The Electoral Commission for Sierra Leone (ECSL) may have declared winners in Sierra Leone’s June 2023 multi-tier elections, but the country’s democracy ultimately emerged as the loser in the electoral process.
On 24 June 2023, Sierra Leoneans turned out in large numbers across the country for presidential, parliamentary and local government elections. Even when logistical problems in parts of the country threatened to disenfranchise some voters, in a show of resilience, they remained in line after nightfall, determined to have their voices heard through the ballot box. But that resilience from citizens turned to apathy once election results were announced by the ECSL and President Julius Maada Bio was hastily sworn in for a second term despite looming concerns from domestic and international observers about the opacity of vote tabulation and statistical inconsistencies in the official election results announced by ECSL. With the exception of vitriolic social media posts by the supporters of the two main political parties, there was an eerie silence from the people, who looked to domestic and international election observers or a seemingly disorganised, rudderless opposition party to speak for them. That same eerie silence was present the day after the Cotton Tree fell exactly one month before the 24 June elections. That once-towering national symbol of freedom was, like citizens, tired of being resilient and carrying the weight of the country’s unhealed trauma and mythical democracy on its back.
Where citizens have handed over their power to others, whether willingly or unwillingly, they are the ultimate losers. Citizen apathy undercuts the critical role that civil society plays in building confidence in democracy by closely monitoring all phases of elections. Civil society is not just organised groups or institutions like non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or professional associations or trade unions that amplify their constituencies’ voices, but more importantly, ordinary citizens or communities collectively taking social action. This is why Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) called on Sierra Leonean civil society to “safeguard democracy by highlighting instances of electoral fraud.” Unfortunately, when National Election Watch (NEW), the country’s largest coalition of citizen election observers, raised questions and concerns about the election results announced by ECSL based on the findings of its Process Results and Vote Transparency (PRVT), the citizen group and some of its members were met with intimidation and death threats.
The June 2023 elections and their aftermath were riddled with missed opportunities to signal that electoral democracy is advancing in Sierra Leone. By its unresponsiveness to public calls for polling station results to be published, the ECSL has failed to clear doubt about vote tabulation and results. Aggrieved parties, namely the All People’s Congress, shut the door on challenging the election results through due process in the courts. The government likewise has floundered in shoring up citizens’ confidence in its stated commitment to free, fair, transparent and credible elections. Rather, some government officials seem intent on doing linguistic gymnastics to emphasise the peaceful nature of the election while avoiding mention of transparency and credibility, deflecting attention from questions and concerns about electoral irregularities to appointments to Bio’s new youthful and more gender-inclusive cabinet, and gaslighting citizens by accusing those who raise concerns about electoral irregularities of inciting instability in the country. What these politicians fail to grasp is that when lingering doubts exist about the electoral process or results, anything that flows from it, including commendable actions, becomes tainted.
While elections serve as a strong indicator of how a State regards the will of the people, elections are not the sole determinant of the state of a nation’s democratic advancement or regression. Beyond elections, democratic litmus tests include governments’ accountability to their people delivered through strong, effective, independent institutions like the election management body and judiciary; the level of civic engagement and inclusion; and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Literally or constructively foreclosing citizens’ outlets for channelling grievances, like protests, the right to assemble, the courts, or even the ballot box, is a recipe for violence, as Sierra Leone’s history shows.
Citizens keep the heartbeat of democracy alive. One does not have to look far for examples. A civil society effort in Burkina Faso comprising organised labour, opposition groups, and youth movements manifested the wider Burkinabé resolve to derail President Blaise Compaoré’s plans in 2014 to amend the constitution and keep himself in office. In Guinea, a youth-led coalition of civil society groups and political parties was not as successful in eventually stopping President Alpha Condé from holding a constitutional referendum in 2020 to remove Presidential term limits. However, citizens’ staunch resistance and the international community’s vocal concerns succeeded in getting the referendum postponed twice. Last month, Senegalese civil society pressure drove President Macky Sall to announce that he would not be seeking a third term in office in next year’s polls, an otherwise unconstitutional move that Sall, until he lost the game of chicken with Senegalese civil society, was hoping he could execute by force and through dubious legal interpretations.
Make no mistake, Sierra Leone is no Senegal. For decades, Sierra Leone’s leaders have banked on the resignation of citizens, overwhelming the people with rhetoric, distractions, division, and violent force to suppress pro-democracy efforts as people struggle to survive one political, social, or economic crisis after another. The TRC noted, for instance, that while dragging the country toward authoritarianism, the Siaka Stevens government “used concerns about internal security as a pretext to stifle the nascent democratic culture” and subjected state institutions to strict political control. Four decades later, Sierra Leoneans are having déjà vu. For instance, shortly after NEW published some of its PRVT findings in the June 2023 elections, the Office of National Security issued a press release alleging that such publication by NEW had the “tendency to provoke undue tension in the country”.
Sierra Leone seems to share a playbook with its neighbour, Guinea, in this respect. Condé used violence and intimidation, ethno-regional sentiments, and corruption to suppress, divide, or influence civil society leaders opposing his third-term bid while pushing propaganda through state-controlled media, resulting in about 42 deaths and voter apathy that made securing the constitutional change a breeze for him. As the flag bearers of democracy, members of Sierra Leonean civil society must demonstrate independence and non-susceptibility to division or influence, disprove their infamous status as being “on the waiting list” to get into government, and have the responsibility, as the TRC aptly pointed out, to “be watchdogs, not lapdogs” of government.
No other actor in a State sets a country’s democratic standards more than citizens. Citizens’ questions and demands to State institutions during and between elections serve as guideposts for the government on the will of the people and gaps in fulfilling it. This holds true at all levels of governance in Sierra Leone because citizen engagement, and in turn apathy, starts at the local level. So rather than rhetoric and a heavy-handed tightening of the screws of power, if national and local governments in Sierra Leone want to pay more than a lip service commitment to democracy, they would do well to listen carefully to and take cues from the people.
Eleanor Thompson is a public interest lawyer