Although not directly related to my Fulbright research, I want to take some time to share a story about the recent elections in Sierra Leone.
Like many others outside of Sierra Leone, I was interested in the process and outcome of the elections, but could only find limited international coverage. The sources I relied upon, the BBC and AllAfrica.com, reported that there were the inevitable difficulties, but that overall the elections went smoothly. But these reports failed to portray the incredible volatility of the elections and the potential catastrophe that was averted through the courageous efforts of a number of Sierra Leoneans.
It was not until I talked to people in Freetown, including the family that I am staying with, that I was able to develop an understanding of the danger and apprehension that enveloped the country before the election. The manic exuberance of Freetown was replaced with fearful caution, the bars and nightclubs were unusually quiet and many had left the country all together. There was violence in the provinces and intimidation across Freetown. The tension had been building for months and was coming to a head as it came time for the run-off election.
The initial elections on August 11th included three presidential candidates. Solomon Berewa of the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), Ernest Koroma of the All Peoples Congress (APC) and Francis Margai of the People's Movement for Democractic Change (PMDC). The PMDC had split from the SLPP and although not considered a major contender for the election, managed to take votes away from the SLPP. For the initial election the lines at the polls went smoothly and the monitors hailed the election as credible.
The National Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone (NEC), headed by Christiana Thorpe, had been preparing for the elections for over two years. In the beginning, the organization ran smoothly as it designed voter outreach and education programs and developed organizational and monitoring strategies for the elections. However, as the elections came closer, tensions began to rise. Although the NEC is supposed to be a non-partisan organization it became increasingly clear that some members of the organization were pushing a partisan agenda.
Christiana Thorpe, and a number of commission members with whom she worked closely, drafted election regulations that they hoped would reduce loopholes and voter fraud. Strict deadlines for registration, regulated voting procedures and tightened reporting procedures were implemented. There were some at the NEC who felt that the measures being taken were excessive, and that the safeguards would not be necessary. Despite criticism, the regulations were adopted.
Tensions within the NEC grew. Factions made their political affiliations known and suggested strategies that would clearly benefit a particular party. Work at the NEC became difficult. Christiana Thorpe and those loyal to her found themselves the targets of accusations and personal character attacks. Then reports started to come in of massive attempts of bribery. Representatives in the field offices and low level staff were the first approached. Thorpe and those loyal to her refused and remained dedicated to their mission.
A month or so before the election an official at the NEC who was loyal to Thorpe received a phone call from a friend of hers working for the police. The policeman said that he had seen her name on a hit list that was being circulated around the police station. At the top of the list was Christiana Thorpe. The official went to Thorpe who brushed off the threats and remained focused on her work. The work of the NEC continued, but the atmosphere became much more serious. The message was clear: if you are too good to take bribes, there are other ways to influence you.
While tensions subsided somewhat with the first election, the pressure neared the boiling point during the run-off election. The rhetoric of the candidates became more aggressive. There were episodes of violence and arson throughout the country. People who walked into the offices of political parties saw guns and machetes stacked in the corners of rooms. Money was flowing to the political parties to buy weapons and there were reports that ex-combatants were being mobilized at camps outside of Freetown.
On election day the enthusiasm that had accompanied the initial election was gone. International organizations that had taken part in the first election now warned their employees to stay home. There was a large police and security presence. However, the voting passed without too many incidents and the process of counting the votes began.
Again, the NEC was in the spotlight. There was pressure to count votes as quickly as possible, and pressure to count them in a certain way. As the votes came in, it became apparent that the safeguards which were implemented were bringing to light incidents of voting irregularity. In parts of the country generally associated with the SLPP more votes had been cast than there had been registered voters. Another fraud attempt was discovered because a number of SLPP votes had been submitted on counterfeit forms. This was discovered because the counterfeit forms said "from" instead of "form."
The NEC spent the week counting votes and announcing partial results. The initial results indicated that the opposition party of Koroma was taking the lead. At the end of the week, while the NEC was still counting, word spread that the SLPP were going to file an injunction to stop the counting. By the end of Friday, however, there was no injunction. Fearing that the injunction would be filed on Monday, the staff of the NEC spent the weekend feverishly counting votes, some spending the night in the office. The votes were not completely counted by Monday morning, but no injunction came. The SLPP thought they could wait until Tuesday to file the injunction. But before the papers could be filed, Christiana Thorpe announced that she was ready to proclaim the winner of the election.
Under heavy security, people moved to the assembly room at the British Council in Freetown. The streets were relatively quiet and badges were required to pass through the security checkpoints. At the British Council people entering the hall had to go through security. Just before Thorpe was to come out on stage to announce the results a man was stopped by security at the door. He had a loaded hand gun concealed under his clothes. He was arrested and escorted out.
Before Christiana Thorpe approached the microphone to announce the results, electoral commissioners from the regions were the largest amount of fraud had taken place walked out over the decision to invalidate those votes. Still, Thorpe had a quorum and decided to announce the results. In her speech she discussed her decision to invalidate the votes:
It is extremely regrettable to have to invalidate even a single polling station, and it is a decision that the NEC did not take lightly. However, the responsibility for the act of invalidation falls on those who are responsible for the malpractices, it is they who should be held accountable for disenfranchising voters, as there were legitimate votes cast in these polling stations.
There is an important message arising from these elections; there is no longer a place for fraud in the Sierra Leone electoral system. The people of Sierra Leone deserve to exercise their rights in an atmosphere of freedom, fairness and transparency. This is what the NEC strived to provide and will continue to strive for in the future - nothing less will be tolerated. Those who cheated have succeeded in doing a disservice to their respective candidates. But they did no succeed in tarnishing either the results or the credibility of the process.
Then Thorpe announced that the challenger, Ernest Koroma, had won the election. To his credit, Vice President Berewa immediately and eloquently acknowledged defeat and refrained from challenging the results. Koroma was inaugurated shortly after and now faces the daunting challenge of tackling corruption and asserting control over the government. For her efforts Thorpe has been hailed as a hero and she will no doubt have a significant and positive impact on the future of Sierra Leone.