“We want a transparent election with no violence” was a statement shared by people in the streets of Freetown when they went to vote for the presidential and parliamentary elections yesterday (November 17). With no cars allowed in the street and with the threat of being arrested if gathering in groups or if engaging in any form of political campaigning, Freetown street life was marked by an unusual quietness. Before daybreak people were queuing waiting for the polling stations to open and voter turnout was reported high all over the country. With the exception of a few incidents, the election has been reported generally peaceful so far.
Marking the third general elections since the civil war, the elections are an important test to democratization and consolidation of peace. Moreover, the elections are an important test to the role military and militia formations will play in politics. During the 2007 elections former soldiers and militia members were mobilized into unofficial task force constellations by presidential candidates who lacked trust in the police to secure them. This mobilization not only activated old grudges between rival groupings, but also came to shape patterns political organization and security provision more broadly. Even though task force members were on trial for offenses relation to electoral – and post-electoral – violence, they were rewarded with official positions as tax collectors, mines monitors, and even as presidential guards with office at State House. Since then, they have been important players in political life. The 2012 elections is no exception in this regard. One out of several indicators of how militarised networks will continue to influence Sierra Leone politics is that Julius Maada Bio of the SLPP – a retired soldier who was head of state in 1996 during the military junta government – stand as presidential candidate. Like the current President, Ernest Bai Koroma of the APC, Maada Bio has an army of loyal ex-militias and ex-soldiers behind him – an army that can be directed for violent as well as peaceful purposes, as soldiers of as well as against democracy.
Today, these mobilized ex-soldiers and ex-militias are waiting at their respective party offices to know whether the election will position them as winners of losers. They have been waiting for this moment for long, and refer to the election as the “die minute”, knowing that the outcome will come to shape their future lives. If their favored candidate wins, the junior task force members may be rewarded with regular employment, and the senior ones may move a step closer to bigmanity. If their candidate loses, they are likely to get excluded from access to resources and from sources of protection. Whereas the process of campaigning has been dominated by intense action and busyness, as they have been constantly on the move to rally behind politicians and to organize security around the party offices, they are aware their lives may soon (again)be marked by stuckedness. Soon after electoral results are declared, life at the party office will no longer be a space of swarming activity and celebration, and they will no longer be encouraged with money, food, and similar “moral boosters” to keep up their political engagement. If they win, they might leave the part office, but if they lose they will (re)turn to waiting for a better future to come.
At this moment of suspense, both Maada Bio and Ernest Koroma are confident they are going to win the elections in the first round (which demands that they get 55 % of the votes). And so are the former militias and soldiers rallying behind them. Though Maada Bio – who despite his stained reputation refers to himself as ‘a contributor to democracy’ – has publicly declared that he will only accept the results if the elections are “clean” and “accepted by all”, task force members of both APC and SLPP seem to agree that “politics is not a war”. Yet, having given up everything to rally behind politicians – their time, their security, their lives outside the confines of the party office – they argue that they are entitled to harvest the benefit of their sacrifices. Also for this reason, they state that they will not accept defeat. In the next couple of days – if a run-off for a second round is not announced, we will know whether Ernest Koroma will continue to rule, of if Maada Bio will return to power. And we will know how mobilized ex-militias and ex-soldiers will handle victory – and defeat.
Maya Christensen is a PhD candidate at Copenhagen University. She has conducted fieldwork with ex-combatants in Freetown and Kailahun. She is without doubt one of the most knowledgeable of researchers dealing with contemporary structures of the rebel armies and militias in post-war Sierra Leone. Currently she is in Sierra Leone doing work within our project on election violence in West Africa.