Late in the afternoon of Friday 24 November, as the sun was setting over the busy streets of downtown Freetown, the National Election Commission (NEC) of Sierra Leone called a press conference to announce the results of the Presidential Elections, ending a week of uncertainty and speculations. As anticipated by many, the sitting President Ernest Bai Koroma of the All People’s Congress (APC) secured a second term in power with almost 59 percent of the votes cast, thereby avoiding a run-off against the main opposition leader, the former military junta leader Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), who received 37, 4 percent. None of the other candidates were able to secure more than 1,5 precent, confirming the growing polarisation of the political landscape in post-war Sierra Leone. The turnout was high, with a national average of 87 percent.
The declaration of the results set off an intense frenzy of activities on the streets of Freetown, with large numbers of people dressed in red (the colour of the APC) dancing, cheering and singing amidst the ear-deafening sounds of car horns, whistle pipes and the banging of pots and pans. “Ampa Ampoh” (“it is over” in Temne), was chanted by happy supporters as the party continued on many street corners throughout the night, not least around the APC party office.
Not everyone welcomed the results. In the opposition camp, tensions were mounting already prior to the announcement of the election outcome. Immediately after the voting day, the SLPP released a press statement in which it expressed its concern over “electoral irregularities” and “malpractices”, including alleged ballot-stuffing and physical assaults on polling agents by state security services. The statement also accusing NEC of political bias in favour of the incumbent party, and concluded that the SLPP was “only willing to accept results from an election that is considered credible… and that “[t]hese unfortunate incidences not only have the potential to undermine the credibility of the election results but have the tendency to derail our effort to consolidate our hard-earned peace”. The People’s Movement of Democratic Change (PMDC) voiced similar allegations.
In an effort to respond to these accusations and quell any continued speculations, the Chairperson of NEC, Christiana Thorpe, called a press conference on Wednesday 21 November, where she addressed these allegations, while simultaneously encouraging the political parties in question to come forth and present any evidence of illegal activities to the police. NEC acknowledged that some cases of irregularities had been reported on voting day, and confirmed that about 10 percent of the polling station results had been quarantined and the votes from those stations recounted. However, with the exception of a few and isolated cases, no evidence of over-voting or ballot stuffing had been discovered. The large number of international and domestic election observer teams echoed this message, and all have declared the elections free of systematic malpractice and generally commenced the performance of NEC for its political independence and impartiality in their preliminary assessments.
However, at the same time, there is little doubt the elections were conducted on what has been termed an “uneven playing field” where the incumbent was able to take significant advantage of its position in power, not least in terms of access to resources for campaigning. Richard Howitt, head of the European Union Election Observation Mission, claimed to local newspapers that APC had enjoyed 61 percent of airtime on the state broadcaster the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation, compared to 18 percent for the SLPP.
It is against this backdrop of perceived injustice and feeling of growing marginalisation that frustration is boiling beneath the surface within the opposition camp. In a country where the winner literarily takes it all, the stakes of elections are high, and the costs of defeat detrimental. No matter whether you are the flag bearer of the party or an ex-soldier or ex-militia working behind the scenes as part of the party’s unofficial security task force, a loss at the polls means another five years out in the cold, another five years of struggle for survival and access to resources.
Although the electoral process so far has been largely peaceful, the last couple of weeks have also seen a number of minor events that have sparked incidents of electoral violence. So far, such incidents have been effectively contained by the state’s security forces, and have not escalated into any serious clashes. However, the heavy and visible presence of both the police and the military patrolling the streets during the election period have not always rendered a sense of security among the population. For some, it has instead been a cause of provocation and a sign that the APC is conflating the party with the state in an attempt to consolidate its power gains.
On the Monday following the elections, a dispute ensued between a group of SLPP supporters and some police and military personnel patrolling the town of Kailahun in Eastern Sierra Leone. It remains unclear how the dispute erupted, but while attempting to arrest the supporters for disorderly behaviour, one of the men attempted to disarm the military personnel and assaulted three police officers. The supporters were taken to the local police station for questioning. During the night hours, a large numbers of civilians approached the station while singing society songs and carrying sticks demanding their release. A curfew was imposed and the arrested men were brought to Kenema under armed escort.
On the Sunday after the announcement of the results, some 20 ballot boxes were found in a polling centre in Bo town, a traditional stronghold of the SLPP. As the rumour spread that the boxes contained votes that had been deliberately withheld by NEC, groups of SLPP youths took to the streets to protest. Riots broke out and the police had to fire tear gas to disperse the crowd. During the day, the tensions spread to the nearby town of Kenema where the police subsequently imposed a dusk to dawn curfew. According to NEC officials, the ballot boxes had already been counted for and were only stored awaiting further transportation.
Such incidents are likely to pose a latent threat as long as the SLPP leadership refuses to concede its electoral defeat. In a statement on Saturday 24 November, Maada Bio declared that his party was not ready to ”accept results of any rigged election” and that ” the process was fraudulent and the results do not reflect the will of the people of Sierra Leone”. Although simultaneously calling on his supporters to remain calm and law-abiding while awaiting the official party line of the SLPP (any court case against the election results must be turned in within 10 days of the announcement of the results), his message could easily be interpreted as a go-ahead of continued protests and violent resistance.
In his inaugural speech, President Koroma extended an invitation to the opposition in general and the SLPP in particular, suggesting that ”[t]he time for politics is over, the moment for continuing the transformation has come. This is the time for all of us to embrace each other. In the name of Mama Sierra Leone, let all APC supporters embrace every SLPP supporter and supporters of other political parties. I am inviting the leadership of the SLPP and other political parties to join the leadership of the APC in moving this country forward.”
It is however unlikely that we have seen the end of politics in Sierra Leone. In a country where everything is politics, and politics is everything, the politricks of the key political players is likely to continue for some time to come.
Mimmi Söderberg Kovacs is a senior researcher in peace and conflict studies heading the NAI research project Between Big Man Politics and Democratisation: Local Perceptions and Individual Agency in Processes of Electoral Violence. She was in Sierra Leone during the elections.
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