Monday, July 16, 2007

Green fever in Sierra Leone

The electoral campaign started ahead of schedule in Sierra Leone. It was due to start last week Tuesday, but by last Saturday the ruling Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) was already holding rallies all over the capital, Freetown.
Saturday was the last day for political parties to register for the August presidential elections. The SLPP was the last party to register and party members took their time making their way to the headquarters of the National Electoral Commission in a noisy cavalcade to sign the documents and have the official photo of their candidate, Solomon Berewa -- or Solo B, as he likes to be known -- taken for the ballot papers.
I was there. A friend who organises elections the way some people plan vacations had asked me the previous day if I wanted to experience something out of the ordinary. Being in Sierra Leone is already out of the ordinary for me; however, I saw no reason to put any limits on my sojourn and agreed quite happily to witness a little bit of West African history in the making.
It is rainy season in Sierra Leone. Asking if it will rain in the rainy season is a bit like asking if it will get cold in Moscow in winter. I was told to bring an umbrella with me. I did and I'm pleased I did. Apart from green T-shirts, green palm leaves, green hats and green skirts, all the SLPP supporters carried green umbrellas to the commission. They needed them. But the rain didn't dampen their spirits. The ruling party holds most of the cards and is confident of victory.
I can't say whether they'll win but they are certainly making it difficult for anybody else to take over the top office. Journalists questioning the good intentions of the president get summoned to the Attorney General or end up in prison. Opposition party supporters trying their hand at a little pre-election campaign rallying get arrested. And the SLPP holds beach parties.
Sunday is beach day in Freetown. The city is on the beach, but the best beaches are out of town. It takes 90 minutes to drive the 15km to the beach and the road makes access to the most remote part of the Wild Coast look like a drive down the N1. I couldn't help wondering if road works were on the list of campaign promises. What I didn't expect to see at the end of that road was, for the second time in two days, Solo B.
The Green Machine was in full swing on the beach, with posters and beer and dancing and music turned up to speaker-cracking volume. I didn't stay long enough to find out if there would be any questions about the state of the roads. In any case, the crowd didn't appear to be one that would give Solo B a hard time.
Sierra Leone is still enjoying a honeymoon of peace following one of the world's most vicious civil wars. Almost everywhere I look there are young people who are missing limbs, a brutal reminder of the terror campaign run by the deceased leader of the Revolutionary United Front, Foday Sankoh, and masterminded to a large extent by deposed Liberian president Charles Taylor.
Sierra Leoneans listen closely to their radios every day for updates on Taylor's trial in The Hague. Local news bulletins tell me what colour suit and tie he's been wearing this week and how he has successfully argued to receive more than the monthly $45 000 he gets to conduct his defence. He said that wasn't enough. Most people in Sierra Leone don't even make a dollar a day.
I watched Blood Diamond on a plane flying over somewhere in Africa a couple of months ago. It's only now that I remember it was set in Sierra Leone. Oddly enough, the subject of diamonds hasn't come up at all this week. Election fever is everywhere, tempered only by the Charles Taylor show. I've seen enough elections to know that whether they're flawed or not they have to happen. The National Electoral Commission is certain to complain, correctly, about the flouting of the rules of engagement, which I have seen with my own eyes.
But the show must go on. A step backwards is too horrific to contemplate in this tortured country. Sierra Leone needs a serious helping hand and that help is only likely to materialise after the last ballots have been counted and the new president has been sworn in, no matter what the colour of his umbrella.

Green fever in Sierra Leone : Mail & Guardian Online