As Sierra Leone gears up for the much-anticipated presidential, parliamentary, and local council elections in June 2023, citizens are preparing to elect leaders who will rule them for the next five years. This election will mark the fifth election since the end of the civil conflict in 2002, a significant achievement and progress for democratic consolidation. However, as the country’s political parties gear up for another electoral battle, questions remain about the role of political parties in Sierra Leone’s democratic process.
Sierra Leone’s political parties have a long and varied history, dominated by a two-party system, in which the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) and the All Peoples Congress (APC) continue to dominate the political landscape. While smaller parties exist, they lack influence and most likely disappear or are absorbed into one of the two dominant parties. The electoral system of a single majoritarian further compounds this political makeup.
Political parties are crucial to the democratic process, providing choices for citizens by articulating their policies, recruiting personnel, and providing a vision and strategies to achieve this according to their political ideology. However, they can also be sources of tyranny and repression, as seen in Sierra Leone’s history. Political parties are the link between the state and civil society, the institutions of government, and the groups and interests that operate within society.
The key to any democratic process is representation, and political parties are the vehicles for representation. The ethos of that political party matters just as much as the candidates put forward by these parties and the people who vote. In previous elections, people tended to vote according to the colour or symbol without truly knowing the candidates. Political campaigns are designed and geared towards national-level cult-like euphoria regardless of a particular candidate’s suitability, character, or integrity. Building the odd water well, distributing school materials, or giving away money and t-shirts to rallying crowds has been the modus operandi for candidacy.
Moreover, political parties should also reflect the national composition. Ethnicity, age, or sex are important components of inclusive representation. Much has been documented about the lack of political and public space for women, and it is argued that introducing proportional representation would increase female representation. However, political parties’ internal structures relegate women to the sideshow of women’s wings, cooks, praise singers, and dancers. Those who make it are reluctant to rock the proverbial boat and challenge the patriarchy within their party.
Furthermore, very little has been said or done to include Sierra Leoneans born and bred of different races or ethnicity in our political space. Yet Sierra Leoneans who emigrate to other parts of the world expect and are afforded the same right to vote or be voted for in their adopted country. This hypocrisy reflects lazy and discriminatory politics devoid of any justification.
Political parties stand on their ideology, policies, and agenda. This attracts votes, but political parties lack a clear-cut ideology in Sierra Leone. Some identify themselves with, for example, Socialists-Comrades, while others describe their policies as social democratic. The wish list of party manifestos enshrines all the wonderful ideas and many unfulfilled promises. Rather than delivering on these promises, citizens are inundated with a barrage of gimmicky soundbites and populist rhetoric as a quick fix to describe intentions. In 62 years, Sierra Leone has yet to achieve the meaningful political or economic development promised to catapult it from one of the poorest countries in the world to a middle-income country.
One of the most disappointing and disturbing aspects of political parties in Sierra Leone is political cross-carpeting. Party cross-carpeting has become a predictable art form during every election and is the hallmark of political dregmanism and the politics of survival. Financial godfathers and kingpins who buy their way into positions and contracts with little or no experience in public life also plague the political landscape.
Political party reform is necessary to practice inclusive politics in Sierra Leone. Different opinions and people should be made to feel part of the process to usher in the much-needed development in the country. Multiparty democracy is a preferred form of governance, but the tenets of democracy must be adhered to, including transparency, financial probity, and adherence to ideals and principles. Sierra Leoneans need to choose their leaders based on character, suitability, and integrity, and political parties must focus on articulating policies that can bring about meaningful political and economic development.
Lena Thompson lectures at Fourah Bay College