After disputed elections in Sierra Leone, parliament’s functioning is in question

Observers have questioned the credibility of the results of the most violent election since the civil war. The opposition has said it will not participate in parliamentary proceedings, which means the body will lack the two-thirds majority needed to pass statutory instruments

July 10, 2023 by Pavan Kulkarni

Voters exercise their franchise in Sierra Leone on June 24. Photo: Photo by Kargbo/Xinhua

Uncertainty looms over the viability of the parliament and the functioning of local councils in Sierra Leone following disputes around the June 24 national elections which were officially won by the incumbent President Julius Maada Bio and his Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP). The elections were marred by political violence unparalleled since the decade-long civil war in the 90s.

Alleging fraud, elected officials of the main opposition party, the All People’s Congress (APC), signed a statement on July 5 reiterating that they will not participate in the parliament and local councils, in which it has officially won 40% and a little over 36% of the seats respectively.

“If APC members refuse to take their seats in the parliament, the parliament will not be able pass any statutory instruments.They will be short of the required two-thirds majority,” Victor Jones, member of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) and editor of its fact-checking project iVerify, told Peoples Dispatch

Along with its members of parliament, the chairpersons and councilors of local district councils, and the mayors, including of capital Freetown, have signed the APC statement, reiterating their non-participation.   

The elections for parliamentary and local council were held simultaneously with the presidential election on June 24, in what Jones described as an “uncharacteristically hostile environment. Elections in the past were conducted in a fair manner, in relative peace. International observers have often appreciated the elections here. But this time, it was different,” he explained.

“Unlike any other election since the civil war, this one was tense, violent and toxic,” he said, adding that houses of multiple APC leaders, including a former mayor, were burnt down in the run up to the election, allegedly by supporters of the ruling SLPP.

The African Union Election Observation Mission (AU EOM) “noted with concern that campaigns in some parts of the country were marred by politically motivated violence”, including “torching of party offices and physical attacks, resulting in injuries and a reported death in Freetown.”

The death was of a nurse in the city’s Central Hospital on June 26, two days after the election, when the army surrounded APC’s headquarters in Freetown and opened fire.* “She was shot in the head. Later, the government ordered the morgue to not release her body to her family,” Jones said.

“Live bullets fired at my private office at the Party headquarters. This is an assassination attempt. Live shots at my door,” APC’s presidential candidate and former finance minister, Samura Kamara, tweeted from inside the headquarters. He shared pictures of bullet holes and of people lying on the floor to keep out of the line of fire.

“The military did not give any official statement about the incident. But someone from the military claimed that they had intelligence that something was happening in the area where the APC office is located. So they went in to protect the residents,” added Jones. 

“But I interviewed residents of the area. They said nothing happened. The place was calm until the army went in and started shooting. We have footage of the military shooting straight at the party office. Even if they were in fact there to protect the residents as they claimed, there was absolutely no reason to fire at the party office.”

A press conference was underway at the APC’s headquarters when it was attacked. “A reporter from the New York Times and one from the Irish Times were also stuck there. The US embassy had to intervene and caution the government that one of its citizens, the NYT reporter, was also in the building,” he added.

Later that evening, in the town of Masiaka, about 65 kilometers from Freetown, the police and army “shot dead four young men who were supporters” of the APC, according to Sahara Reporters

Militarization of Sierra Leone

“We were not used to seeing the military deployed in the streets like this before. It was mostly unarmed police and traffic cops, maintaining law and order,” until the protests in August last year against the cost of living crisis, during which 21 protesters and six police officers were killed.

Read: Sierra Leone’s president threatens further crackdown on protesters after security forces kill 21

Blaming the government for the deteriorating economic condition, the protesters called for Bio’s resignation. “Bio was not in the country at the time. As soon as he came back, he addressed the nation, labeling the protesters as terrorists. That’s when they started deploying military to strategic points in the city,” Jones explained, adding that ever since, there has been a creeping militarization of Sierra Leone.

Worsening the situation is the fact that “the security forces are not professional. They receive orders from Bio and do whatever he says, partly because he is a military man himself, a retired Brigadier,” who as a young soldier had participated in the 1992 military coup. 

“During the protests, his wife said on camera that the President is a PhD holder in organizing coups, and that no one will be able to dethrone him,” Jones recalled. “I’ve heard about ex-combatants who had fought in the civil war being recruited in the army to wreak havoc” on his opponents, he added.   

No vision to resolve economic crisis

In the meantime, the economic crisis which had led to the protests has been worsening. By April 2023, inflation soared above 43%, while 60% of the country’s over seven million population are struggling to eke out a living below the poverty line. 60% of the youth are unemployed, which is among the highest in West Africa.

“Only a week or so before the election, there was another protest over the same economic issues,” said Jones. Yet, neither of the two main political parties made any proposals on how to address these pressing issues facing the people. 

Bio and his ruling SLPP have simply shrugged off responsibility, blaming the war in Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic. The opposition APC and its candidate Kamara also dodged the issue, failing to articulate any ideas to resolve the crisis during their election campaign. 

Instead, the APC campaigned on some rhetoric of “reunifying Sierra Leone,” Jones said, remarking, “it was a gross mistake. The APC might have secured a far larger share if they had dealt with these real issues, and perhaps even won despite the rigging.”  

Results lack credibility

Both national and international observers have questioned the credibility of the official results announced on June 27, giving President Bio 56.17% of the votes cast, just above the minimum of 55% required to avoid a rerun.

Although 13 candidates contested for the top position, Bio’s race was essentially against APC’s Samura Kamara, who received 41.16% of the votes, according to the ECSL, while the remaining candidates each secured less than a percent.

Pointing to “glaring irregularities and violations of established electoral procedures,” the APC said late evening on Friday, July 30, that it “unequivocally rejects the announced results,” and called for a rerun of presidential as well as parliamentary elections.  

On June 1, the ECSL announced that SLPP won 60% of the parliamentary seats, securing 81 of the 135, while the APC won the remaining 54 seats. Official results also gave 14 of the 22 local councils to SLPP and the remaining eight to APC.

Calling for the resignation of ECSL chairperson, Mohamed Konneh and his team, APC alleged the “rogue announcement of fraudulent election results” posed the “biggest threat to our democracy, unity and survival as a nation.”

Kamara said on July 2 that “[t]he results, not only for the presidential race but also for the selection of Members of Parliament, mayors, and local representatives, have raised legitimate doubts and concerns.”

In a statement on July 5, the ECSL-accredited election observer, National Election Watch (NEW), “noted large inconsistencies in turnout and vote shares between the presidential and parliamentary election in multiple districts,” despite the fact that both were held simultaneously. NEW is a coalition of local and international civil society organizations that has been monitoring elections in Sierra Leone since 2007. 

In 2007, 2012 as well in 2018, “NEW’s projections matched the official results of the Electoral Commission. Unfortunately, in 2023, we find that the published results of ECSL are inconsistent,” the watchdog said in a statement issued on June 27 after official results were announced. 

NEW says its uses “an advanced and proven election monitoring methodology used by citizen election observation groups around the world.. for the independent and impartial assessment of the quality of election day processes and the official results.”

As per its analysis, President Bio had the highest vote share, but below the 55% needed to avoid a rerun. It stated that the incumbent should have received “between 47.7% and 53.1%,” below the official figure of 56.1%, while estimating opposition Kamara’s vote share to be between 43.8% and 49.2%, higher than the official 41.16%.

Listing out a number of other inconsistencies, it said that the “Voter turnout is between 75.4% and 79%… while ECSL’s official result is 83.0%. Rejected ballots are between 4.5% and 5.7%… while ECSL’s official result is 0.4%.” Adding that its own estimate of invalid votes is more consistent with the previous years’ official data, NEW pointed out that “In 2018, rejected ballots for the first round were 5.2%, 4.7% in 2012, and 7.3% in 2007.”

Highlighting another improbability, NEW pointed out that “for 9 of the 16 districts, the official ECSL results show that more than 300 valid votes were cast per polling station despite the vast majority of polling stations having a maximum of 300 voters. Analysis of this official data demonstrates over 100% turnout in polling stations in 9 of 16 districts.” NEW has called on the ECSL “to release all polling station level results to increase transparency and allow for further independent analysis.” 

Threat to Election observer

In what has widely been regarded as an attempt to intimidate the NEW, the Sierra Leone’s office of National Security issued a statement on June 29. “The attention of the Security sector has been drawn to the publication of parallel election results for Presidential elections by the National Election Watch (NEW),” it read. 

“The Security Sector wants the general public, international observers and Development Partners, to note that the actions of NEW contravene” the constitution and “have the potential to provoke unfavorable consequences.”

Jones pointed out that the NEW has been publishing parallel results for every election. “But because this time the results are not consistent with the official results, the security forces have stepped up to threaten the NEW,” he said.   

The Carter Center, which is renowned for election monitoring, said that it “is familiar with and has great confidence in NEW’s rigorous observation and verification methodology, and therefore is concerned that the ECSL’s results do not correspond with NEW’s data.” Its statement also called on the ECSL to “publish election results by polling station so that parties and observers can cross-verify data, in accordance with international best practice.” 

Raising concerns over the lack of transparency of the tabulation process, Carter Center further said that its “observers directly observed instances of broken seals and inappropriately open ballot boxes in three of the five tally centers.”

A more systemic issue highlighted by the Carter Center was violation of “the principle of equal suffrage,” resulting from the use of census data instead of the voter registration data to decide the number of parliamentary seats in each electoral district. Jones argued that the Census data was not reliable, alleging severe undercounting in areas where 80% or more seats were held by the opposition.  

Consequently, Carter Center explained, “electoral districts which have historically voted by a significant majority for the governing SLPP were apportioned eight more seats in the parliament, and districts which have historically supported the opposition APC by significant majorities lost the same number of seats. Significantly, the capital district of Freetown (Western Urban), which in previous elections had twenty seats in the parliament, now has only eleven.”     

While observing that the voting itself was “generally peaceful, transparent and credible,” the AU EOM qualified its statement by adding, “up to the counting on polling day.” It noted that “electoral context was also characterized by mistrust of the ECSL,” amid “heightened tensions and reported incidents of violence.”

The EU Election Observation Mission (EOM) also pointed to “lacking transparency,” “violence” and “statistical inconsistencies” in its statement. It called on the ECSL “to promptly publish disaggregated results data per polling station, including a copy of results forms, which would provide for a possibility of public scrutiny of results”.

In a joint statement, the US, UK, Ireland, France and EU delegation said, “We share concerns of national and international observation missions about the lack of transparency in the tabulation process.”

Dependence on Western powers

President Bio hit back at these countries on July 4, accusing them of “interfering in Sierra Leone’s politics.” He reportedly went on to say, “We have to guard against that, because you have no right to come and validate our election… We have never done that to the European Union or any country in the European Union. We didn’t do that to the United States when they had their problem, when they attacked their Capitol”. 

But, Jones pointed out, “Bio himself was courting the leaders of these countries throughout his term everywhere he went. It is these Western governments who have been sponsoring all the big projects in the country and lobbying to extract our resources.”

“Sierra Leone,” he added, “is rich in mineral wealth. We have gold, diamonds, bauxite, coco etc. But the country is hardly benefiting from it because up to 80% of the proceeds from resource extraction go to the corporations of these countries which Bio himself has been inviting. We cannot even afford to fund our own elections. The EU has been funding our elections. They pay for the ballots, boxes, agents etc.” 

For this election, the EU funded USD 1.1 million. Ireland funded USD 1.64 million. The UNDP coughed up another USD 4.5 million. 

Jones fears that these western countries might go on now to impose sanctions to punish the alleged rigging. “And the consequences will be bad” for the already ailing economy, he said. However, the opposition APC, which offered no vision to deal with the economic crisis and had in fact distanced itself from the protests last August, is encouraging sanctions

“They just want to pay back. They only want to hurt this government. The interests of the people is not their concern,” he added. 

Avoid inflammatory actions

In a statement urging peace amid rising tensions, the Socialist Movement of Ghana called on “all stakeholders in the election to avoid inflammatory actions that could lead to national destabilization and the worsening of the plight of the people of Sierra Leone who continue to suffer the effects of a civil war which led to the death of hundreds of thousands of citizens and a bankrupt neo-liberal order.”

It added that “the path to the salvation of the masses of Sierra Leone from poverty, ignorance and disease does not lie in violent confrontations over disputes about which neo-colonial leaders should assume power.” The statement noted that “West Africa, cannot afford another conflict in the face of growing Insurgency in the Sahel, the Boko Haram violence in Nigeria and secessionist threats across the sub–region,” and urged “Sierra Leoneans and pillars of power in the sub-region to work seriously to avoid another needless conflict, and to ensure that the will of the people of Sierra Leone will prevail at all times.”

July 25, 2023

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