Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Hope for the future in Sierra Leone

Lisa Denney - in Sierra Leone with an NGO - relates how presidential elections have brought hope of desperately needed change in the West African state

I am smothered. Wedged between sweaty, gesticulating passengers in an overcrowded taxi, I am forced to listen to the boisterous argument filling the suspension-less vehicle. It’s not an argument about the taxi fare or personal gripes (of which I am accumulating many – the latest involving an uninvited rat swimming in my toilet). It’s about politics – about which Presidential contender can most successfully wipe out corruption, create jobs and oversee the development of Sierra Leone. The political apathy that sweeps the West is one of the few things that politicians in this West African nation need not worry about. Political opinion here is endemic.

There is nothing dour or staid about politics in the Sierra Leonean elections. The solemnity that attends political debate in many other countries is replaced by a carnival of music, colour and dancing. On their allocated days, all shades of green (the incumbent Sierra Leone People’s Party), red (the main opposition All People’s Congress) and orange (the SLPP breakaway, People’s Movement for Democratic Change) take the streets of Freetown by storm, causing already day-long traffic jams to congest further. Youths high on the exhilaration of the possibility of change hang out of car windows, or perch on trucks carrying speakers that pump with music and the occasional political message.

The expatriate community in such times keep a conversely low profile. Most have been scouring their closets for politically neutral clothing that does not suggest affinity with one party or another. Non-government organisations have taken to printing promotional materials in the non-party suggestive blue, also to avoid bias.

People here are resistant to the idea that the elections could spur a new wave of violence, only five years after the official end of their decade-long civil war, renowned for its brutality of ‘chopping’ limbs and use of child soldiers drugged up on 'brown brown' – a mixture of gunpowder and cocaine. Wrist bands bearing the slogan "voters say no to violence" are popular and travelling musical ensembles promoting peaceful elections have emerged with a keen following.

In a wonderful demonstration of perspective, people are engaging the serious issues of elections and democracy with exuberance and fun. This boisterousness, of course, also has the potential to become a prelude to violence, if the results of the election (and its likely Presidential run-off in approximately two weeks time) are not accepted by the contesting parties, who currently all claim likely victory. It is this moment that will be a test to Sierra Leone’s democratic transition. In the hype of election euphoria, it is easy to forget that it is not just the ballot box that gauges democracy, but an adherence to the rule of law also.

For most Sierra Leoneans, the key political issues are jobs, corruption and development. Across the country, and particularly in the capital, Freetown - where many people converged during and after the war in hope of greater opportunity - unemployed youths congregate on street corners, in chop houses and around markets.

Their idle hands and disgruntlement are not only an economic concern, ensuring that much of the population remains locked in poverty, but also pose a potential security threat. Sierra Leone is currently ranked second lowest on the human development index by the United Nations Development Program, ahead only of Niger. With investment still lagging, the much needed jobs simply don’t exist. This election is a crucial stability landmark that, all things remaining peaceful, may see a return of investors and foreign companies, whose taxes and license fees can help to generate government revenue, and whose operations can create much needed employment.

Development still remains a buzz word five years into the post-conflict era and encapsulates an overwhelmingly extensive list of services and infrastructure. Roads remain poor, particularly upcountry, with only one town connected to Freetown by a paved road. Schools and hospitals are severely underfunded with high illiteracy and infant mortality rates. According to the World Health Organisation, life expectancy is 40 years for women and 37 years for men. The absence of reliable power is also a severely limiting factor for families and businesses in Sierra Leone.

Freetown hums continuously with the drone of generators that are expensive to acquire, maintain and run. Boys selling kerosine and women carrying baskets of coal stacked on their heads fill the electricity void with these alternatives to light lamps and start fires. A long-running plan to build a hydro-electric power station seems no further off the ground than when the idea was first mooted over a decade ago.

Weeding out corruption within government, business and the security sector is also a central concern of many voters. The sentiment is summed up in the hugely popular Freetown-based musician, Daddy Saj’s song, ‘Corruption e do so’ (‘Corruption – enough is enough’), which outraged politicians at the time of its release in 2003.

Yet despite the seriousness, complexity and inter-relatedness of such issues constituting the political agenda, Sierra Leoneans remain optimistic that the future, under the right leader, is promising. The difficulties arise in determining who that ‘right leader’ will be. The international community have so far been quick to congratulate Sierra Leone on a peaceful election – but the test is not over just yet. If people can prioritise their enthusiasm for democracy – which saw millions vote in the torrential rains of the monsoon season, rather than their enthusiasm for a particular party or leader, then Sierra Leone might shed further its war-torn reputation and instate itself as a peaceful country, rather than just a post-conflict one.

As a Sierra Leonean friend told me: true patriots may be red, green or orange on the outside, but all are a tricolour of green, white and blue (the colours of the national flag) on the inside. Traipsing amongst this election rapture, the monsoons have drenched my shoes and caused the dye to run. My feet turn green and I am marked as an SLPP supporter. I must remember to wear red to restore my neutrality.

Hope for the future in Sierra Leone

New Statesman - Hope for the future in Sierra Leone