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Sierra Leone election: voter trust has been shaken, and will need to be regained

Julius Maada Bio, a 59-year-old former soldier, was sworn in for his second and final five-year term as president of Sierra Leone on 27 June. With 56% of votes cast in the election on 24 June, Bio was declared winner ahead of his main rival, Samura Kamara, who polled 41%.

Photo- President of the Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone, Mohamed Konneh announcing partial election results in Freetown on June 26, 2023. John Wessels/AFP via Getty Images

Catherine Bolten, University of Notre Dame

Julius Maada Bio, a 59-year-old former soldier, was sworn in for his second and final five-year term as president of Sierra Leone on 27 June. With 56% of votes cast in the election on 24 June, Bio was declared winner ahead of his main rival, Samura Kamara, who polled 41%.

Kamara rejected the result and international election observers have highlighted some problems with the way votes were counted. There has been relative calm across Sierra Leone since Bio was sworn in. Earlier, the opposition All People’s Congress alleged that the police had killed one of its supporters by firing live shots into their party offices a day after the polls. Police have denied this.

In this interview, Catherine Bolten, Professor of Anthropology and Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, fielded questions on lessons learnt from the poll and the future of democracy in Sierra Leone. As an anthropologist, Bolten studies politics as a social practice, which means analysing how “democracy” manifests in campaigning, elections, and policy-making, and how people imagine democratic processes in their own lives. She has conducted research in Sierra Leone since 2003, and published a 2016 paper that focused on how the country managed the first election it ran on its own in 2012.

What did you learn from the outcome of this election?

Sierra Leoneans expect that the election process is potentially corrupt unless there is full transparency in the whole process. This means from the moment the electoral commission is appointed to the selection criteria for the ballot design, the selection and training of poll workers, the invitation to the international community for electoral observers, and every other decision that might affect the outcome.

The public had very high levels of trust in the two elections immediately after the civil war, which ended in 2002, because the United Nations was heavily involved. It was involved in the planning and execution of the 2002 election and, to a lesser degree, the 2007 elections.

The 2012 election was the country’s first self-administered election since the war began. The whole population was committed to it being free, fair and without violence. They succeeded.

Since then, bad old habits of nepotism, cronyism, and back-room deals have reappeared. Whether corruption is as bad as opposition party members claim is not as important as the perception that the election is corrupt.

If there is any lesson to be learned, it is the necessity of rebuilding public trust in every election by maintaining a transparent process.

What has changed between 2012 and 2023 to result in the return of nepotism and cronyism?

2012 may have been a special moment, when the country came together in a concerted effort to ensure that the elections were conducted without violence, with no questions about the legitimacy of the polling, and with full knowledge that the world was watching.

As I wrote in my 2016 paper, drastic measures such as restricting freedom of movement, work, association, and even dress in the months and days leading up to the election and on election day were imposed. The citizens complied without complaint, even as these were technically violations of basic human rights. This is because the people were so committed to ensuring a free and fair election.

Once these restrictions were allowed to loosen in succeeding elections, it portended a return to lack of transparency in the process, and thus to the powerful exerting themselves behind the scenes, because they were no longer also committed to these restrictions.

Who has been responsible for the pre-election violence?

Any whiff of corruption that could affect the outcome leads to accusations of democratic backsliding. A standard-bearer who considers themselves wronged will call on the party’s followers to “demonstrate”. This is to ensure that those who are potentially corrupt see that others are trying to hold them to account.

Any call for a “peaceful demonstration” is a challenge to the legitimacy of the claims being made by the other side. No political leader accuses their opposition of corruption and calls for “peaceful demonstrations” without knowing that violence will occur, no matter who throws the first stone or fires the first shot.

Rhetoric is powerful, and a hint of grumbling about corruption will fan the flames of violence.

What factors determine voter turnout?

There is an old saying in Sierra Leone politics: “same taxi, different driver”. It describes presidential candidates promising change when they get into office. The new president will do essentially what the last president did, with minor variations.

People are also well aware that their leaders are, by and large, corrupt. There is plenty of evidence for this, from the fisheries ministry officials turning a blind eye to illegal fishing by Chinese trawlers, to the “trickle-down corruption” that occurs in regular public life because public servants such as police officers and teachers are not being paid, and so demand bribes and tips from the community. This “everyday corruption” is blamed firmly on the cabinet ministers. The local artist Emerson, for example, consistently lambasts politicians in his music.

This does not dissuade people from turning out in numbers to cast votes for their preferred candidate. They have a sense of two things: one which is extremely likely, and the other which might happen.

What’s extremely likely is that if their ethnic or preferred candidate does not win, their region and their ethnic people will be neglected or harassed by the ruling party, or they will simply “stand still” and receive no development. They feel voting is the only real power they have to be a part of any decision-making process, and so turnout is consistently high.

What might happen is that, if their candidate wins, they will they reap the benefits of foreign direct investment, NGO relief, humanitarian distribution and infrastructure.

So they turn out to vote for the candidate who will hurt them the least, and might actually help them.

What does the 2023 election outcome portend for democracy?

It is clear that the fact that a candidate is declared a winner and then immediately sworn in does not protect the country from violence or democratic backsliding.

There may still be violence, and there may be a crackdown on protest, which starts down a dangerous road to authoritarianism or potentially wider violence.

I am not sure how this will affect the future of democracy in Sierra Leone. But I believe that the international community has a duty to send observers, if only to let a country’s citizens know that their election matters, and that they are part of the foundation of the international cause of democracy.

Backsliding anywhere is dangerous, and no election is too small to ignore. I hope that the democratic state in Sierra Leone holds up for the next five years, in order for this repair to happen.

The Conversation Africa, Inc.

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