‘Make-or-break’ time as impoverished, war-ravaged nation goes to the polls

Sunday Herald
Freetown, Sierra Leone

For the first time since the end of a bloody civil war in Sierra Leone five years ago, elections were held yesterday without the presence of thousands of international peacekeepers. Instead it was the task of the reformed national police force to maintain security in presidential and parliamentary elections organised by the equally untested electoral commission.

National Electoral Commission (NEC) chairwoman Christiana Thorpe declared the elections to be “make or break”, adding: “People need to understand that elections should not be a battle, it is a process.”

At times the campaigns looked more like the former, with fighting breaking out in some regional cities, particularly in the south and east of the country. But, as the final week approached, Sierra Leone was showing signs that it was coming of age.

Political leaders heeded the call from civil society groups and the United Nations to tone down their combative rhetoric and call for peaceful elections. Supporters on the streets were almost as adamant that they would not resort to violence as they were that their chosen party would win.

In the week running up to yesterday’s polls, the ability of the police force to contain the often-excitable crowds was tested as campaigning reached its climax with a series of rallies in the capital Freetown, a sweaty and ramshackle coastal city that seems to crawl out of the Atlantic and into the jungle-covered hills above.

On Tuesday, thousands of supporters clad in the party’s orange colour marched through the city and swarmed into Victoria Park during a rally for the opposition People’s Movement for Democratic Change. As their candidate, Charles Margai, arrived there was a scrum around the bandstand from which he was due to address the crowd. The heavy deployment of unarmed police officers quickly brought calm.

The following day, supporters of the main opposition, All People’s Congress (APC), filled the national stadium for its final rally. In the evening sun the usually empty 35,000-capacity stadium was turned red by tens of thousands of jubilant supporters dressed in party colours. Once again the police kept their cool and maintained calm as party leader Ernest Koroma declared that the APC would return to power in the elections after more than a decade in the political wilderness.

On Thursday, the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) staged a rally through the streets of Freetown, led by SLPP candidate Solomon Berewa, the current vice-president.

“The police lost all the confidence of the people before and during the war but we are regaining their trust,” said Kadi Fakondo, assistant inspector-general of the Sierra Leone police. “This election is a big test for us,” she added.

It is also a big test for Sierra Leone. If a transparent and credible electoral process can be completed it will be good news for the world’s second poorest country, which is still emerging from one of Africa’s most brutal civil wars, which saw 11 years of murder, mutilation and destruction tear the country apart. The war was fuelled by the cash from “blood diamonds” taken from the sticky alluvial soils of eastern Sierra Leone.

“This time around it is we Sierra Leoneans who are taking the democratic process forward,” said Josephine Koroma, deputy executive director of the Network Movement for Justice and Development. “It is very important that we run this election properly so Sierra Leone is seen as credible by the international community.”

Yesterday’s elections did not mark the end of that process and it is feared that supporters of the losing parties might react with anger and violence as the results become clear in the coming days. Already some politicians have declared that anything short of an outright victory for their party will be proof of vote-rigging.

Whoever is announced as the winner will face many problems, including an unemployment rate close to 80%, a generation of disenchanted youth (who make up more than half of the country’s 2.6 million voters) and rampant corruption, which the SLPP under outgoing president Ahmed Tejan Kabbah has dismally failed to rein in. Some observers say corruption has actually worsened in recent years.

But a stable and democratic Sierra Leone would be a significant anchor in this volatile part of West Africa, and help to cement peace in the region. It would also show that large-scale humanitarian intervention in a brutal conflict can succeed in bringing about at least the basics of democracy.