Sierra Leone and its challenges for peacebuilding after the elections in March 2018

Impuls 06/2018 by Adenike Cole, Coordinator of Sierra Leone Action Network on Small Arms, and Sheku Kamara, Executive Director of the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone

On the surface, Sierra Leone appears to be an impressive democratic state with a thriving democracy after experiencing a decade-long brutal civil war from 1991-2002. As the country was recovering from the aftermaths of the war, it was struck by an Ebola epidemic (2014-2015) that nearly brought it to its knees. Still a fragile state, Sierra Leone has conducted periodic elections, transferring power from one political party to another. The peace and stability of the state of Sierra Leone is put to the test whenever a governing political party loses elections and there is transfer of power to the former opposition. When a ruling party loses elections, there are several implications ranging from loss of jobs by perceived party supporters to physical attacks and violent conflicts. Managing and balancing between the frustrations of the losers and the anxiety of the winning party, especially during the transition period, is often a challenge.

Sierra Leone conducted its 5th multiparty general and presidential-runoff elections on the 27th and 31st March 2018 respectively. Sixteen political parties participated in the general elections that resulted in having four political parties and independent candidates gaining seats in parliament with the main opposition having the highest. Julius Maada Bio, the candidate from the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) was declared winner with a 52 percent lead over his opponent Dr. Samura Kamara of the All Peoples Congress (APC). The electoral process was officially described as free and fair.

Julius Maada Bio has a military background. He was part of a military coup in 1992 and led a palace coup after which he became Head of State for three months. It is hardly surprising that some segments of the society perceive him as a potential dictator who might govern with less democratic tenets. However, part of his campaign message was that he took over power with the aim of expediting the process of return to civilian rule. According to him, he kept his promise by handing over power non-violently to the former President Tejan Kabbah following peaceful elections in 1996. This narrative is contested in the political discourse, as there were a couple of conferences held to put pressure on Bio’s regime to conduct elections without further delay. Whatever happened, Maada Bio takes some credit for the smooth transition and this may have resonated well with the electorates. Whether his governance style will reflect his military background remains to be seen and judged by all.

There has been incidences of post-elections violence in various parts of the country - especially, in the Western Area (one of four principal divisions of Sierra Leone), which is the stronghold of the then ruling APC and in Kenema District (district in the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone), the stronghold of the former main opposition SLPP. These spontaneous violent reactions are allegedly perpetrated by supporters of the now ruling SLPP. It is crucial that the peace sustained over the years is preserved, but it is worthy of note that some of the violent incidents leading to accusations and counter-accusations are a recipe for chaos that is likely to affect the peace that is being enjoyed. This is because any reaction by those who feel targeted could lead to a vicious cycle of violence, which has the potential to spread across the country.

Civil Society organisations including the Council of Churches of Sierra Leone (CCSL) have used the media to reach out to the concerned parties to the conflict. They appealed for calm, peaceful dialogue and addressing the basic needs of the electorates as promised in their manifesto.

In recent years, Sierra Leone has gone through lot of challenges ranging from Ebola outbreak in 2014 and the mudslide in August, 2017. All of these happened as the country was recovering from the footprints of a brutal war that lasted for a decade. The country is yet to recover from the aftermath of these disasters. Thousands of citizens are still displaced and require financial, social and psychosocial support. The youth population is growing, most of them unemployed and some of them even uneducated. It is important for any government that takes the mantle of leadership to strive to address these challenges in order to lay the foundation for building sustainable peace.

Amidst these challenges, a national cohesion is crucial. Unfortunately, this is so far not the case as supporters of the ruling SLPP party and the main opposition APC party are in violent confrontation. In a fledgling democracy with weak security and law sectors, coupled with a shrinking civil society space, such (violent) confrontations like the following example could undermine the peace and security of the state and this would not auger well for growth and development:

After the elections, an impasse occurred following series of petitions levied against elected Members of Parliament (MPs) of the main opposition APC party. There were various allegations relating to flouting of electoral laws by the petitioned MPs of the APC party. It was speculated that the APC, having the majority of elected MPs, had a greater chance of winning the Speakership position in Parliament. An interim injunction was imposed by the court, which prevented these MPs from taking the oath of office as well as participating in the election of the Speaker and Deputy Speaker in the House of Parliament. This was widely perceived as a ploy by the ruling SLPP to deny the APC this chance. The elected APC MPs therefore protested in the House of Parliament and the police was called to forcefully remove them while the parliamentary proceedings continued, resulting to the election of the Speaker and Deputy Speaker without the participation of the main opposition APC party.

In all of this, the independence of the police and judiciary is being questioned. This is however not new as the now ruling SLPP party was always crying foul when it comes to matters concerning these institutions. A moral responsibility now rests on the SLPP to change this trajectory and allow the judiciary and police to act independently rather than influence them to its advantage in much the same way that they accused the opposition APC when it was in governance.

The state apparatus, especially the police and judiciary, needs to be capacitated and strengthened so as to conduct their work in a fair manner. The role of civil society is very crucial in this, holding governments accountable on behalf of the populace. However, this is often met with resistance from the government whenever challenged by civil society organisations and the media on critical state matters. The media has been advocating for the government to abolish the “seditious and criminal libel law” often used against journalists when they investigate and bring out issues against public officials in government. This has so far not been achieved in spite of the commitment made by the previous government to do so. The present government also made the same promise and everyone is waiting to see whether or not it would live up to its commitment. This shrinking civil society space has contributed to the unchecked excesses of governments, thereby threatening the peace of the country. Reforms that would enhance the independence of the judiciary and security sector are imperative.

The international community’s support for Human Right activists, the media and civil society would go a long way to provide checks and balances for the excesses of these state institutions. Still, the support of international community has a crucial role: Strengthening civil society organisations to hold the government accountable as well as advocate and lobby governments for the domestication of international treaties it has signed up to. The Sustainable Development Goal number 16 alludes to this and calls on countries to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”. As part of the New Deal, the 5 peacebuilding and statebuilding goals, if well domesticated, will help address the main challenges and provide the needed impetus for national development and promote peace in Sierra Leone.

Civil Societies have called for a National Dialogue in a bid to foster peace and promote national cohesion, but the newly elected President is yet to respond to that.

Over one month already as President, it is clear that though elected through the ballot box, the presence of the military in the presidential convoy is predominant. Minority Leader of the National Grand Coalition describes the situation as `Junta Democracy’. One might attribute this to the fact the current president is an retired brigadier. The manifestation of these tendencies by a former military man is of concern. How he manages that, will be constantly assessed during his tenure. CSOs should be enabled to, and they do it already, raise the flag whenever there are blatant breaches of the democratic principles as enshrined in the constitution.

Overall, there is general anxiety and cautious optimism from the populace about the ‘new direction’ that has become the slogan of the current Maada Bio led government. The challenges for peacebuilding are evident but the political transformations since the end of the war in 2002 also provides hope for the citizens.

Further Information:

Adenike Cole, Coordinator of Sierra Leone Action Network on Small Arms

Sheku Kamara, Executive Director of the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone

Links and Literature:

The underlying causes of fragility and instability in Sierra Leone
Herbert M’cleod and Brian Ganson | Commission on State Fragility, Growth and Development | April 2018