Africa, Africa: Women from P♂lls to P♀lls, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Women in Politics

POLITICS-SIERRA LEONE: Women As An Antidote to Corruption?

Mohamed Fofanah

FREETOWN, Aug 10 2007 (IPS) - Sierra Leone will hold general elections Saturday with a number of significant achievements in hand, not least maintaining peace for five years.

A gathering in Freetown to call for violence-free elections. Credit: Tiggy Ridley/IRIN

A gathering in Freetown to call for violence-free elections. Credit: Tiggy Ridley/IRIN

Between 1991 and 2002, the country was wracked by a brutal civil war that pitted government forces and other militants against the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF), notorious for its amputation of limbs as part of a terror campaign to control civilians.

Two polls have been successfully completed since the end of the conflict, efforts made to integrate demobilised combatants into civilian life, and also to retrain the army – which has mounted several coups in this West African country since it gained independence in 1961. In addition, millions of dollars in aid have been spent on rebuilding the state.

However, "…corruption, fuelled no doubt in part by extremely low civil service pay and emoluments, remains the elephant in the room," notes the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think tank, in a Jul. 12 report: &#39Sierra Leone: The Election Opportunity&#39.

Sierra Leone came 148th of the 163 nations surveyed for the 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), produced annually by the Berlin-based graft watchdog, Transparency International. It scored 2.2 on a scale of zero to 10 used for the CPI; a rating of less than three indicates that "corruption is perceived as rampant" in the public sector of the country concerned, notes Transparency in the Nov. 6 press release for the last year&#39s index.

An Anti-Corruption Commission has proved unable to turn the tide. Commission head Henry Joko Smart "…has focused almost exclusively on junior and mid-level officials," says the ICG, "thus sending the wrong message about endemic corruption."

To date, those convicted of graft have included a caterer at a mental hospital, the accounts officer of a library, and the headmaster of a primary school – all implicated in embezzling small amounts of money.

The failure to curb corruption has resulted in a drain on government funds needed for social services – important in any country, but perhaps especially so in Sierra Leone where under-development fuelled by graft was one of the key contributors to the 11-year civil war.

Certain woman candidates have seized on this dismal track record in their campaigns to win a place in Sierra Leone&#39s 112-seat parliament. The outgoing legislature is dominated by men: just 14.5 percent of posts in this institution were female hands. Of the 566 people contesting the Aug. 11 legislative poll, 64 are women.

"We are less corrupt than men," says Luciana James, a candidate for the People&#39s Movement for Democratic Change.

Notes Husainatu Jalloh, running on behalf of the United Peoples Party: "Women are naturally afraid of disgrace; that&#39s our make-up, and…we know that women suffer more in corrupt countries. We spite (reject) corruption, and that is what I have been telling my people."

Sierra Leone has the world&#39s highest maternal and child mortality rates, according to the 2006 United Nations Human Development Report. In an overall assessment of development, the country ranked 176 th of the 177 nations listed.

Some three quarters of people in Sierra Leone live on less than two dollars a day, notes the U.N. report, and unemployment is widespread.

While the country has extensive diamond reserves that could contribute substantially to alleviating poverty, it is estimated to be losing substantial amounts of tax revenue through smuggling of the gems. Diamonds were also used to fund the recent civil war, with former Liberian president Charles Taylor – now being tried for war crimes by the Special Court for Sierra Leone – having supplied the RUF with weapons in exchange for diamonds.

"I tell my constituency that if corruption is to be tackled, every Sierra Leonean has to decide that they want to be corruption-free, and then we strengthen the structures we use to fight corruption – and we put women in parliament and ministries and parastatals," says Elizabeth Lavalie, a candidate for the ruling Sierra Leone People&#39s Party (SLPP), and deputy speaker of the recently dissolved parliament. "Then we would (be) on a strong footing in fighting corruption."

Are these women right in believing that female legislators will automatically take the high ground when it comes to graft?

Kadijatu Barrie, for one, appears to have reservations on this matter. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) candidate said during her campaign that – if elected – she would look into whether any women in public office had been involved in graft. The NDA is the only party to field a female vice-presidential candidate.

But, notes the ICG, "Rooting it (corruption) out requires more than higher salaries or occasional exposure and prosecution of an official. It demands a thorough review of the system perpetuating the practice."

Seven parties are contesting the elections, with the SLPP, the All People&#39s Congress and the People&#39s Movement for Democratic Change considered the front runners.

SLPP presidential candidate Solomon Berewa, the current vice-president, is tipped to win the poll that will decide the next head of state.

About 2.6 million people are registered to vote. The latest census puts Sierra Leone&#39s population at approximately five million.

Republish | | Print |

sanctoral cycle