Uncertain Future for Sierra Leone's Democracy
On 27 June, three days after Sierra Leoneans went to the polls, the Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone (ECSL) declared incumbent Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone’s People’s Party (SLPP) as winner of the presidential election. The announcement was keenly watched by observers and citizens in one of West Africa’s smallest democracies, but one with a similar history of ethno-religious division and increasingly volatile politics.
Bio’s victory in the first round, by securing higher than the 55% needed to avoid a second round (56.1%), has been disputed by other election observers and reports. A parallel voter tabulation (PVT) run by National Election Watch (NEW), a domestic observation group made up of civil society organisations in the country, estimated that Bio actually scored 53% and less than the required numbers to avert a run-off. International missions were also concerned about the collation process. In a joint statement, the American, British, Irish, German, French and European Union missions to Sierra Leone said that they ‘share the concerns of national and international observation missions about the lack of transparency in the tabulation process’.
Expectedly, the opposition have rejected the results while crucially calling for peace as they litigate the outcome through the judiciary. Ultimately, the declared results only add to established issues surrounding the conduct of the polls. While most reports indicated that the elections were relatively smooth and peaceful, there were pockets of unrest and incidents in the capital, Freetown, and in enough areas to alert the many external observer delegations that had descended on the country ahead of the tight election. Observers deployed by National Election Watch (NEW), a civil society coalition in Sierra Leone, reported that while the South (96%), North (94%), North-West (94%) and Eastern (93%) regions opened polls on time, there was significant challenge in the Western Area with only 59% observed opening polls by 8am as prescribed. Freetown in particular experienced several logistical challenges, with many opposition party officials accusing the ECSL of selectively targeting an APC stronghold. Post-election actions, including police officials firing teargas into a crowd of mostly opposition supporters has done little to calm nerves ahead of the tense election tally period.
Background to the Polls
Sierra Leone’s elections were the second multi-tier elections in West Africa this year, following Nigeria’s in February and March, but reflected similar themes from other polls. The incumbent Sierra Leone’s People’s Party (SLPP) government had prioritised increased investment in education and healthcare, but this had often come at the cost of increased government debt. Coupled with the impact of the recent COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing Russia-Ukrainian conflict, there have been significant challenges within the country. This has led to rising inflation, which hit 43% in April 2023. These issues were brought to the fore during the August 2022 cost of living protests in Freetown, which saw at least 21 people killed by police officials. That Freetown has largely remained in control of the opposition All People’s Congress (APC) added to the dynamic that the government has sought to muzzle the civic and opposition space ahead of the elections. Despite this situation, APC in-fighting was distracting for the campaign and its presidential candidate, Samura Kamara, is currently in court on corruption charges from his time as foreign minister.
This perception was heightened by issues surrounding the use of the controversial census that was undertaken ahead of the elections. Statistics Sierra Leone carried out a mid-term population and housing census in December 2021, which the opposition largely ignored and encouraged its supporters to boycott. The numbers, however, expectedly redrew the previous distribution between the different population bases. Historically, the APC has had control of the more populous North-West area, while the SLPP has been stronger in the South-East. As a result, it has often required a run-off and political horse-trading for a party to achieve the 55% needed to win the presidency. However, the census that was released instead recorded a virtually even split between both blocs, which opposition members believe was a ploy to justify negating their slight advantage heading into the polls. This has not always translated into an APC victory. In 2018, Kandeh Yumkella, a Northerner and candidate of the National Grand Coalition, finished in third place and endorsed Bio during the run-off and helped in his eventual victory.
This was important because of the Election Commission of Sierra Leone’s (ECSL) decision to use both the Proportional Representation election system for the election of members of parliament. Under this arrangement, citizens vote for a party per district, who would then receive seats based on the percentage of popular votes cast. This method is not entirely new – Sierra Leone had used it in 2002 – but this new process is expected to include independent candidates, to accommodate for the 11.9% threshold needed to qualify for a seat. Opposition parties, led by the APC, expectedly complained about the census being used to determine how seats would be allocated till the ECSL sought an average with the previous census conducted. However, this did not dampen the seemingly adversarial relationship between the commission and the APC, with the party only taking a more active campaign stance after talks brokered by other actors. These issues dominated the conduct of elections on 24 June.
Post Election Challenges
After the elections, both of the major parties rushed to issue statements declaring expected victory after tallies. In the case of the APC, this led to a clash with the police that led to clashes and gunshots at the party headquarters. Preliminary results released on Monday, 26 June, showed Bio in a fairly strong lead, with 56% of the results declared. Senior observers spoken to from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), African Union (AU), the Commonwealth and domestic groups were particularly concerned about potential responses. The ethno-religious dimension of politics in the country might lead to concerns of government over handedness and lead to worse protests than those in August 2022.
Since the ECSL declared Bio elected, and his subsequent swearing-in for a second term, there have been statements from the different observer missions calling for the commission to release disaggregated results. The European Union mission noted discrepancies in several districts and especially high turnout exclusively in SLPP strongholds. Similarly, the Carter Center has also called for the full disaggregated results to be announced. These mirror the observations by NEW Sierra Leone, which estimated a lower turnout than what was announced (75.4 – 79% vs 83%) as well as the stark drop in invalid votes from previous polls. In previous elections, invalid votes represented 5.2% (2018), 4.7% (2012) and 7.3% (2007). NEW’s PVT also estimated that it would be roughly on par at around 5.1%, however, the ECSL announced a significant drop to 0.4%. This data discrepancy has suggested the likelihood that invalid votes were reassigned to Bio and the SLPP and could have played a part in ensuring a first-round win. While it is not beyond the realm of plausibility that Bio could have had a first-round win, the methodology deployed in NEW’s PVT has been independently supported by other observation groups. It also does beg the question of why ECSL is reluctant to release the fully disaggregated data if there is nothing to hide.
Inaugurations in Sierra Leone are carried out within hours of a declaration, which adds to a potentially disruptive situation if the results are overturned. Despite that, the risk of a government perceived to be illegitimate by a significant part of the population and some international missions is too much to take. For the government to properly take the necessary decisions to address ongoing challenges, it will require the necessary support that elections are meant to show. Unfortunately, with Nigeria’s elections still being litigated in court, it shows that West African democracies still have a lot to learn in ensuring free, fair and credible elections.