Local elections show Sierra Leone's failure to launch democracy, the dawn of Arata era
In 2017 Sierra Leone announced it would hold national elections. When it did, the UN, the EU, USAID, DFID, ECOWAS, African Union gave the government funds which ensured they had a front-row seat to monitor our elections. The transition to power for a post-conflict country like Sierra Leone is a moment of reckoning for those international organizations who invest in its peace and democratization. However, the state of Sierra Leone's democracy can only be evaluated when local institutions are left to operate on their own, away from the gaze of foreign interests.
Presidential, parliamentary, and local council elections occur every five years or as the need arises when a seat becomes vacant either due to a court order, death, or when a candidate chooses to hold no longer a position (e.g., they get appointed to a cabinet post). When this happens, the National Electoral Commission (NEC) holds bye-elections.
On 24 August, NEC held bye-elections in Constituency 110. The candidates were Kadie Davies (APC), Femi Claudius Cole (Unity Party), Josephine Jackson (SLPP), and Ibrahim Kabba (NGC). According to a press release dated 25 August 2019, "violence erupted in centre code 15086-Sarah Modern Elementary School, with total registered voters of 2,903 having 10 polling stations. This led to the destruction of 10 ballot boxes containing used ballot papers; other electoral materials were also destroyed...because of this incidence, voting did not end peacefully...and adversely affects the outcome of the polls". NEC said that because of the violence that the 24 August elections results are canceled, and they will announce a new date.
In law it is called “res ipsa loquitur”, meaning the thing speaks for itself. Look 👀 at the #MoigbehPolice not doing anything in the face of thugs destroying elections materials on account of which bye election for a parliamentary seat in Constituency 110 was cancelled. pic.twitter.com/JlTmMODqGY— Ady Macauley (@AdyMacauley) August 26, 2019
Before the elections, NEC officials were aware that the results of Constituency 110 elections would be contentious given that their outcome would determine whether it is SLPP or APC that has the majority in the nation's legislature. Furthermore, NEC was aware that the elections would turn violent, as was the Sierra Leone Police. Why did they not take the necessary actions to ensure that voters could peacefully exercise their rights by providing adequate security and enforce the law?
Between 2011-2019 NEC has held an average of three bye-elections annually. Before and after the 2018 elections NEC received recommendations compiled by both international and local elections observers of the necessary steps needed to strengthen peace and security during elections. There are also recommendations made for police, civil society, and the media.
In the lead up to the bye-elections in Constituency 110, there was political intimidation, community violence, and arrests made of citizens. The Sierra Leone Police did not provide security detail for the community once the campaign rallying period commenced, although they must do so. The police waited until violence had already occurred in the before action was finally taken (although heavy-handedly and one-sided).
The candidate for SLPP Josephine Jackson reported that she was assaulted on 30 July, the night that the All People's Congress held a rally at Number 2. She fingered Karamoh Kabba, a former APC Minister as one of 23 people she believed stoned her and burnt two cars in her compound. Those individuals have been in police custody for four weeks. Neither NEC nor the police took any action on polling day that would indicate that they prepared to ensure that the sanctity of the vote would be protected. If they did why was there violence? Are we to believe that local thugs are more potent than our police force?
Femi Claudius Cole, the MP Candidate for Unity Party on a posted on her Facebook page that: "the voting process was going smoothly, until SLPP thugs in convoy (with 2 vehicles with no plates) entered Sarah Model School and destroyed the voting boxes, scattering ballots all over the floor, despite heavy police presence, no one was arrested. Their leader 'Arata' also entered Ahmadiya School with a cutlass/knife armed gang. The senior police officer who was present apparently coaxed him pleaded with him to leave, again no arrests were made. This was a by-election."
Ms. Claudius Cole is not the only one to speak out against what has happened in Constituency 110. The National Grand Coalition Chair, Kandeh Yumkella in a series of tweets echoed the report given by Claudius-Cole. Dr. Yumkella tweeted that the outcome of the elections was a "diabolical attempt by NEC Salone to kill the democracy that has been nurtured and built in our country."
What has happened in Constituency 110 is nothing new. During bye-elections in Sierra Leone; death, stabbings, teargas, destruction of property; cars and houses, and arrests are commonplace.
Last year a 14-year-old boy was killed during bye-elections in constituency 196 in Kambia Chiefdom. At the time SLPP and APC issued statements blaming one another but the National Electoral Watch (NEW) an elections watchdog said supporters of both parties were to blame. Leadership and supporters of both parties crossed lines perpetuating violence and disturbing the vote. It was so bad that even the NEC Commissioner himself had his vehicle attacked.
Furthermore, NEW reported that the Sierra Leone Police did not do their job. “The SLP failed to enforce the NEC regulation of keeping out persons without accreditation from entering the polling center; as a result, NEW observed invasion of a polling station in Mile 14 by thugs and the ballot box damaged and ballot papers littered.”
In 2015, and 2016 there were bye-elections held in Constituency 001 in Kailahun, Constituency 050 in Port Loko, and Constituency 025 in Kono District. All three of these elections turned violent.
Reporting on the violence in Kono, Yusufu Keketoma Sandi wrote that then SLPP Presidential Candidate Julius Maada Bio and other leaders of the party were conducting a peaceful rally when "APC thugs believed to have been imported into Kono to cause chaos launched an unprovoked attack with stones and other dangerous weapons on Rtd Brig. Bio and the rally crowd.”
In 2011, bye-elections conducted in Constituency 104 the Sierra Leone People’s Party condemned violence in Fourah Bay that led to the stabbing of politicians by both the SLPP and APC supporters. SLPP accused the police of being partial to the APC. Furthermore, the SLPP alleged that then Internal Affairs Minister, Musa Tarawalie fired tear gas into the home of the SLPP Constituency Chairman Aziz Carew putting he and his family in grave danger. The SLPP spokesman Tejan-Sie concluded his statement released within 24 hours of the event that the political landscape under the APC had become “marred by political violence, intimidation, and thuggery, especially during bye-elections."
Over the years NEC, the Sierra Leone Police, and the Political Parties Registration Commission have conducted enough elections both local and national, received enough funds, and recommendations for all to know what they need to do to protect Sierra Leone's democratization process. When it comes to bye-elections, all these institutions fail to properly execute their duty often being complicit in the erosion of our democracy.
If we look at bye-elections, in the absence of foreign observers, Sierra Leoneans deliberately compromise voting. Sierra Leone, is not a democracy if it cannot hold free and fair local elections.
NEC has announced that it will hold elections for the third time in Constituency 110. Before NEC can announce a new date for voting, NEC and the Sierra Leone Police must be asked to give an account of their failures in Constituency 110. No polls should be held if NEC and the police are going to repeat the same errors. What would be the point of a third election if not to showcase our national tendency for all things insane-doing the same thing repeatedly but expecting different results?
As I discussed with other citizens online today, one thing became evident. While the political extremists drown out the discourse, there are still young people in Sierra Leone who want the best for our nation. There are still young Sierra Leoneans who know that if we continue to allow our institutions to be lawless that we are only doing ourselves. Sometimes one looks at the state of Sierra Leone, and you say only God can fix it. We say, "God ep wi," but God is busy. God will not and should not help those who are either silent or complicit in their destruction.
Sierra Leone is a country of laws. Every time something deplorable happens, our gut reaction is to give up. Our gut reaction is to curse out, but we need to move beyond our feelings. Whenever something doesn't happen as it should, according to the law, we must ask who dropped the ball. Who scored an own goal against the people of Sierra Leone? Find them and bench them!
In constituency 110 NEC and the police have refused to do their job. Even if APC and SLPP are up to their usual thuggery if NEC and the SLP acted as independent institutions upholding the law they would keep the evil twins down.
Where we go next as a people in this democracy is up to us. We can shrug and accept that we are a country of aratas or we can rise and say our democracy is not for the taking. Sierra Leone’s democracy is not for the taking by cutlass wielding aratas, mumu police, or an inept electoral commission.
And to those currently in power up top in the ivory tower, my message to you is that we the people are taking notes. Before you came to power, you used big-big grammar about human rights, the rule of law, constitutionality, discipline, and renaissance. Today you are at the helm, and you perpetuate the same ills that you condemned.
If the police and the electoral commission are not made to account for their ineptitude, if no one loses their job, if no lessons are learnt, then we know that ours is a country where aratas reign.
We are taking notes.