Friday, August 10, 2007

Sierra Leone's traffic light politics

APC supporter in red (Copyright AFP); PMDC supporter in orange (Copyright AFP); green SLPP poster (BBC)
They are all from the same soup  - Sierra Leone voter

Sierra Leone is like a slow-changing, out of sync traffic light. Orange one day, red the next and finally turning green.

The streets of the capital, Freetown, have been changing in that order as the supporters of the three main political parties have taken to the streets in party colours for the final rallies.

At the office of the governing Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) candidate, Vice-President Solomon Berewa, a queue snaked its way round the building. At the head of the queue was a huge pile of green T-shirts.

Inside, Mr Berewa pulled on a cigarette and in his deep gravely voice gave his prediction for the election.

"Many people are putting it at 70%. But I am very modest - I will make it 65% to 75%. We are going to win a heavy landslide victory - the signs are quite clear."

Some Sierra Leoneans find this optimism misplaced.

To win in the first round a candidate must gain at least 55% of the vote - something the man stepping down after the maximum two terms, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, managed easily in 2002 with 70%.

At the time, Sierra Leone had just emerged from a decade-long civil war but five years later, the peace dividend may have dwindled and in some people's eyes the ongoing poverty, coupled with perceptions of increased corruption and a debilitating lack of electricity make Mr Berewa's prediction unlikely.


Not everyone is impressed with the choice of candidates on the menu.

Solomon Berewa (From the SLPP website www.slpp.ws)
Certainly I would accept [defeat] as long as it is free and fair. I have no choice I am a democrat by nature 
SLPP's Solomon Berewa

As one voter put it: "They are all from the same soup." And from the look on the man's face, the soup was far from tasty.

Although there are seven candidates vying for office, Mr Berewa's main challenges are on two fronts.

The red party - the All People's Congress (APC) - which had a disastrous time mismanaging the country for two decades leading up to the war.

Stating that Sierra Leoneans are worse off now than at independence 46 years ago, its flag-bearer, former insurance broker, Ernest Bai Koroma, is promising Sierra Leoneans a bright future should he be voted into office.

But reaching the 55% mark is now harder since a third party has joined the race.

Having lost out on the chance to run as the governing party's candidate, Charles Margai broke away to form the People's Movement For Democratic Change (PMDC).

The lawyer is a nephew of the country's first prime minister, Milton Margai, and son of its second, Albert Margai.

'Verbal guns'

At the presidential debate earlier this week he added an element of sparkle with his combative style.

APC's Ernest Bai Koroma
Mr Koroma's APC party ruled for two decades until the civil war

But the man he really wanted to spar with, Solomon Berewa, was not even in the room - the only candidate who chose not to turn up.

Mr Berewa told the BBC he had chosen not to share a table with candidates whom he said had threatened violence during the election.

"Weren't you simply afraid of a few verbal guns being fired in your direction during the debate?" I asked.

He laughed and then replied: "I am used to that. As a lawyer of such long standing, that's my job - debate and arguments.

"In any case there would have been nothing they would have raised which would be despicable - which I would be ashamed about.

"The record of this government is something I ought to be proud of and most Sierra Leoneans are proud of."


The last presidential elections were organised by the United Nations. This time Sierra Leoneans are running things.  

Wahid of Artists for Peace (Picture by Michelle Delaney)
We decided to make it a 100% message - don't engage in violence 
Artists for Peace's Wahid

Your views on poll issues

At just two years old, the Electoral Commission is a mere toddler, but its head, Christiana Thorpe, is well respected.

As one observer put it: "A Nigerian-style rigging exercise is out of the question."

"We believe the elections would make or break this country," a smiling Ms Thorpe told the press.

"We want to come out of the doldrums that we were in after the war and the elections are the key. They are going to be good credible elections."

Across town in the huge hotel that still serves as the UN headquarters, Victor Angelo, the secretary-general's representative in Freetown spoke optimistically about the behaviour of the candidates following what has at times been a tense campaign.

"The key political leaders are very experienced. They know their role after the elections is to see that peace and tranquillity is there," he said.

"I know they will be calling on their supporters to cool down. I know they will have Sierra Leone in mind and that they are very much for the consolidation of peace."

Singing for peace

But Ms Thorpe has had to keep her eye not only on the politicians but also on the country's traditional rulers, the chiefs.

Map of Sierra Leone
The greatest threat is the weather 
Christiana Thorpe
Electoral Commission head


"We have had the challenge of getting them to understand their authority need not necessarily impinge on the democratic rights of their subjects.

"It's something that they have had to grapple with and I think 75% of the paramount chiefs are ready to allow their subjects to use their franchise," she said before adding: "We do have the 25% who are I would say stubborn and we are still working with them."

The Electoral Commission had to step in recently when it became clear that one chief had appointed most of his own children as polling agents.

This is a hard election to predict. But behind the governing party candidate's optimism I wonder if life without victory at the polls has even been contemplated. So I asked Mr Berewa if he would accept the result if he lost.

"Certainly I would accept as long as it is free and fair. I have no choice I am a democrat by nature."

The campaigns have been tense at times. In order to cool the temperature, a group of 11 musicians has been travelling around the country to promote peaceful elections.

One of them, Wahid, believes the politicians are not doing enough to keep the country peaceful.

"If you leave it to the politicians, 90% of their message is 'Vote for me vote for me' while 10% is don't engage in violence. So we decided to make it a 100% message - don't engage in violence."

Despite some concern that these relatively tense elections could spill over into violence, Ms Thorpe is looking upwards for trouble.

"The greatest threat is the weather," she half jokes.

This is, after all, the height of the rainy season. I'm off to buy an umbrella for election day.

I am trying to find one which is neither green, red nor orange.

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