Test for democracy in Sierra Leone
On August 11 Sierra Leone will vote democratically for the second time since the end of the decade long civil war that raged between 1991 and 2002. Many international observers believe that this election is an important test for democracy in Sierra Leone. Many Sierra Leoneans call democracy “dem-are-crazy” and politics “politrix”.
In August there are basically three political parties that people will vote for. The two political dragons: All People’s Congress (APC) and Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), and the newcomer People’s Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC). During its two periods in power, SLPP has secured a lot of funds for campaigning, yet improved little on the ground and thus not gained any popularity – instead there is a growing nostalgia for the APC years (1968–92) in power. Politically, APC also appears much stronger in this election. A long-standing schism within the party leadership appears to be temporarily bridged. It is clear that APC will take most of the northern part of the country (their traditional power base) and Freetown. SLPP remains strong in the south, although PMDC, a SLPP splinter party, to an equal degreee has the south as its stronghold and will win at least some constituencies there. The diamond-rich east will be a key district where the outcome remains uncertain.
One party must win 55% of the votes on August 11, or else there will be a second round of votes. In the case of a second round, it is highly feasible that most PMDC voters will back SLPP. This is based on the assumption of free and fair elections. The security situation remains stable although some trouble within the army remains. Certainly some of the earlier militias will be on stand-by. One concern raised by observers, especially those in opposition to the ruling party, is that the elections will take place at the height of the rainy season. This could reduce participation and limit the presence of election observers, especially in the rural parts of the country where roads are in poor condition and transport is minimal during the rains, making some areas almost inaccessible.
The democratic process has remained at a low level in Sierra Leone in spite of general elections having already been held in 1962. Patron-client politics is still of utmost importance throughout the country even though some changes can be observed in the bigger cities. Currently in Freetown, hordes of people line up outside the party headquarters and more so at the party leaders’ mansions in order to receive their mandatory money in exchange for promising their votes. This has been going on at least since April, when I last visited the country. Popular musicians sing against this kind of campaigning and people state that they are fed up with the ways of the politrix and manipulated democracy, but in the end they succumb to the political game, knowing just how fragile their lives are and how important patrons can be for their future. Money counts, or as a popular saying goes Money in the hand – back to the ground. Striking poverty and social insecurity are the main reasons for this kind of popular real politics.
Brief political background
Sierra Leone became independent in 1961. Its post-colonial political history shows a dominance of two political parties: Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) which ruled between 1961 and 1967, and 1996 until the present, and All People’s Congress (APC) which ruled between 1968 and 1992, with the interception of three military governments (1967–1968, 1992–1996, 1997–1998). Siaka Stevens, APC leader and president between 1968 and 1985, turned Sierra Leone into a one-party state and reigned in typical cold-war style with internationally “accepted” institutionalized forms of state/civilian violence and mismanagement of government funds. APC’s abuse of power eventually paved the way for both the rurally based Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel force and two “urban” military governments during the 1990s. The widespread blaming of APC for leading Sierra Leone into decline and civil war was an important reason for SLPP’s return to state power in the 1996 elections.
For more information
Mats Utas is a researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute with a research project: Youth and Marginality in Urban Sierra Leone. Utas is currently researching youth activities during the election campaigning in a project called “Elections 2007. Youth, Politics and Technical Mobilisation”. Mats Utas will be in Sierra Leone (6–16 August) during the elections.
Other resource persons in the Nordic Countries
Morten Bøås, PhD, is senior researcher at Fafo – Institute for Applied International Studies in Oslo (www.fafo.no). Bøås has for over 10 years worked on different question relating to war, conflict and development in Sierra Leone. He was last in Sierra Leone in June 2007. His latest book is African Guerrillas: Raging Against the Macine, Lynne Rienner Publishers, co-edited with Kevin Dunn. The book includes a chapter on youth and civil war in Sierra Leone.
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Andrew M. Jefferson, PhD, is a researcher at the Danish Rehabilitation and Research Centre for Torture Victims (www.rct.dk) where he specializes in the prevention of torture and organized violence by studying practices of detention in transitional and post-conflict countries. His recent work has focused on prison guards in Nigeria and former prisoners, ex-combatants and prison practice in Sierra Leone.
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