In­ter­view on Sierra Leone’s elec­tion

Lead­ing can­di­dates to stand in a run off after first round of elec­tions

The McGill Daily - - Contents - Vic­tor De­pois The Mcgill Daily

Sierra Leone is cur­rently in the mid­dle of two rounds of pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. So far, no can­di­dates have reached the 55 per cent thresh­old nec­es­sary to get elected di­rectly in the first round. Con­se­quently, the two lead­ing can­di­dates, Sa­mura Ka­mara from the in­cum­bent All Peo­ple’s Congress (APC) party with 42.7 per cent of the votes, and Julius Maada Bio from the Sierra Leone Peo­ple’s Party (SLPP) with 43.3 per cent of the votes, will stand in a runoff. Vot­ing will start on March 27. The Daily spoke to Mo­hamed Se­say, a Post­doc­toral Fel­low from Mcgill cur­rently con­duct­ing field­work in Free­town, the coun­try’s cap­i­tal city, about the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion in Sierra Leone fol­low­ing the first-round of the elec­tions.

Mo­hamed Se­say, a grad­u­ate of the Univer­sity of Sierra Leone, is part of the Yan Lin Cen­tre’s Re­search Group on Global Jus­tice. Se­say holds a PHD in po­lit­i­cal science from Mcgill Univer­sity, which he re­ceived in 2016. His cur­rent re­search en­gages with the in­sti­tu­tion of chief­taincy in post-war Sierra Leone, and how this tra­di­tional au­thor­ity can be re­struc­tured to con­form to rules of mod­ern gov­er­nance with­out un­der­min­ing its con­tem­po­rary so­cial rel­e­vance. On top of that, Se­say is also con­tribut­ing to a global project ex­am­in­ing the nexus be­tween con­flict, jus­tice, and de­vel­op­ment.

The Mcgill Daily (MD): How would you de­scribe the cur­rent at­mos­phere in Free­town, and Sierra Leone in gen­eral? What has been the pub­lic’s re­sponse to re­sults of the first round?

Mo­hamed Se­say (MS): The cur­rent sit­u­a­tion in Sierra Leone is peace­ful. It is get­ting back to nor­mal as pub­lic of­fices are re­open­ing and kids are go­ing back to school after they were shut down a week or two ago. A few weeks be­fore the elec­tions, there were ex­pec­ta­tions that there would be vi­o­lent out­breaks. There are sev­eral rea­sons for that. First, th­ese elec­tions are con­tested, as the in­cum­bent govern­ment has been in power for two terms, and the cur­rent pres­i­dent can­not run for re-elec­tion. The cur­rent min­is­ter of fi­nance is the pres­i­den­tial can­di­date of the party in power, the All Peo­ple’s Congress (APC), which seeks to main­tain power. Sec­ond, new op­po­si­tion par­ties, other than the tra­di­tional Sierra Leone Peo­ple’s Party (SLPP), have been cre­ated. Th­ese in­clude the New Grand Coali­tion (NGD), and Coali­tion For Change (C4C), which have con­tested the elec­tions and made op­po­si­tion very se­ri­ous. Po­ten­tial vi­o­lence led the Of­fice of Na­tional Se­cu­rity to raise the level of se­cu­rity threat to the sec­ond level. The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity wor­ried. Yet it turned out to be largely peace­ful, even though there was some vi­o­lence, which nevertheless re­mained very lo­cal­ized.

The gen­eral pub­lic ac­cepted the re­sults as rep­re­sen­ta­tive of their will. Sev­eral fac­tors have acted in favour of this pos­i­tive re­sponse. First, the Na­tional Elec­toral Com­mis­sion ( NEC), which an­nounced the re­sults, has be­come a largely cred­i­ble com­mis­sion to the peo­ple. Be­fore re­sults were an­nounced, a coali­tion of civil so­ci­ety or­ga­ni­za­tions, the Na­tional Elec­tion Watch (NEW) pro­jected that there would be a runoff. Re­sults con­firmed this prediction, lend­ing the group cred­i­bil­ity and re­spect. Sec­ond, an im­por­tant fac­tor to the demo­cratic process in the coun­try is the pro­vi­sion that a can­di­date needs at least 55 per cent of votes to get elected di­rectly in the first round. If this num­ber is not reached, can­di­dates need to build al­liances with other par­ties. That pro­vi­sion has made it pos­si­ble for smaller par­ties to see them­selves as a stake in the elec­toral con­test, as al­liances have be­come an in­evitable part of the elec­toral con­test. Third, in­ter­na­tional ob­servers wrote state­ments about the elec­tions that were largely pos­i­tive, and con­cluded that the elec­tions were fair. On top of that, lo­cal ob­servers unan­i­mously con­cluded that they were fair. One last fac­tor I wish to put for­ward is the pro­gres­sive an­nounce­ment of re­sults, in a 25 per cent in­cre­ment, which pre­pared the minds of Sierra Leoneans to what the re­sults would be.

MD: Have out­breaks of vi­o­lence hap­pened dur­ing the cur­rent elec­tions? How are pol­i­tics chang­ing in the coun­try?

MS: There was never, in fact, wide­spread vi­o­lence fol­low­ing elec­tions in Sierra Leone. Some level of trust is build­ing na­tion­ally in the in­sti­tu­tions re­spon­si­ble for con­duct­ing elec­tions. The NEC has been able to es­tab­lish it­self as the cred­i­ble in­sti­tu­tion to mon­i­tor elec­tions, and a ma­jor­ity of Sierra Leoneans ac­cept re­sults they an­nounce as re­flec­tive of the peo­ple’s will.

There have been shifts in the po­lit­i­cal cul­ture of politi­cians. They too put more trust in in­sti­tu­tions. For ex­am­ple, in 2012, when the op­po­si­tion party was not sat­is­fied with the re­sults, it went to the Supreme Court. This very fact shows change in the coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal cul­ture. The me­dia is chang­ing too. I was im­pressed by the role of the na­tional broad­caster. Ten years back, the in­cum­bent party dom­i­nated it clearly, and it served as a tool for pro­pa­ganda. Now, it cre­ates greater space for op­po­si­tion par­ties, and even al­lows some crit­i­cism of the in­cum­bent party.

There has also been some shift in the po­lit­i­cal cul­ture of the gen­eral pub­lic. Be­fore and after the war there ex­isted a high de­gree of po­lit­i­cal in­tol­er­ance. Peo­ple were very at­tached to their eth­nic group, and to their re­gion, and po­lit­i­cal elites em­pha­sized dif­fer­ences to gain votes. Each po­lit­i­cal party de­pended on one par­tic­u­lar re­gion. Now we see that a size­able por­tion of Sierra Leoneans are vot­ing across re­gional and eth­nic lines. For ex­am­ple, the APC (whose his­tor­i­cal elec­toral base is lo­cated in the North of the coun­try) won the elec­tions in 2007 be­cause it got votes from peo­ple liv­ing in South. I re­cently heard peo­ple say that they were vot­ing be­cause the govern­ment did not per­form, which is some­thing that was not common prac­tice in the past, and shows an evolution in the po­lit­i­cal cul­ture of the peo­ple. MD: There have been lots of dis­cus­sions about the use of blockchain tech­nol­ogy in the elec­tions (orig­i­nally used to keep track of cryp­tocur­rency trans­ac­tions, this tech­nol­ogy con­sists of a dig­i­tal ledger, a book, in which all trans­ac­tions are recorded and which is widely ac­ces­si­ble thus per­mit­ting ac­count­abil­ity). What is your opin­ion on the ques­tion?

MS: I would ex­pect tech­nol­ogy to be a trend in Africa, and not just Sierra Leone. One rea­son for this would be an in­creas­ing in­ter­est to use tech­nol­ogy to run elec­tions, in or­der to re­duce the abil­ity of politi­cians and vot­ers to en­gage in fraud­u­lent prac­tices. How­ever, for Sierra Leone to be the first coun­try to use it shows that the level of trust for the vot­ers and in­sti­tu­tions is still quite low, and I am no sure whether we should be happy about that.

Also, there has been a lot of re­port­ing about this new tech­nol­ogy, but I don’t think we know for sure that it has cre­ated any im­pact in the cred­i­bil­ity of the elec­tion. When the NEC an­nounced the re­sults, 154 polling had to go through a re­count sta­tions be­cause of ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties, fol­low­ing re­quests made by par­ties. That’s the rea­son why there was a two- day de­lay in the an­nounce­ment of re­sults.

Fur­ther­more, after the fi­nal re­sults were an­nounced, votes were an­nulled in 221 polling sta­tions due to over­vot­ing (when the num­ber of bal­lots cast is su­pe­rior to the num­ber of peo­ple reg­is­tered to vote). In to­tal, there were 139,427 in­valid votes, which is a huge num­ber, and we are yet to know why we had so many. Con­se­quently, I am not sure of the ex­tent to which the blockchain tech­nol­ogy was able to pre­vent mal­prac­tices.

MD: Is the peace­ful tran­si­tion of power that oc­curred in Liberia in­flu­enc­ing Sierra Leone? How so?

MS: Yes, in some ways. The build­ing of a demo­cratic process needs to have a re­gional per­spec­tive. Twenty or thirty years ago in West Africa, there were a lot of mil­i­tary coups. Even though coun­tries have in­ter­nal dy­nam­ics, there are re­gional fac­tors and norms, and there has been progress in con­sol­i­dat­ing demo­cratic gov­er­nance. If demo­cratic over­turns in West African coun­tries be­come common, it will cre­ate a trend. Liberia and Sierra Leone come from the same past of bad gov­er­nance and con­flict. The con­duct of elec­tions in Liberia could be­come a sort of in­spi­ra­tion for ac­tors in Sierra Leone to be com­mit­ted to in­sti­tu­tion­al­iz­ing the demo­cratic process. As demo­cratic norms de­velop and ex­pand, it will be­come in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult for politi­cians to stand against them. It is how­ever im­por­tant not to give too much weight to th­ese ex­ter­nal forces, but I would not rule them out ei­ther.

MD: Where do you see Sierra Leone go­ing from th­ese elec­tions?

MS: I am not sure, but I think elec­tions are here to stay. None­the­less, I am not too sure what they mean for the broader demo­cratic process, as the po­lit­i­cal elite may be us­ing elec­tions to pro­vide a fa­cade that we have democ­racy in Sierra Leone. What I mean is that we are yet to see demo­cratic norms be­ing played out in the daily lives of the peo­ple with im­prove­ments in the so­cioe­co­nomic sit­u­a­tion of the coun­try.

On top of that, the num­ber of women that voted in the elec­tions is very low, and even lower than in past elec­tions. Elec­tions have not trans­lated into an in­clu­sive space that would al­low women to fully take part in the demo­cratic process. I be­lieve that this can be ex­plained by the fact that struc­tures of ex­clu­sion and in­jus­tices are still in­tact even though we have elec­tions. Politi­cians will present that to the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to get in­vestors in the coun­try. We have democ­racy, but not fully yet.

Also, the peace build­ing process will con­tinue. I don’t see the coun­try re­laps­ing into vi­o­lence any­time soon. Given what the coun­try has gone through, many Sierra Leoneans would not want to go back to those days of vi­o­lence. In terms of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion we have made progress, as peo­ple just want to move on.

Over­all, I would say that I am cau­tiously op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture of the coun­try. I am look­ing for­ward to the sec­ond round of the elec­tions. If the in­cum­bent wins we will have a con­tin­u­a­tion in the gov­er­nance of the coun­try, which has not been able to trans­form the lives of Sierra Leoneans. But when you look at the op­po­si­tion party’s man­i­festo, it is not that dif­fer­ent. If we don’t have al­ter­na­tive way of pro­mot­ing so­cio eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, it will also im­pact in the rate at which the peace build­ing process will be con­tin­ued.

This in­ter­view has been edited for length and clar­ity.

Vic­tor De­pois | The Mcgill Daily

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