Our last federal election was described as ‘one of the dullest political races in Australia in living memory’. If only voters in Sierra Leone could be so lucky. After a long and challenging process, their country finally has a new leader. But getting there has taken its toll – and it’s still a bit early to say things are back to normal.
In Australia, we can be incredibly passionate about politics – or not. But regardless of how we feel about our pollies, the parties and their policies, the actual voting process is pretty simple.
We head to a polling booth at a local school or church, maybe buy a sausage (or veggie burger) from the kids on the sausage sizzle. And queue up. There’s always a whole lot of how-to-vote paraphernalia that needs to be dropped in the nearest bin and some oversized voting forms to wrangle. But once we cast our vote, we can get on with the rest of our Saturday.
And (usually) by Sunday morning we have our new government.
It’s not until you start looking into the election process in other countries that you realise how truly fortunate we are to be able to use words like ‘boring’ and ‘uneventful’ to describe our politics. They’re certainly not the words people have been using to describe last month’s general election in Sierra Leone!
On 7th March around three million Sierra Leoneans, over 80% of the voting population, chose to vote. Considering the challenges in simply getting to a polling station, you realise just how extraordinary those numbers are!
It all comes back to where you were born.
Here in Australia, where we vote is determined by where we live. If we move to a new electoral district, we just let the electoral office know. Heck, even if we’re traveling interstate, or overseas when there’s an election – there are ways we can cast our ballots remotely.
But that’s not how it works in Sierra Leone.
If people want to vote, they have to return to their birth town – the place where their name is registered. Considering the huge number of people who moved to large urban centres in search of a job, this year’s election resulted in what has been described as ‘the largest mass movement of people within the country since the end of the civil war in 2002.’
Just imagine what it’s been like to have all those people on the move in a country where there’s very little infrastructure. Overcrowded buses. Few roads. Way more traffic than usual. Frequent accidents and road shutdowns. And the inevitable outbreaks of conflict and violence.
All that and they haven’t even voted yet!
In their online news service, German news agency DW (Deutsche Welle’s) reported: ‘The elections have brought everyday life in Sierra Leone to a near standstill.’
They described what voters had to go through to cast their vote: ‘In the sweltering 40-degree heat, tempers flared at the polling station … Some voters complained that they had been standing in line since the early hours of the morning, but the polling station did not open until 8 a.m.
“I have been here since midnight,” one man said. “I slept in that boat. The queue is not moving at all. Things are really slow here.”‘
Meanwhile, a mother lining up to vote told DW she had to make other arrangements for her children. ‘”I left my home at 5 a.m. and have been here since then. I have children and I have to find food for them. I can’t stand here until 3 p.m. When will my children eat? I want to vote right now.”’
We also felt the impact of the election in the schools and organisations we work with. When the government created public holidays so people could vote, students had to stay home from school and our partners had to put work on hold while staff travelled back to their hometowns to vote.
For our programs team it’s been like swimming through honey.
Virtually every decision, every meeting, every change, has been delayed until ‘after the election’. Programs that were ready two months ago have been put on hold. New partner meetings haven’t happened. Last quarter’s projects have been shifted to this quarter. All of this has been due to people making that long and difficult trip home, and because of the general cloud of uncertainty over the outcome of the election – without knowing who would eventually become President, it was challenging to make concrete plans.
The shadow of the past
Changing the power structure of any country is a major event. But in countries like Sierra Leone, the peaceful transition of leadership is far from guaranteed. Politics opens a LOT of doors that remain firmly locked to people outside the system, so incumbents and their supporters are willing to fight hard to hold onto the power, money, and status they enjoy. Corruption is rife and the risk of violence and unrest during and even after an election is high.
In the lead up to polling day, the DW news agency described how tensions shifted up a gear as things started getting ugly:
‘[Last] month’s election has … led to a spate of politically-motivated violence, hate speech and tribal-based messages of dissatisfaction. The authorities have implemented a so-called Military Aid to Civil Power policy, a form of joint military, police and civilian control which is generally implemented when the security level is raised to a higher level than ‘normal’ circumstances.’
During their visit last October, our Programs team witnessed rising tensions as packed busloads of passionate supporters from opposing sides argued and fought and pushed each other off moving vehicles. When all this unrest takes place against the backdrop of a turbulent past, it stirs up bad memories. People get nervous because they know firsthand how bad things can get.
More than half Sierra Leone’s population lived through the death, destruction, grinding poverty and mass displacement caused by 11 years of civil war. And while the war officially ended in 2002, the unrest and consequences continue. Add to that the trauma of the 2014-15 Ebola epidemic and last year’s massive mudslide and it’s no surprise people have been fearing the worst during the instability of the election process.
And this instability continued even after that first vote. No party managed to secure the 55% outright majority required to take power. So a second round of ‘run-off’ polling between the top two most popular candidates was needed before a result could finally be declared.
At last a new leader!
This is only the third time since the civil war that the country has held general elections and the first time in 10 years that they’ve had a change of leader (the outgoing President having served his maximum term).
The country’s new President, Julius Maada Bio, has been described as ‘a straight-talking retired brigadier’. As opposition leader he promised to make sweeping changes should he win the election – including addressing corruption and ‘foreign meddling’.
But not everyone is happy. Not least the losing party. Having held power for 10 years they’re not going down without a fight and have told the nation: ‘we dispute the results and we will take legal action to correct them.’
There have also been outbreaks of unrest in communities loyal to the defeated party. Politics in Sierra Leone are very much divided along ethnic lines, so when one party is in power there are whole segments of the population who feel under-represented. It can be hard to find middle ground when it comes to ethnically-based issues, so it may take some time and clever diplomacy to resolve this unrest.
But even with all the challenges, delays and ongoing tensions, the country appears to have made a largely peaceful transition of power – and if that peace holds it will be a huge victory. It will help people feel more confident about their country’s stability and in their own ability to influence how it’s run. And maybe some of the previous trauma will move a little further into ‘the past’.
Like everyone in Sierra Leone, we’re keen for things to get back to normal as quickly as possible. We have so many new initiatives and program plans to kick off – and so many girls to educate and support. Who knows – one might even decide to go into politics!
If you’re interested in diving deeper into the never-boring world of politics in Sierra Leone, you can find some very readable coverage from online world news services, like BBC and DW, and African news services like http://www.africanews.com