Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Of Violence & Elections in Sierra Leone

Over lunch the other day at Chatham House in London with some old friends there, I was asked - apropos of something that I had recently published in that venerable Think Tank's magazine World Today on Sierra Leone's forthcoming elections in August - my views about the much-speculated prospects of widespread violence during the polls. Will the government attempt to rig the elections in favour of its preferred candidate, the current Vice President Solomon Berewa, in the manner in which Nigeria's Obasanjo did for Musa Yar'Dua? Where is violence likely to begin? What are the signs to look for in order to spot rigging?

As you can see, these come close to the familiar old question: Did you beat your wife? But one of the chaps at the lunch was going off to Sierra Leone as an elections monitor, so I tried to answer the questions very carefully. I noted that to begin objectively understanding recent and current events in Sierra Leone, one must first abandon two common (and cognate) assumptions about African politics: the idea that only government is capable of rigging elections in any meaningful sense; along with supporting idea that only government has the capacity and willingness to unleash violence on political opponents. I will return to these points in a moment.

First,a word or two about the elections. Sierra Leone has conducted two successful elections since its war ended in 2002. The first, nationwide Presidential and Parliamentary polls, held in 2002, overwhelmingly re-elected President Tejan Kabbah and his Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP). And in 2004, local government polls across the country witnessed significantly gains by the opposition All Peoples Congress (APC), including a win of the municipality of Freetown, although overall the SLPP carried far more councils.

The Presidential and Parliamentary polls in August, however, will be far more significant than the previous two. They will be conducted wholly by the Sierra Leonean state, through its National Electoral Commission (NEC). The UN force Unamsil, which helped conduct the 2002 and 2004 polls, is no longer in the country to provide logistical support, security, and oversight. The elections, in other words, will be a crucial test of whether Sierra Leone can now finally be counted as stable and democratic. Success in this regard will mean that the elections have to be relatively free of violence and undue tampering.

Failure, which is the opposite, is simply not option.

I make these obvious points to stress a larger one: which is that these elections are bigger, more important than the ambitions of any one presidential candidate or political party. They are about the future, the security and well-being of about 5 million souls.

Now to the point I made at the Chatham House lunch. In the course of researching and writing a large report on the elections for an international organisation recently, I chanced to read the report by IFES (the International Foundation for Electoral Systems) on the 2004 local council elections in Sierra Leone. The report revealed widespread irregularities, so widespread and egregious indeed that it has since not been released to the public. The report showed convincingly that the former NEC was dysfunctional - so much so that its polling agents across the board seriously tampered with the polls with impunity. A quick analysis of the findings showed quite clearly that candidates for the opposition APC rigged the elections (using polling agents) in many cases more comprehensively and competently than did candidates for the ruling SLPP. That was, in some ways, an eye-opener - even for me who knows a thing or two about Sierra Leone's post-independence political history.

Electoral violence is part of that history. This is utterly regrettable, but one ought to bear this in mind. It is all very well now to state, and this is true, that the Sierra Leonean state now has a reasonable monopoly over armed violence, but the operative word is reasonable. It is not absolute. It is quite clear that the country's stability is fragile, and sociopathic entrepreneurs, whether projecting themselves party leaders or warlords of sorts, can still cause enormous havoc and undo the hard-won gains of a very expensive peace (won after thousands of deaths).

To its credit, the Sierra Leone government seems very well aware of this. To any fair observer, the government has, since the current electoral process began, been cautious to the point paralysis in dealing with evident challenges to the security of the state by some members of the opposition. I use the words "evident challenges" very advisedly. Bluster and chest-thumping on the campaign stump may have their appeal, but it crosses the line for a major party leader to explicitly threaten to unleash violence in the event of electoral loss. The two major opposition leaders, Ernest Koroma (APC) and Charles Margai (PMDC or Peoples Movement for Democratic Change), have made these threats publicly - Koroma, to a friendly newspaper in Freetown, and Margai, at several public gatherings. Nor can their threats be dismissed as mere bluster.

Shortly after Koroma issued his threat, the Revolutionary United Front Party (RUFP), the group that represented the deranged guerrillas who spearheaded Sierra Leone's decade-long carnage, announced that it had joined the APC to help defeat the SLPP in the polls. As an electoral force, of course, the RUFP is absolutely insignificant: it failed to win a single seat in both the 2002 and 2004 elections. Its value, as Koroma must understand, is purely symbolic, flowing from the (swift) logic of the machete: primitive violence and brutality. Following, Koroma instigated a rally of the APC ignoring the little legal requirement regarding police permit - and of course some violence was reported.

allAfrica.com: Sierra Leone: Of Violence & Elections in Sierra Leone (Page 1 of 2)