcome of the elections, the NGC’s presence in Sierra Leone’s political landscape has demonstrated that issue-based campaigns and democratic values are now part of the country’s political discourse. If the elections are free and fair and the NGC emerges as one of the two parties in the presidential run-off election, there is a chance that the coalition might overturn the two entrenched parties’ dominant hold over Sierra Leone’s political system. The future of democratic governance and peace in Sierra Leone will, however, depend on whether the elections are in fact free and fair.
- Summary of the findings from Chapter 2 Volume 3A of Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report. Full report available here: http://www.sierraleonetrc.org/index.php/view-the-final-report/download-table-of-contents. ↩