Sierra Leone's 2023 Elections: Consolidating Democracy Amidst Challenges and Opportunities
Sierra Leone has had 21 years of uninterrupted electoral democracy since the end of the civil war in 2002. During the last two decades, the country has conducted three elections won by two political parties, indicating healthy competition amongst political parties. On June 24, 2023, Sierra Leonean citizens will once again head to the polls to elect a president, 146 members of parliament, mayors, and local councillors. It will be the fourth set of elections held since the end of the country’s civil war (1991-2002) which claimed some 70000 lives. These elections offer opportunities for a continued consolidation of democracy in Sierra Leone but also present numerous challenges which this paper assesses.
Sierra Leone is a constitutional republic with a unicameral parliament and a directly elected president serving a five-year term with a maximum of two terms. The country is dominated by two main political parties, the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) and the All-People’s Congress (APC). Both parties have each had a fair share of governance. Between 1996 and 2007, the SLPP won the presidential elections, while the APC was declared winners of the 2007 and 2012 elections, with the SLPP winning the most recent elections in 2018. All of these elections were declared free, fair and peaceful, by international observers, although they resulted in a deepening of ethnoreligious and geopolitical divides. Although The country is applauded as one of Africa’s most successful post-conflict states, its fragility remains prominent and visible.
The candidates running on the platform of the two political parties are political mainstays. The SLPP candidate is Julius Maada Bio who is the Incumbent president seeking a second term in office. The country is made up of two major ethnic groups, the Mende and Temne, with the Limba, Krio and Fura constituting smaller ethnic groups. The Mende and other smaller ethnic groups in the south and eastern regions of the country have traditionally supported the SLPP because party members are majorly from that ethnic group whilst the APC is favoured by the Temne, and other groups in the north, as well as the Krio community in the west. The two candidates of the main political parties reflect the ethnopolitical differences which define elections in the country. Bio is of Sherbro origin, a small ethnic group with close ties to the Mende people. He may enjoy support in the Southern region. Kamara is from the Temne and is likely to enjoy massive support in the Northern and Western regions of the country.
Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone (ECSL): The ESCL is the electoral body in the country and is responsible for conducting all forms of elections and referendums in the country. Its responsibilities also include the registration of all eligible voters, the counting of votes and management of elections results through its Results Management System (RMS) and the demarcation of constituency boundaries. The ECSL has historically been accused of impartiality and partisanship, with reports of collusion with the APC party during elections as cited by the SLPP during the 2007 and 2018 elections. In the run up to the 2023 elections, the ECSL has been accused by multiple media outlets of awarding procurement contracts worth over US$10 million to two Freetown companies that did not show technical capacity to supply the requested voter registration technology and software for the June 2023 elections. Although a March 2023 survey by the Institute for Governance Reform suggested that almost three-quarters of Sierra Leoneans consider ECSL as credible, many within the ranks of the APC believe the ESCL is working tacitly with the ruling party and Julius Bio. The ESCL will be responsible for overseeing the use of the District Block Proportional Representation system (discussed in detail in this paper) for the upcoming elections. It’s ability to properly implement the new voting system will be a good litmus test to the strength of electoral governance in the country, particularly when electoral bodies have wobbled in recent elections in the West African region.
Political Parties: There are 17 registered political parties for the 2023 elections. Whilst the SLPP and APC are the two dominant political parties, the Campaign for Change (c4c) party and the National Grand Coalition are mainstays in the sub national elections. With both parties having four (4) and eight (8) elected members of Parliament (MPs) in the current parliament.
Civil Society Organisations: Sierra Leone has a burgeoning civil society space. The Institute for Governance Reform, Fifty-Fifty Group and the Centre for Accountability and Rule of law (CARL) are amongst CSOs spearheading dialogue with the government on the concerns of citizens and issues around good governance and accountability. There have increased joint policy initiatives involving CSOs, the administration, and the parliament. Some notable achievements by CSOs in Sierra Leone are the introduction in the parliament of the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Bill, which culminated twenty years of effort by women’s organizations, including CGG, 50/50 Group, Women’s Forum, and Manor River Union Women Peace Network. Sierra Leone in recent years had experienced a resurgence in press freedom, as a direct result of the repealing of its 1965 Criminal and Seditious Libel Law, which had been used to repress journalists critical of the government. As of 2022, Sierra Leone ranked as high as 46th on the Reporter’s Without Borders (RSF)’s 2022 press freedom rankings. However, 2023 has seen a decline, as the country dropped 28 places to 74 amid increased reports of journalist intimidation and a growing disinformation ecosystem.
Sierra Leone Citizens: A total of 3,374,258 Sierra Leonean citizens have registered to vote in the upcoming elections from a total population of 8.4 million people, representing 40% voter registration. The election will be important for the Sierra Leone populace, particularly people with disabilities, women, and the youth population. The next five years will prove critical in the country as its economy careens towards a recession. As such, there has been a high level of citizen participation, with Facebook and Twitter used as knowledge sharing and monitoring platforms. Sierra Leone has historically had a high level of voter participation in elections, In the 2018 elections, 2,676,549 people voted in the first round of elections, out of the 3,178,663 registered voters in the country, which means 84% of registered voters turned up to vote on election day. The 2018 results mandated a second round of voting and only a 1% drop off in voter turnout was noticed, as 2,578,271 votes were counted in the second round of voting. This indicates a high level of civilian engagement in the electoral process.
Insight Into the Main Political Players
Dr Samura Kamara and the All-People Congress (APC): Samura Kamara is a mainstay in Sierra Leonean politics, having served as central bank governor, finance minister and foreign affairs minister between 2008 and 2018. In 2018, Kamara ran for president on the platform of the APC, narrowly losing to Bio by a margin of 92,00 votes. Kamara’s loss came at a time where the APC, under Ernest Bai Koroma had won consecutive elections. Though Bio defeated Kamara back in 2018, his inability to address the frail and failing economy could tip the scale in Kamara’s favour this rematch.
Kamara’s reputation as a renowned economist and former finance minister who successfully oversaw the banking sector and public finance sector under Ernest Bai Koroma’s government could well enamour him towards prospective voters. The rationale behind this decision is the party’s focus on improving the economy and reversing the damage caused by the Bio government. The hope is that the proven and competent handling of economic policies by Kamara as Finance minister from 2009 till 2013 will propel him to the presidency. Kamara picked Chernor Ramadan Maju-Bah a seasoned politician and MP as his presidential running mate for the forthcoming elections.
Kamara has been a member of the APC party for many years, and has held several positions within the party, including as a member of the National Advisory Committee and the National Executive Council. He has also been a key advisor to several APC leaders, including former President Ernest Bai Koroma.
Kamara has a long- standing affiliation with the APC party and his close ties to party leaders helped him to gain support within the party and to secure the party and presidential nomination in 2018 and again in 2023. However, Kamara’s victory in the APC national convention comes amidst an ongoing corruption trial of six senior politician charged with various counts of corruption involving $4.2 million meant for the renovation of Sierra Leone chancery building in Manhattan, New York. Kamara himself is charged with two counts including misappropriation of public funds amounting to $2,560,000 meant for party infrastructure projects. The trial is ongoing, and he has denied wrongdoing. The pending court case has left the APC lagging behind the ruling party’s election preparations.
Julius Maada Bio and the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP): Julius Maada Bio is the incumbent president of the country seeking re-election under the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP). President Bio and the SLPP won the 2018 elections by the slenderest of margins (1.5%) and polls suggest the race may be even tighter. Bio is a former military officer who first came to power in a coup in 1996, but he stepped down after elections in 1998. He later ran for president in 2012 and 2018 before finally winning in the latter contest. His party, the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP), also won a majority of seats in parliament in the 2018 elections. Bio’s five years in power have been tumultuous at best.
The Sierra Leonean economy is struggling, and this has been characterised by high inflation rates, the diminishing value of the Leone (Serra Leone national currency) to the Dollar, which in turn has led to a high cost of living; a situation which has been compounded by the war in Ukraine and the COVID 19 pandemic. Internally, there is economic insolvency precipitated by the bloating of government wage bill, severe and burdensome debt service, hate speech and the politization of every aspect of life and huge government expenditure. This debilitating state of affairs, in the country has resulted in a disgruntled population, and an escalation of violence.
Supporters of the Bio-led government argue that one term is not enough to implement meaningful change in the country, particularly as the APC held power for the preceding 10 years. The Western Region, which includes the capital city of Freetown, is one of the regions where Julius Bio has historically been highly popular. This is likely because Bio’s tenure as Head of State during the civil war of the 1990s is seen by many as a time of stability and security, which has endeared him to many in the region. His first four years in office, however, have eroded most of that goodwill as poor economic policies have stagnated the growth and prosperity the region has become accustomed to.
Iye Kaka and the Alliance Democratic Party (ADP): Iye Kaka is the presidential candidate for the Alliance Democratic Party (ADP). She made history by becoming the first woman to be selected as the ADP’s presidential flagbearer after its establishment in 2015 by its founder, Mohamed Kamarainba Mansaray. As a relatively new party, it fared reasonably in the 2018 elections, winning 1% of the votes, the 5th highest percentage with its founder Mohammed Mansaray as its presidential candidate. However, Mansaray has since been charged and convicted of sexual assault. In the run to the elections, the party nominated Iye Kaka, a move which further distances its party from its convicted founder. Iye Kaka is the only female presidential candidate contesting in the 2023 presidential elections.
Charles Margai Party Leader, and Presidential Candidate People’s Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC): Charles Margai is a prominent figure in Sierra Leonean politics and the leader of the People’s Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC). He has previously run as a candidate under the PMDC for the last three general elections finishing as high as third in the August 2007 elections, when he secured 10% of the vote. Margai is from political royalty as his father, Albert Margai is a former Prime Minister of Sierra Leone, and the nephew of Milton Margai, the country’s first Prime Minister. Although he has only received less than 3% of the votes in both the 2012 and 2018 presidential elections, Margai continues to play an active role in shaping the political landscape of Sierra Leone.
Proportional representation system: The election commission for Sierra Leone announced that the 2023 multi-tier elections will be conducted using the District Block Proportional Representation System. The Proportional Representation National List (PRNL) was used in Sierra Leone in the 1996 and 2002 parliamentary elections. It had its legal basis in the repealed Act No. 16 of 1995 and Act No 2 of 1996. The distinguishing feature of this system was that political parties submitted ranked lists of parliamentary candidates to the electors/voters, who voted for a party list and not for individual candidates contained in each list. Each party received seats in proportion to its overall share of the national votes. For a political party to gain a seat (in the then Parliament), it should obtain a minimum number of votes equivalent to 5% (i.e., the electoral threshold), below which no party will be eligible to share the allocation of parliamentary seats.
Proportional representation (PR) is a concept often used to describe a range of electoral systems whereby the distribution of seats closely corresponds with the proportion of the total votes cast for each party or individual candidate. The country’s experience using this system was largely successful as it facilitated the conduct of national elections whilst the country was in the middle of a bloody civil war and ultimately contributed to stabilizing the country. Sierra Leone reverted to the First Past the Post system for subsequent elections, based on amendments to their electoral act. The recent reversion to the PR system is based on further changes to the electoral act spearheaded by Julius Bio. It has been met with strong opposition from APC with the Publicity Secretary of the party Sidi Yayay Tunis, reportedly threatening legal action. Under the new system, political parties produce district-level lists of candidates, with seats awarded based on the percentage of the vote the party receives in a district.
Supporters of the PR system have highlighted that the ESCR remains committed and compliant with its legal mandates and guiding principles and will keep the public and key stakeholders fully informed and engaged on this trend. Critics of the system have pointed out that it may increase party authoritarianism and that parliamentarians might not be the favoured choice of the party members. Critics have accused Julius Bio of using the change as a measure to improve his party’s performance in the parliamentary elections, as the APC won a 19-seat majority in the legislature in the 2018 election. Furthermore, under the PR system, the new threshold required to win a seat in a district has been changed to 11.9 percent of the vote and favours the two dominant parties. As such, the minority parties such as the C4C and NGC which have a combined 12 seats in the current legislature will be at a disadvantage.
Economic challenges: The Sierra Leonean economy has stagnated over the last year, with far reaching consequences. The country had experienced a period of sustained growth in 2021, which was steeply eroded throughout 2022. During 2021, the economy grew by 4.1%, supported by a recovery in agriculture, mining, and private consumption demand. However, by 2022, inflation to a decade-high of 30% (year-on-year) by July, compared to an average of 12% during 2021. High food and fuel inflation has had significant social impacts. According to the World Food Programme (2022), about 73% of Sierra Leoneans are food insecure. Using the 2017 PPPs (at $2.15/day), the poverty rate is estimated to have increased during the pandemic in early 2020. Sierra Leone is one of poorest countries in the world, ranking 179 out of 188 on the Human Development Index. Two-thirds of the population subsists on less than $1.25 per day, and almost half of the population is malnourished. The country’s currency, the Sierra Leonean Leone, has performed poorly against the dollar, significantly limiting the purchasing power of its citizens. Furthermore, with a per capita income of $500 and roughly 60 percent of the population falling below the poverty line, it has been a struggle for most to make ends meet. particularly as food prices have increased by 50 percent and fuel costs have doubled.
Hence, the state of the economy will certainly be a focal point for both major candidates. For Samura, proffering workable solutions to the economic crisis will be a main priority given that the current economic slump happened under his governance. Julius Bio will have a more complex task of convincing the Sierra Leonean people that he deserves another five years to recover an increasingly desperate economic situation. For his part, President Bio has promised a youth employment scheme with the aim of creating 500,000 jobs in five years. Kamara – who has also promised to “intensify efforts in job creation” – has pledged to “work towards transforming Sierra Leone from a consumption to a competitive production economy.
Influence of External Observers/ECOWAS: The presence of external observers, such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), could have a significant impact on the outcome of the Sierra Leone elections. ECOWAS has been actively involved in the country's political affairs since the end of the civil war in 2002, and its influence has been crucial in ensuring peaceful elections.
ECOWAS is expected to play a critical role in monitoring the electoral process to ensure that it is free, fair, and credible. The presence of ECOWAS observers will likely boost public confidence in the electoral process and enhance transparency. The outcome of the Sierra Leone elections could have significant implications for the region and neighbouring states. Sierra Leone is a member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and any instability resulting from the elections could have a spill over effect on other countries in the region. The peaceful conduct of the elections will help to enhance regional stability and strengthen democratic governance across the region. This is particularly pertinent as the democratic backsliding observed in the region (Mali in 2020 and Guinea, 2021 and Burkina Faso in 2022) has painted a gloomy picture of the democratic evolution in the region. Similarly, the winner of the elections will be dealing with a particularly fractious population, as the country it facing its biggest economic crisis post-civil war.
Chukwuma Chinye JNR is a Researcher at the Centre for Democracy and Development