Democracy Works in Sierra Leone
Faculty Fellow Catherine Bolten Reports from the Field
December 6, 2012
On November 17th, the West African nation of Sierra Leone held its third general election since the end of the civil war in 2001. This was the first general election the nation had organized on its own, without assistance from the United Nations or other international partners.
The months leading up to the elections were characterized by intensive planning and public education campaigns by the nation's two independent political bodies, the National Electoral Commission and the Political Parties Registration Commission. Each ensured that the new national election laws that were passed by parliament in April 2012 were carried out to their fullest extend.
Taking lessons from election violence and "over-voting" that occurred in 2007, the new laws included draconian provisions such as a ban on wearing party colors on election day, any form of campaigning near polling stations, and, controversially, a ban on all non-official vehicles in urban areas. The National Electoral Commission urged a general closure of businesses on election day, and asked people to vote and then return home for the duration of polling.
These new laws, while cited as potentially unconstitutional by international observers such as the EU and the Carter Center, were endorsed on the basis that the political parties themselves had asked for them to be instated. This was also the first time the country was conducting four ballots on the same day: presidential, parliamentarian, district council, and local council.
On the day of the elections, people began queuing in some places at 2am, in order to vote and be able to return home before the weather became too warm to stand in line comfortably. I had breakfast with the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Makeni, who had returned briefly from his election-day duties as an official observer for the church, and then headed out to walk around the town and observe the proceedings.
Never in my time in Makeni had I seen the streets so empty! Aside from the occasional official vehicle, the streets were completely empty. Pedestrians were also minimal; most people I passed were on their way home from the polls, with their Voter ID card on a lanyard around their necks and the telltale index finger covered in Indian ink. Lines at some polling stations were long, but people were generally patient and did not complain.
By noon, most people were home again and…doing laundry. I suppose if you are told to return home after voting and remain there until the travel ban lifts at 7pm, doing a week's worth of laundry is an excellent idea.
The Results Come In
By 7pm local and international observers were already declaring the polling "peaceful, free, and transparent," and cited a voting rate of over 78%. All of the ballot counting had to be done by hand and ballot boxes brought in from villages on the borders, which meant the country waited for almost a week for the first set of results.
With the Independent Radio Network announcing provisional results three days after the election, it became clear that incumbent president Ernest Bai Koroma was in position for a landslide victory, and opposition leader Julius Maada Bio began to make noises—purely out of embarrassment—that perhaps the polling was not fair and transparent.
National Electoral Commissioner Dr. Christiana Thorpe announced the results over television and radio, with Koroma taking 58% of the popular vote, and the jubilation in Makeni was audible for miles, as this is the president's hometown. For a week Bio hemmed and hawed to the press that he had been cheated, but then agreed to have lunch with the president, at which he officially conceded.
A Victory for Democracy
Many people had been worried about this election—according to the BBC, Sierra Leone was facing "a big test" of its democracy. The international community held visions of the war fresh in their minds, fearing that any glitches would spark an immediate return to violence.
Sierra Leone surprised the world on November 17th, but they did not surprise themselves. As one youth had told me a month before the elections, "peace will prevail this November. The political system in this country is not fragile." This would serve as an excellent lesson to the rest of the world on the conduct of participatory democracy.