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by Benjamin Alsdurf


Democracy in Sierra Leone

Still recovering from civil war, but looking forward.

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On Saturday, August 11th, Sierra Leonean voters came out in droves, many forfeiting sleep in order to secure their place in the massive queues that snaked around polling stations across the country. In Port Loko town, a city 50 km northeast of Freetown, where I was stationed as an international election observer, lines exceeded 300 feet over an hour before polls opened.

I came to Sierra Leone as one of nine short-term international observers sent by the Micah Challenge USA (MCUSA), a coalition of Christian organizations and congregations committed to seeing global poverty halved by 2015. Three Micah Challenge teams were deployed in five of the 14 voting districts. Members of our group visited 20 polling centers and 80 polling stations. We worked under the direction of Democracy Sierra Leone (DSL), a coalition of over sixty groups trying to promote democratic principles in Sierra Leone. The National Electoral Commission (NEC), an independent body charged with the conduct of all public elections in Sierra Leone, provided our group with observer credentials and orientation on election rules.

In the week leading up to the elections, we observed political party rallies that gave every appearance of being free and competitive. If nothing else, they provided Sierra Leoneans an officially sanctioned opportunity for singing and dancing in the streets.

At 4 a.m. on election day, I made the two-and-half-hour trek from Freetown to my polling station. I arrived as polling agents, working without electricity, scrambled in the dawn's light to get the station organized in order to accommodate a growing line of voters.

In a city that residents used to call "the black man's London," it is clear that the 10-year civil war and years of neglect have taken their toll. Freetown's infrastructure is in disrepair—remnants of once well-paved roads are now small islands of asphalt surrounded by potholes. Recounting the drive to Port Loko that day on what is the main route to Guinea, I told friends of driving through two-foot-deep puddles of water. Friends assured me that I hadn't really seen a bad road yet.

Luckily for voters there was a miraculous break in the near-daily rainy season downpours. The day's weather felt like nature's balancing act to see how muggy the air could get without raining.

Political apathy was not among Sierra Leone's problems in this first election. Youths, women, and the general electorate came out to exercise their political voice with the sense that this election matters. The NEC was lauded by international observers for having conducted both rounds of the election freely and fairly.

These 2007 presidential and parliamentary elections were the first since U.N. peacekeepers left in 2002, following the country's 10-year civil war. The current president, Tejan Kabbah, won the last election with over 70 percent of the vote, having been widely credited for bringing the country to peace. Now five years later, Sierra Leone is in charge of its own election and the international community has been closely watching the outcome. With a population of five million, this country—roughly the size of South Carolina—is situated on Africa's west coast and boasts massive natural resources, including both large mineral deposits and fertile land. It also has the dubious distinction of ranking next to last in the UNDP's human development index.

Voters openly expressed their dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs. For some this meant that Solomon Berewa, "Solo B", the current ruling party's candidate, should be given a chance to finish the work that his Sierra Leonean Peoples Party (SLPP) started when peace was established in 2002. In one of the most interesting developments in the lead-up to the election, Charles Margai, frustrated at losing his bid to be the SLPP's presidential candidate, split off to form a third major party, The People's Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC). With that move, Margai upended what had been a historical rivalry between the SLPP and the All People's Congress (APC). The Mende-dominated SLPP has long controlled the southern and eastern parts of the country, whereas the Temne-dominated APC has fared better in the north and west. Margai's penchant for vitriolic speeches against the ruling SLPP made him the firebrand of the election and a clear favorite of younger SLPP supporters disenchanted with their party's performance.

The APC, which controlled the country for most of its first 30 years of independence, emerged as the front-runner in the first round of elections. Its candidate, Ernest Bai Koroma, once described to me as "a soft-spoken technocrat," succeeded in rallying enough of the APC faithful along with a percentage of disgruntled voters to come out ahead. Constitutionally, to win the first round of voting, a candidate must secure 55% of the vote, and Koroma's 44% was not enough to avoid a runoff election.

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