Elections in Sierra Leone

On November 17, the people of Sierra Leone go to the polls in presidential, parliamentary, and local council elections. This will be the third presidential election since Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war ended in 2002, and it will be an important benchmark for judging the extent of its post-conflict recovery. President Ernest Bai Koroma of the All People’s Congress (APC) is the favorite to win a second term in office, but his main opponent, Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), is promising a strong showing.

Q1: How important are the elections in the context of Sierra Leone’s history?

A1: To understand the importance of these elections, it is worth considering the factors that precipitated Sierra Leone’s disintegration. Sierra Leone inherited a relatively well-functioning state at independence in 1961 but quickly descended into dysfunction, becoming less and less responsive to the needs of its people. Corruption and patronage went unchecked, and opposition regional and ethnic groups became increasingly marginalized. By the early 1990s, there was a sense that the government had completely lost touch with the young, uneducated, and impoverished population. Sierra Leone imploded into a vicious civil war that was fueled by instability in neighboring states and sustained by the exploitation of the country’s rich natural resources. Several regional mediation attempts failed before a foreign military intervention helped bring an end to the conflict in 2002.

Ten years on, divisions remain, but Sierra Leone has successfully demobilized and disarmed ex-combatants, prosecuted some of the leading perpetrators of the war, and prevented a reversion to conflict. Governing institutions have been rebuilt and are steadily improving their performance. Investments in infrastructure and social services have yielded steady results, although the country continues to rank last in West Africa on numerous human development indicators. The 2012 election provides an opportunity to consolidate the country’s progress. However, it is also likely to be a deeply polarizing event that will test the resolve of Sierra Leone to continue along a peaceful path toward reconciliation and development.

Q2: Why is this election significant?

A2: Perhaps most significant is that this election is the first to be primarily organized and administered by Sierra Leone itself. The international community has provided some support through security force training, technical assistance, and civil society strengthening—primarily coordinated through the UN Peacebuilding Commission—but Sierra Leone is in the lead. A successful election would send a strong message that Sierra Leone is able to manage its own affairs.

Sierra Leone’s ethnic makeup has been decisive in shaping previous election outcomes. The largest ethnic group, the Mende, who live in the south and east, have historically favored the SLPP. The APC garners support from northern Temne and Limba ethnic groups, although it has recently made inroads into traditional SLPP strongholds. Since the end of the civil war, no election has been completely free of irregularities and violence. The 2007 presidential election resulted in the peaceful transfer of power from the SLPP to the opposition APC but not before the electoral commission controversially annulled large numbers of votes from SLPP areas. The current election campaign has proceeded relatively peacefully, but incendiary commentary in the media and rhetoric at political rallies has caused concern.

Some areas are particularly prone to tensions, particularly the eastern mining district of Kono, where the majority of diamond deposits are located. Kono is a wild card in Sierra Leone’s presidential contest. With its shifting ethnic and demographic composition, its above-average rates of poverty and youth unemployment, and a history of exclusion from national development, Kono is a potential tinderbox. The south-central district of Bo is also a hotly contested area.

Efforts have been made to calm the political temperature. In May this year, political parties, security forces, and civil society groups committed themselves to free, fair, and nonviolent elections. There has since been a concerted effort to discourage inflammatory rhetoric, to denounce violence, to deemphasize identity-based politics, to train the security forces to respond professionally, and to maintain focus on the policy issues facing Sierra Leone.

Q3: Who are the main presidential contenders?

A3: There are eight candidates for the presidency. The leading contenders are incumbent President Ernest Bai Koroma (APC) and Julius Maada Bio (SLPP), who was head of state for a short time in 1996 after seizing power from former military ruler Valentine Strasser. Although Koroma appears to be the frontrunner, he may struggle to win the 55 percent of first round votes needed to avoid a runoff on December 8. On the eve of the elections, both parties are claiming certain victory, although the absence of proper polling makes it hard to judge whether their confidence is misplaced. The first-round results are expected by November 26.

During his first term, President Koroma has worked hard to overcome the legacy of the APC, whose years of failed governance precipitated Sierra Leone’s civil war. He introduced a series of programs under his “Agenda for Change” that appear to resonate with foreign investors and average citizens alike. Roads, power, and water supplies have been extended to several areas, and he has instituted a commitment to spend 40 percent of the budget on health, education, and agriculture. Koroma has talked tough on corruption, but it remains a pervasive challenge. His decision to reappoint his controversial vice president, Samuel Sam-Sumana, as a running mate could tarnish his track record, as Sam-Sumana has been accused in a scandal involving the illegal sale of timber. Many agree that there has been a marked improvement in the rule of law, security, and basic respect for human rights under Koroma’s leadership. However, he is criticized for failing to significantly alleviate poverty rates, and some perceive that he prioritized the interests of foreign companies above those of his citizens. Koroma hopes to build on his track record with a second term under his “Agenda for Prosperity,” in which he intends to shift the focus toward human development.

The SLPP challenger, former Brigadier General Julius Maada Bio, hopes to unseat Koroma, citing the government’s lackluster performance on development and governance. Bio first appeared on the national scene as a junior officer in the junta that overthrew the APC regime in 1992. After leading another coup in 1996, he served briefly as head of state. He has been depicted by his opponents as a remnant of Sierra Leone’s violent past. Bio contrasts himself with Koroma by promising more investment in agriculture as opposed to infrastructure. He claims he will reduce poverty and hunger and ensure that Sierra Leone receives the maximum benefit from its natural resources. In reality, Bio’s “New Direction” for Sierra Leone appears to differ little from Koroma’s platform.

Q4: What has been done to prepare for peaceful, free, and fair elections?

A4: Sierra Leone’s elections are organized by the National Electoral Commission (NEC), which has steadily increased in professionalism and accountability. The use of biometric voter registration has centralized the voter registration process, but there were initial delays in compiling the voter roll and issuing identification cards. On the eve of the elections, the country is technically well-prepared for the exercise.

The process has been deemed free of visible political interference, despite the SLPP voicing concerns about the electoral commissioner—a female former cabinet member of 1992 coup leader Valentine Strasser. They have complained about an NEC-produced poster depicting the presidential candidates that will be placed at every voting station. Koroma is featured at the top, while Bio appears as the fifth candidate on the list.

The Sierra Leone Police will be critical in keeping order during the election period; they have received considerable training to handle incidents of violence and have been at the forefront of sensitizing communities on the dangers of political violence through public awareness campaigns and bipartisan “peace rallies.” There has been a great deal of effort to prevent politicization of the security institutions, but the SLPP continues to allege that they are a tool of the APC.

This may prove to be Sierra Leone’s most closely monitored election, with the European Union, the African Union, the Commonwealth, and nongovernmental organizations such as the U.S.-based Carter Center sending observer missions. An online platform was recently launched to track all election-related developments, adding another layer of transparency.

Q5: What critical issues will face the next president of Sierra Leone?

A5: The next president will face the challenge of building on postwar improvements in governance, rule of law, security, and development. Foremost on the president’s agenda should be to promote inclusivity and accountability in his own government. This includes appealing to citizens regardless of their ethnicity and promoting women to more leadership positions. Corruption is still rampant, and strengthening measures to prevent graft will be just as important as naming and shaming the perpetrators. Building professionalism and competence at all levels of public administration will help the government gain the trust of its people and overcome the legacy of identity and patronage politics.

Educating Sierra Leone’s burgeoning young population and creating economic opportunity for those who do not benefit from formal education will be critical. Continued investments in transport and power infrastructure will be top priorities; so too will be efforts to bolster the agriculture sector.

Sierra Leone is endowed with tremendous natural resource wealth. Its mining sector will soon give a significant boost to GDP and revenue, and its offshore hydrocarbon potential has recently attracted investment. Creating a revenue investment plan in line with its development priorities is critical to ensure that Sierra Leone’s wealth translates into economic growth that benefits the entire population.

Patrick Pratt is an intern with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions
is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Patrick Pratt