Africa, Headlines

SIERRA LEONE: Knuckling Down To Heal Political Wounds

Lansana Fofana

FREETOWN, May 19 2009 (IPS) - Incitement and violent clashes continue to shackle the government of Sierra Leone that took office two years ago. The elections were marred by reports of assassination attempts; violent confrontations between party militants; burning and looting; and widespread intimidation of voters.

The turbulence has not subsided: in March, two radio stations were taken off the air for inciting violence and by-elections put on hold because of political instability.

"There is an urgent need to review the country's electoral system and to make amends, so that the chaos and violence that characterised the polls of 2007 would be avoided," political analyst, Lawrence Davies, told IPS in the capital, Freetown.

His rallying call is what a two-day national consultative conference organised by the civil society group, Enhancing interaction and interface between civil society and the state (ENCISS) set out to do on May 8 and 9 ahead of the next elections in 2012.

The 2007 presidential and general elections saw the ousting of the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) who had won both the 1996 and 2002 polls on the Proportional Representation (PR) electoral system. Its arch-rival the All Peoples Congress (APC) ascended to power in 2007 on a constituency based or winner-takes-all system.

John Caulker of the Forum of Conscience, a rights monitoring group involved in reconciling former combatants with their communities, said the 2007 elections polarised the country.

"There is widespread regionalism and tribalism even in governmental appointments and political temperatures are still boiling. A middle road has to be found and I think the PR system deserves some consideration."

The PR system requires parties to submit the names of candidates at constituency and national levels; and allows the electorate to vote for parties instead of individuals. Former cabinet minister, Julius Spencer, who is now a media proprietor said the system was "less prone" to violence and allows for "wider representation" in decision-making.

A stance supported by Dr Nemata Majeks-Walker, a co-founder of the "50/50 Group," a women's advocacy network. "The PR system obliges parties to give quotas to women, something like 30 percent, and I think this is fair in terms of empowering women."

The constitutional review commission has rejected the gender lobby's demand for a 30 percent women?s representation in political structures and in job placements. After winning the 2007 poll, President Ernest Bai Koroma, pledged to include more women in his cabinet.

Yet there are only two women in the 44-member cabinet; only 17 women in the 124-member parliament – the ruling APC has 59 representatives, the main opposition SLPP 44, the Peoples Movement for Democratic Change nine and 12 seats have been allocated to paramount chiefs.

Approximately two million voters registered to cast there ballots in 2007 at more than 6,000 polling stations for candidates contesting in 112 constituencies. The ruling APC's secretary general, Victor Foe, maintains that a move away from this system would concentrate power in the hands of party leaders.

"The PR system is only good in times of crisis because electoral districts may not be accessible and there may be logistical difficulties. But then, it detaches the MPs from their constituents because they owe no obligation to them but to their parties. They are not individually voted for."

Ibrahim Tayib Bah, the opposition SLPP's public relations officer, said his party was not averse to the National Elections Commission (NEC) reintroducing the PR system.

"That's fine, but then, we think it would warrant a national census for its approval. For us, we are more interested in free and transparent elections so that our fledging democracy would flourish," Bah said.

The SLPP is concerned though about the independence of state institutions like the police force and the NEC.

"There is evidence that the police have not been neutral both during the 2007 elections and recently with the spiralling violence that engulfed the country in March this year," said Bah.

"They have stood by watching our party offices attacked and vandalised by supporters of the APC and did nothing. We really need reforms in the whole political and electoral arenas if the 2012 elections are to be credible," said Bah.

The NEC nullified the results of more than 400 polling stations in SLPP strongholds in the east of the country eliciting complaints of electoral bias.

"Time was not on our hands and I think with three years to go before the next elections, there is considerable room for improvement. All the NEC needs is total independence and no outside interference by political players," is the appeal from the chief electoral commissioner, Christians Thorpe.

"Most of what went wrong, in the 2007 elections, was due to the high level of illiteracy in the country. The commission therefore needs to significantly sensitise voters, on the whole electoral process and we are set to do this."

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