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Thursday, December 7, 2023
LONDON, Jul 7 2023 (IPS) - People went to the polls in Sierra Leone on 24 June to pick a president, parliament and municipal representatives. Results were quickly announced and the president sworn in for a second term. But a cloud of doubt lingers.
Runner-up cries foul
The presidential race offered a repeat of the previous vote in 2018, when Julius Madaa Bio beat Samura Kamara in a closely fought runoff, 51.8 per cent to 48.2 per cent. But despite the economy being in worse shape than five years ago – something that might be expected to cost the incumbent support – this time round Bio’s lead was bigger. He took 56.2 per cent to Kamara’s 41.2 per cent in the first round, narrowly clearing the 55 per cent threshold needed to avoid a runoff.
Kamara and his party, the All People’s Congress (APC), immediately cried foul and demanded a rerun, saying there were ‘glaring irregularities’. While observers from the African Union and Economic Community of West African States declared the elections free and fair, others expressed concerns. European Union observers pointed to ‘statistical inconsistencies’ in the presidential election results. These include very high turnout in some districts and a very low number of invalid votes. In addition, seals were reportedly broken on some ballot boxes before votes were counted.
National Election Watch, a coalition of over 400 domestic and international civil society organisations (CSOs), has also reported concerns. It deployed 6,000 observers, covering every polling station, and used a sampling technique to estimate the results – a method that closely matched the final tallies at the last three elections. But this time its results disagreed on all the key figures: levels of support for the two main candidates, turnout and the amount of invalid votes. Based on its analysis, neither candidate was expected to clear the 55 per cent hurdle.
For transparency, domestic and international observers are calling on the electoral commission to publish detailed results with data disaggregated by polling station. The commission has said it will do so but it will take some time.
The shadow of violence
The two sides however seem set to continue at loggerheads. The APC has said it won’t take part in government at any level, including parliament and municipal councils, while state officials have said that comments from civil society and foreign governments could inflame tensions and Bio has accused governments that have expressed concern of political interference.
Over all this lurks the shadow of violence. The scars of the country’s 1991 to 2002 civil war, when tens of thousands were killed, still run deep, and any outbreak of violence sparks fears of escalation. On election day, violence was seen at a small number of polling stations. During the campaign, APC supporters complained of attacks in the south and east regions, where SLPP backing is strongest, while SLLP members also reported violence by opposition followers.
A few days before the election, violence broke out outside the APC’s headquarters in Freetown, with one person reported dead as a result of a shooting, which the APC blamed on the police. A post-election meeting at the same venue saw police surround the building and use firearms and teargas. Nurse and APC volunteer Hawa Dumbaya died after being shot in the head.
Clearly the concern shouldn’t only be about public violence – it must also be about police violence. People don’t need to look back as far as the civil war to see the danger. Last year protests sparked by soaring food inflation turned deadly, and by the time calm had returned, over 20 protesters and bystanders and six police officers had been killed. In response to protest vandalism and property damage, the police were alleged to have used live ammunition.
Troublingly, Bio responded to these protests by claiming they were acts of terrorism with the intent of overthrowing the government. He blamed the APC, since protests took place in regions where the party has most support. The government set up a committee to investigate the violence, but its report followed the government’s line.
While the scale of the 2022 violence was unprecedented in peacetime Sierra Leone, this wasn’t the first instance of the authorities responding to protests with excessive force. Meanwhile no one in the police has been held to account. It isn’t encouraging if fresh protests now result.
Transparency urgently needed
Polls always put Bio ahead, and the distribution of regional and ethnic loyalties favours him. Bio also forged alliances with some parties that had previously ran against him, incentivised by changes to the electoral system that made it harder for smaller parties to enter parliament. National Election Watch’s figures still suggest Bio was ahead of Kamara – just not by enough to avoid the runoff.
The fact that Bio didn’t clear the runoff hurdle by much is the crux of the matter, because relatively small numbers of inaccuracies could have made the difference between whether or not a second vote and continued campaigning took place.
The crucial question is what this now means for trust in democracy. If suspicions aren’t dispelled by the publication of detailed and disaggregated data and allegations aren’t fully investigated, they will thrive and take hold, even should they turn out not to be true. That can only be a setback for democracy. Sierra Leone’s people have shown consistently high levels of electoral turnout and continue to favour democracy above any other regime. But in any country, trust in democracy can be fragile and, once lost, hard to restore.
In this period of uncertainty, both sides have a responsibility to refrain from inflammatory language and actions. The government must allow peaceful protests and ensure the police don’t respond with excessive force. There’s no way forward that involves violence, whatever the source.
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