Sierra Leone finds itself in a state of political tension and rising violence, posing a grave threat to the fragile peace and security the country has worked hard to establish. Compounded by economic challenges, such as soaring inflation and increased food and fuel prices, Sierra Leone’s upcoming June 24 elections hold regional significance. This critical juncture occurs amidst strained political relations between the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), led by President Julius Maada Bio, and the main opposition All People’s Congress (APC) party. Additionally, concerns regarding the independence of democratic institutions, notably the Audit Service Sierra Leone (ASSL), further complicate the situation. The outcome of the June elections will have far-reaching implications for the balance of power, political stability, and the future of democracy in Sierra Leone.
Election Reforms and Their Importance
Sierra Leone recently witnessed significant election reforms through the signing of the Public Elections Bill 2022 by President Julius Maada Bio. This legislation aims to repeal and replace the Public Elections Act 2012 and provide supplementary provisions to Sections 32 and 33 of Sierra Leone’s Constitution. The extensive parliamentary debate surrounding the bill highlighted its importance and the pressing need to strengthen the country’s electoral laws. As a result of the dialogue between the Parliament’s leadership, the Speaker, and the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, amicable resolutions were reached. The amended act is expected to contribute to developing a robust and inclusive democracy in the 21st century, ensuring equal representation for all individuals. Notably, the Electoral Commissioner of Sierra Leone will now operate independently, free from any fear or favor. The Commissioner’s newfound authority includes announcing election dates, which was previously the president’s prerogative, and canceling election results in areas affected by electoral violence or malpractice.
Challenges and Concerns
While the electoral reforms hold promise, concerns have been raised, particularly by the opposition, regarding the use of the district block or proportional representation (PR) system. The PR system, outlined in Sections 38 and 38a of Sierra Leone’s 1991 Constitution, allows for two types of elections: constituency-based and proportional representation. The laws governing the PR system were not amended during the parliamentary review of the bill, reaffirming that all public elections in Sierra Leone shall continue to be conducted according to the Constitution. However, this has generated apprehension among civil society organizations, especially regarding sensitizing the population, particularly the youth and first-time voters, about the PR system’s intricacies. The Electoral Commissioner of Sierra Leone has assured the public that extensive sensitization campaigns will be carried out across the country, supplementing an already published electoral calendar.
Moreover, Sierra Leone faces ongoing challenges in maintaining peace and order as the electoral activities draw nearer. Intra and inter-party tensions remain high and have often escalated into physical violence, resulting in injuries and property damage. Instances such as the burning of Hon. Hassan’s vehicle by members of his party in Mongor Falaba District exemplify the level of discord within political factions. Furthermore, the issue of women’s participation and inclusion in the governance system remains a concern. While recent legislation mandates increased female representation in parliamentary elections, gaps and shortcomings persist in addressing the unique challenges women face in Sierra Leone.
Mitigating Election-Related Violence
Addressing the risk of election-related violence in Sierra Leone necessitates a collaborative, multi-faceted approach involving various stakeholders, including the government, political parties, civil society organizations, election management bodies, and the international community. Key strategies include fostering a level playing field for political parties, promoting tolerance and peaceful discourse, bolstering security measures, conducting comprehensive voter education campaigns, facilitating dialogue and conflict resolution, and ensuring international support.
To create a level playing field, it is essential for the government to ensure equal access to resources, media coverage, and opportunities for all political parties to campaign freely without intimidation or harassment. Impartial application and consistent enforcement of electoral laws and regulations are crucial to avoid any perception of bias.
Political leaders and parties are responsible for promoting tolerance, respect for diversity, and peaceful discourse among their supporters. They should refrain from using inflammatory language or inciting violence, instead focusing on issue-based campaigns and avoiding personal attacks or hate speech. Civil society organizations can also play a vital role in promoting peaceful discourse and facilitating dialogue among different stakeholders.
Law enforcement agencies need proper training and deployment to maintain law and order during the election period. They should act in a neutral and professional manner, ensuring the rights and safety of citizens, candidates, and election officials are protected. Adequate measures should be in place to prevent and respond to acts of violence, including hate speech, intimidation, or attacks on individuals or property.
Voter education campaigns should ensure citizens are aware of their rights, responsibilities, and the importance of peaceful participation in the electoral process. Educating voters on proper voting procedures, the legal means to resolve disputes, and the consequences of engaging in election-related violence is crucial.
Effective dialogue and conflict resolution mechanisms should be established to address any disputes or grievances arising during the electoral process. This can include establishing mediation or arbitration processes, inter-party dialogues, and a culture of peaceful conflict resolution through legal channels rather than resorting to violence.
The international community can provide support through election monitoring missions, technical assistance, and diplomatic engagement. International observers are crucial in ensuring transparency and credibility throughout the electoral process. Early warning and response mechanisms should be in place to prevent or mitigate any potential violence.
The government must explore dialogue and seek a negotiated settlement that provides a win-win solution for all parties involved. While judicial options are being pursued, political parties should refrain from acts that could destabilize the country and instead embrace peaceful means to address underlying issues. Citizens must remain calm and refrain from engaging in violence, understanding the grave implications it holds for the country’s peace and stability.
Civil society organizations are called upon to embark on extensive public education and sensitization campaigns, highlighting the potential consequences of escalating conflicts and their impact on democracy and peace.
Media outlets are responsible for demonstrating professionalism in their reportage, presenting events accurately and without unnecessary sensationalism. By airing court proceedings and fostering transparency, the Supreme Court can build public confidence in the judiciary, mitigate negative public sentiments, and discourage aggrieved parties from inciting violence.
The June 2023 elections in Sierra Leone are pivotal for the country’s democratic progress and stability. Addressing economic challenges, ensuring the independence of democratic institutions, and promoting peaceful and inclusive electoral processes are critical steps toward fostering a resilient democracy. By engaging in collaborative efforts, stakeholders can mitigate election-related violence, uphold the rule of law, and safeguard the rights and safety of citizens. The international community’s support and commitment to democratic principles will play a vital role in Sierra Leone’s journey toward continued progress and development.
Isata Mahoi, Ph.D. is National Network Coordinator, West Africa Network for Peacebuilding-Sierra Leone