On March 7, Sierra Leone will vote to elect a new president as well as parliamentarians and district representatives. Incumbent Ernest Bai Koroma, of the All People’s Congress (APC), is standing down, having served the constitutional limit of two five-year terms. His chosen successor, Samura Kamara, will run against Brig. (Rtd.) Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) and Kandeh Yumkella of the newly minted National Grand Coalition (NGC). In addition to the three main contenders, 13 other candidates have provisional approval to run.
Could Sierra Leone be about to witness its third democratic transition from one party to another since it won independence from Britain in 1961? Here are five things to know.
1. Is a serious third party emerging?
Sierra Leone’s tumultuous postcolonial politics has been dominated by two major parties: the SLPP and the APC. Between them, they control all the seats in parliament. The NGC emerged in the summer of 2017 after a power struggle within the SLPP, fueling talk of a “third way.” It is led by Kandeh Yumkella, former head of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization. If attendance at rallies translates into ballots cast, the NGC may make inroads into the APC’s northern strongholds. It has worked hard for the urban youth vote, bringing in endorsements from prominent musicians and sending a message that it will bring progressive change and nonfactional politics.
APC and SLPP supporters, concerned by the threat to the status quo, accuse the NGC of simply regrouping disgruntled SLPP members and thus not representing change. The APC has legally challenged Yumkella’s candidacy, arguing that his failure to renounce his dual citizenship — until November 2017 he held both Sierra Leonean and U.S. passports — should disqualify him. The National Electoral Commission (NEC) dismissed the challenge on Jan. 24, but the APC has appealed.
This “third way” has emerged at a time of weakness for the two traditional parties. President Koroma unilaterally decided that the APC candidate would be Samura Kamara, the foreign affairs minister, in an unexpected choice. Koroma will remain chairman of the APC, leading observers to worry about his potential desire for continued influence. Meanwhile, Yumkella’s decision not to run for the SLPP candidacy left Maada Bio’s leadership position uncontested but undermined.
To win outright, a candidate needs 55 percent plus one of the vote in the first round. Yumkella could split the vote enough to force a runoff between the SLPP and APC. That is what happened in 2007, when Charles Margai, leader of a third party, the People’s Movement for Democratic Change, secured enough first-round votes to force a runoff; he became kingmaker, pointing his followers to the APC.
2. The politics of north against south
Politics in Sierra Leone has been divided by ethnicity and geography. The APC dominates in the northern districts, home to the Temne and Limba ethnic groups. The SLPP’s support base is the Mende ethnic group in the south. In the 2012 election, the SLPP’s Maada Bio won less than 10 percent of the vote in four northern districts.
In 2017, the government redrew boundaries to create two new districts and split 41 chiefdoms, small traditional leadership units with significant influence over political mobilization outside of the capital city. The APC claimed this would bring governance closer to the people. However, the new districts and chiefdoms are primarily in the governing party’s heartland. Political opponents have accused the APC of carrying out the exercise to strengthen its patronage network in a decentralized political system where local authorities are influential.
A few key districts have swung back and forth in recent elections: Kono district in the east of the country, and two Western Area districts, home to the capital, Freetown, and over 20 percent of the electorate. Kono’s district has a distinctive ethnic makeup: The capital’s urban population is quite diverse. That means neither party has been able to capture these districts definitively. Both areas will be keenly contested again in 2018.
3. Ebola undermined citizens’ trust in the state
Recent research by one of us, Luisa Enria, found that citizens’ mistrust of the state exposed by the Ebola outbreak remains pervasive. Coinciding with an economic downturn — exacerbated by a fall in the price of iron ore, the country’s major export — the response to the virus left many ordinary citizens angry. The auditor general’s Ebola spending reports revealed misappropriation of funds and a failure to follow proper procedures in awarding contracts and in procurements. So far there has been no action on those allegations.
Recently, two Ebola survivors, supported by civil society groups, filed a lawsuit against the Sierra Leonean government at the ECOWAS regional court, accusing the government of failing to be accountable to citizens. That may hurt APC candidates, since the APC was in charge during the Ebola outbreak. However, affected communities feel that powerful individuals benefited from the crisis — a sentiment that tarnishes the entire political class.
4. Election management has been deemed credible
Since the civil war ended in 2002, NEC-run elections have generally been deemed credible by international observers and domestic courts. In 2012, Maada Bio contested the results and took his case to Sierra Leone’s Supreme Court. But after his petition was rejected, he chose to accept the judgment — an important step in resolving election disputes in the country.
In 2017, the NEC oversaw creation of a new voter register, listing more than 3 million eligible voters, up from just over 2.5 million in 2012. Like almost everything in Sierra Leonean politics, this was initially viewed through either a red (APC) or green (SLPP) political lens. With the highest proportion of the newly registered from the north, those with the green lens argued that the process had been biased, but those concerns appear to have faded. Turnout has consistently been high since the civil war, averaging 81 percent, and it is likely to be so again.
5. So is violence likely?
After Sierra Leone’s 10-year civil war, international actors who worked to reconstruct the country’s political systems focused on reintegrating former combatants, supporting law enforcement and justice and opening dialog between the political parties.
Nevertheless, Sierra Leone regularly sees minor election violence, within and between the parties. The SLPP and the APC rely on “task forces” — informal protection units made up primarily of former combatants — to protect their candidates and intimidate opponents’ voters. Parties say they need the “task forces” because they cannot count on state security forces, and because their opponents will not play by the rules. Task force members count on patronage if their candidate wins power.
The stakes are particularly high in a transition year. The United Nations expressed concerns after violence at a political rally in January. If the election process is not perceived as fair, and if leaders do not safeguard the civic space, we may see more incidents in the run-up to the election and after results are announced.
Luisa Enria (@luisaenria) is a lecturer in international development at the University of Bath, where her research focuses on the political dimensions of development and humanitarian intervention, youth, and political violence, based on long-term fieldwork in Sierra Leone.