Saturday, September 22, 2007

A Sea of Challenges for the New Government

FREETOWN, Sep 20 (IPS) - A voting process that has stretched over more than a month came to an end this week with the announcement that Ernest Bai Koroma of the All People's Congress (APC) had won the presidency in Sierra Leone's general elections.
Koroma collected 54.6 percent of ballots in a run-off poll that was held after the first round of elections (Aug. 11) failed to provide one of seven presidential contenders with a majority of votes; this left the two front runners to do battle on Sep. 8.

Ballot papers being dispensed during Sierra Leone's Aug. 11 general elections.

The APC head took the lead in last month's poll, winning 44.3 percent of ballots. His opponent in the second round, the vice-president in the previous government -- Solomon Berewa -- garnered 38.3 percent.
Berewa had been tipped by some to win the election. However, a decision by Charles Margai of the People's Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC) to throw his weight behind Koroma helped the APC leader transform his first round gains into victory. The PMDC, a breakaway faction of the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP), was established by Margai after the former ruling party named Berewa as SLPP presidential candidate.
Koroma was sworn in Monday for a five-year term shortly after final results in the presidential run-off were announced. He faces a mammoth challenge in improving life for the five million citizens of Sierra Leone where jobs are scarce and many social services almost as hard to come by -- and where the shadow of a decade long civil war still looms large.
Rebels from the Revolutionary United Front who fought against army forces and pro-government militants gained international notoriety for amputating the limbs of civilians as part of their campaign. The war was funded by profits from the sale of Sierra Leonean diamonds -- widely referred to as "blood diamonds", or "conflict diamonds" -- only ending in 2002.
Fighting in the West African country came partly in reaction to governmental corruption. Graft in official circles remains endemic, and is another of the major issues clamouring for Koroma's attention. Regional and ethnic divides between the northern Temne group, which in general supports the APC, and the pro-SLPP Mende in Sierra Leone's south and east will also need attending to.
The APC's success in the presidential election came after victory in the parliamentary polls. The party won 59 of the 112 seats contested, against 43 captured by the SLPP. The remaining ten seats were won by the PMDC.
Parliament includes a further 12 seats occupied by chiefs, which were filled in a separate process of nomination and election from Jul. 30 to Aug. 2.
As IPS reported previously, there was concern ahead of Aug. 11 that a switch from the proportional representation system used during 2002 polls to a constituency system would undermine gains made by female candidates in those elections (see 'SIERRA LEONE: Caught Between Leaving the Kitchen and Putting Food on the Table'). Women held 18 seats in the previous legislature -- 14.5 percent of the total.
This time around, 16 seats were won by women (giving them just under 13 percent of parliamentary posts).
"It was a gender-unfriendly electoral system," said Nemata Eshun-Baiden, founder of the 50/50 Group, a civic organisation that promotes female participation in the political process. "In this system it is almost impossible for women to run, because in constituency-based elections you need people who have money, and women are not bread winners."
Noted Luciana James, an unsuccessful PMDC candidate: "The men have money. They have more money than women, so they took that as an advantage."
Similarly, the number of candidates vying for seats failed to reflect that women account for about half the population in Sierra Leone.
"Political parties have not lived up to earlier commitments and they only nominated 64 women as candidates. This represents 11 percent of the total number of candidates," the European Union Election Observation Mission noted in its preliminary findings on the vote, which otherwise received broad approval from monitors and elicited a high turnout. In all, 566 parliamentary candidates stood for election.
Outdated views of women which dictate that they are unfit for political office and should remain in the home also influenced the election outcome, said James. "This idea of tradition, that women should not be in authority, is eating our women up."
Her words were echoed by Salamatu Turay, who won a seat on the APC ticket. "Men in Sierra Leone always felt that women should not take up the challenge. When I came down to grassroots (level), the women were happy to see me. Women came in and assisted me greatly in campaigning."
Patriarchal beliefs appear to have been amply demonstrated in the experiences of SLPP parliamentary candidate Veronica Sesay from the Moyamaba district in south-western Sierra Leone.
When it became known she was running for parliament, a letter was sent to Berewa bearing the signatures and thumbprints of 100 angry area chiefs and members of the "Poro" society -- a traditional secret society for men.
"We strongly advise against the choice of any female candidate here, lest the seat is carried by an independent male winner," the letter said. "Our votes shall be protest votes against her."
Sesay, who went on to win, maintained that the letter arose out of a misunderstanding of her views on traditional societies: those who signed the letter had mistakenly believed that she opposed the Poro.
"It was all false," Sesay said. "I have great respect for their society, which originated from our grandparents' generation."
Viewed from another perspective, the fact that the number of women in parliament decreased by just two in the tougher constituency system may bode well for future elections.
Nonetheless, the 50/50 Group is working towards a constitutional guarantee that women will have a minimum quota of 30 percent representation in the legislature: "Thirty percent because we feel that we don't have a lot of educated women in this country," said Eshun-Baiden. As the name of her organisation suggests, she hopes for 50 percent representation eventually.
The group helped prepare female candidates for last month's elections, an initiative it plans to continue.
"Our training entails giving women confidence skills, campaign skills, presentation skills, teaching them how to work with the media, telling them about barriers that prevent them from taking part in politics," noted Eshun-Baiden.
"Many women in this country are not educated. We have some new (female candidates) you cannot write home about. Many (political parties) I'm sure were desperate to please the world, to say 'We are gender sensitive.' I feel there should be a system where the parties should ask us to screen the women before they are put up."
Turay seconds the need for assistance to candidates. "I think we have to work on some things. (Women) need to remove the tears from their eyes and fear from their face. We should be bold enough to meet the community people; we should be bold enough to speak directly to our people."
And, for those women who lost out in the latest round of voting, there's always next time.
"I'm still in the game because I want to be part of the decision making in this government. I've been taught never to relent," said James.
Zainab Kamara, an SLPP parliamentarian who was not re-elected, is considering a campaign for local government elections next year: "I wouldn't mind serving my community because I know I've acquired a lot of experience. If my community approves that I run for the council, why not?"

POLITICS-SIERRA LEONE: A Sea of Challenges for the New Government