Sierra Leone: A Decisive Mandate

Sierra Leone: A Decisive Mandate

by / Comments Off / 34 View / 5th December 2012

Despite claims by the losing opposition party that its defeat in last month’s elections was suspect, the result, in the end, reflected the will of the majority of Sierra Leoneans.

President Ernest Bai Koroma and the ruling All Peoples Congress (APC) triumphed in the presidential and parliamentary elections held in Sierra Lone on November 17. The president garnered 1,314,881, thus giving him 58.7 per cent of the vote while his main opponent, Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) came a distant second with 837,517, or 37.4 per cent of the vote.

There was equally good news for the APC in the parliamentary election in which the party gained eight seats, winning 67, up from 59 in the 2007 election. The SLPP, on the other hand, saw its parliamentary seats reduced from 45, five years ago, to 42 in 2012. The People’s Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC), which formed a loose alliance with the APC in 2007, was wiped out in 2012, losing the eight seats it had. Now it is back to the old political order: an APC-SLPP parliament.

The National Electoral Commission, to all intents and purposes, conducted the elections commendably despite the tension. Under intense pressure from the SLPP, the NEC failed to buckle. The elections, according to various observer bodies including the European Union and the Carter Centre, were ‘peaceful and well-conducted’ and represented an important step towards consolidation of the country’s democracy.

But the SLPP, in particular, and the People’s Movement for Democratic change (PMDC) begged to differ, proffering unsubstantiated claims that the vote was rigged in favour of the APC. The parties implied that staff of the NEC and members of the security services were complicit in this. The NEC dealt with all these allegations by asking for proof or clarifying points raised.

For instance, dealing with a complaint by the two parties that the Final Voter Registers were missing in several polling stations in Bombali and Koinadugu, the NEC said that in the case of the former the register was ‘later found in another centre within the same ward’. In the case of Koinadugu, the NEC said: ‘The election procedure allows for the generation of the register based on the presentation of a voter ID where the original register was not available on polling day. This was what occurred in Koinadugu and in any other area where it was found necessary to do so.’

Regarding other alleged misdemeanours such as NEC officials directing voters to vote for the president, the electoral body said: ‘In response to this matter, we advise that this information be given to the police.’ The parties were also advised to ‘provide evidence in their possession’ after claiming that NEC officials influenced voters’ choice.

There are no gold, silver or bronze standards by which such elections are measured. Rather it is whether the elections reflect the general will of the people. In the case of last month’s elections in Sierra Leone, the outcome does reflect the will of Sierra Leoneans, despite what the EU called ‘an unequal playing field’ in the use of state media and other resources.

Indeed, the power of incumbency gives some advantage to the sitting government in almost any election, including the recent US elections which President Barack Obama won. Air Force One, for instance, was used frequently for ostensibly official travel.

In the UK, when the Conservative Party was in opposition, it used to complain that the Labour Party under Prime Minister Tony Blair was using government programmes and activities as electoral campaigning tools. Although a date would not have been officially set, it was clear when Britons would go to the polls. So while the media were busy covering the Labour Party’s activities that were clearly part of an election campaign, the Conservatives could only watch and remain silent because they did not want to break strict laws on political campaigns.

There is always a grey area when it comes to media coverage during elections. Do the media ignore all the activities of a government during the run-up to an election or do they stay true to their role of informing the public about what their leaders are doing in the name of the people who voted them to power?

This was the point made by the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) in response to the EU’s observation. The EU observer team had claimed that the radio station had granted the APC 60 per cent airtime and just 18 per cent to the SLPP. The EU arrived at the 60 per cent for the APC thus: 40 per cent to the party and 20 per cent to the APC government.

The SLBC explained: ‘After a closed door meeting between the head of the EU Observation Mission and the SLBC Director-General at the Broadcasting House…, the Director-General noted that it became apparent that the EU team had not digested the SLBC Act 2009 that gave mandate to the SLBC to always cover activities of parliament, the judiciary and the executive irrespective of whatever other activity is occurring.

‘ “Were the EU Observation Team could argue that they had read the SLBC Act 2009,”’ the Director-General added, ‘“the corporation then views the inclusion of SLBC’s coverage of government activities into their elections preliminary statement as misleading and contradictory, capable to undermine the valuable strides the corporation has made to represent the opinion of all categories of Sierra Leoneans. Was the EU Observation Mission expecting the SLBC to place a ban on the coverage of the activities of the executive, parliament and the judiciary?”’

The SLBC said it was also concerned that the EU team ‘only relied on the mission’s viewing of SLBC television to draw their conclusions’. It also pointed out that the EU Preliminary Statement did not show any enthusiasm in SLBC’s radio coverage of political parties, only once mentioning that: ‘On SLBC Radio the unbalance was slightly lower, with APC receiving 40.5 per cent of the total airtime on news and programmes and SLPP being afforded 23 per cent of the coverage. None of the remaining parties received 8.5 per cent of coverage either on radio or on SLBC TV.’ The SLBC said that it strongly challenged this assertion.

In a country where the democratic process is firmly taking hold, slight hiccups along the way will be quickly resolved. In the final analysis, it is down to the people to decide whether they would either put up with slight irregularities, as they consolidate peace and stability, or resort to unnecessary violence that will surely hold back the strides taken since the end of the civil war more than 10 years ago.

After three successful elections since the war ended in 2002, the world is now acclaiming Sierra Leoneans for the manner in which they have recovered from the bitterness that was engendered by the conflict. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon congratulated Koroma on his win, and called on him and all political leaders in the country to maintain calm and work towards unity and reconciliation.

According to a statement issued by his spokesperson, Ban also lauded Sierra Leone’s institutions for carrying out recently the first presidential, parliamentary, local council and mayoral elections run entirely but the government in a peaceful manner, saying that this demonstrated the people’s strong commitment to consolidating democracy and development.

‘The Secretary-General emphasises the importance of all Sierra Leoneans working together in the period ahead,’ Ban’s spokesperson added in the statement. ‘In that regard, the Secretary-General welcomes President Koroma’s pledge to reach out to all Sierra Leoneans and to promote national reconciliation and unity.’

Ban also stressed the responsibility of the country’s political leaders to maintain the atmosphere of calm that prevailed during the election process, and urged all sides to address any outstanding grievances peacefully through established national mechanisms and institutions. ‘The Secretary-General is confident that the strong partnership between the United Nations and Sierra Leone will continue in the best interest of the people of Sierra Leone,’ the statement added.

Many Sierra Leoneans would now like to see the president knuckle down and take some hard decisions that would move the country forward. Given that this is his final term it could be easy for Koroma to just sit at State House and let errant members of his party and government have their way. But those who know him say this would not happen because he wants to leave a legacy that would ensure that his tenure is remembered for a long time to come.