SIERRA LEONE: Election tensions could help or hinder democratic process

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The risk that Sierra Leone could again descend into the chaos and civil war of the 1990s remains unlikely ahead of the second round of presidential elections on 8 September, according to international officials - even after outgoing president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah threatened to impose a state of emergency following election-related riots in the main diamond town of Kono on 27 August and the stabbing of at least six people in Freetown.

“We are keeping a close eye on the situation but we do not anticipate things deteriorating significantly,” head of the UN’s Integrated Office in Sierra Leone Victor Angelo told IRIN on 28 August.

His spokesman Christian Stohmann said the violence was a sign that tensions are high as the second round is going to be close. “But the party leaders are doing their best to rein in their followers and we think the security forces now have the training and capacity to keep the situation under control.”

In fact, many observers believe the tensions are good news for democracy.

Analysts had deemed the incumbent Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) a certain winner until 2005 when a faction led by a former SLPP interior minister, Charles Margai, broke away to create a new party, the People's Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC).

That weakened the SLPP and in the first round of voting on 11 August it lost its majority in parliament to the main opposition All People's Congress (APC).

Now for the run-off presidential elections on 8 September, Margai has thrown his support behind opposition leader Ernest Koroma.

Open race

All pundits agree the election could still go either way. “What is happening is that candidates are realising they need to do something if they expect constituents to vote for them, and constituents are realising that their vote really counts for something,” George Biguzzi, the bishop in the northern town of Makeni, who was a key mediator during the conflict, told IRIN.

What is also happening is that the old system of voting along regional and ethnic lines may be being replaced, he said. “The SLPP ruling party had almost monolithic support from the Mende [widely seen as Sierra Leone’s largest ethnic group, based in the south]. Now Mende voters are divided between SLPP and the new PMDC and some may vote for the APC [which traditionally has its stronghold amongst the northern ethnic groups],” the bishop said.

None of the pundits were sure how many of Margai’s Mende supporters would vote for someone outside of their ethnic group.

Possible divisions

One diplomat who asked not to be identified told IRIN the country may still divide along ethnic-regional lines, with only half the country accepting the results. “That is a worst case scenario after which the fragile peace that has taken so long to build could collapse.”

One key constituency in the run-off is the Kono ethnic group, who are related to the Mende. They had reportedly sworn a collective allegiance to the ruling SLPP, according to several sources, yet individually many appear to want to break with tradition and vote for the opposition candidate.

That may partly explain the tension that resulted in riots there.


Rioters in Kono destroyed a house and other property and fired sling shots at each other, the deputy inspector of police in Kono, Santigie Koroma, told UN radio on 28 August, but he said the most serious injury was a broken thumb.

Even so, the authorities in Kono imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew and the next day calm returned, Koroma said.

In Freetown on 27 August police used tear gas to disperse rock-throwing ruling-party and opposition supporters. Witnesses said hundreds of riot police were in the area on high alert.

Source: IRIN