Elections in Sierra Leone: The story of one woman’s courage

1 November 2007 at 23:40 | 716 views

By Joseph Cabineh Howard, Indiana, USA.

Courage is the greatest quality I admire most in people. It is the supreme virtue without which practicing the rest of the other virtues becomes impossible. It transforms the lives of men and women from rags to riches, and the pages of human history are beautifully coloured with the blood of valiant men and women whose single act of courage has humbled recalcitrant tyrants to their knees - and indeed sometimes even to their graves. Webster defines courage as, ‘mental or moral strength to resist opposition, danger or hardship’.

As the past election activities in Sierra Leone gradually become glimpses of a distant dream fading into our national sub-conscious, we might be tempted to easily dismiss the process as a simple fairy tale of one woman, Christiana Thorpe, who as Chairperson of the Electoral Commission, frantically organized and supervised the entire process, held press conferences and announced results as they trickled in from the various parts of a country at the mercy of, and in the throes of miserable infrastructures.

And all these in an atmosphere of calm, calculated and smiling demeanor! It was an election with many strings attached - there was determination as well as supercharged emotions - incumbents determined to keep power by any means necessary, new comers eager to come in and take charge, and a country desperately yearning for leadership that can get things done. And the shadows of 1967 continuously hovered over heads; leaving many quaking in their boots and hoping that this time around that awful history will not repeat itself by throwing the final phase of the process into chaos.

If you think Christiana Thorpe’s role in these elections was an easy one then you ought to think all over again. It is the story of an enormous act of courage - of one woman whose single-minded defense of a principle spared our beloved country the downward spiral into potential abysmal chaos and protracted uncertainty. I am not merely making an intellectual endorsement of a virtuoso performance - afterwards though not the best the election was well carried around a world that has long had this impoverished nation on its radar screen - but to define the historical significance of a fundamental political process that was perhaps not only unique, but far-reaching in its consequences.

The election was a significant political landmark in which an opposition - with all the mountains to climb - trounced an incumbent government. This radical departure from conventional outcome in election politics in an African state is a clear signal that the people of Sierra Leone are gradually acquiring a smattering of knowledge about their capacity to choose their own government. I do not vouchsafe however, that such a brilliant endeavor will see the end of salutary neglect of the common good - that is the prerogative of the new government to prove. But you will perhaps agree with me that it will signal in a new political paradigm, which if permitted to obtain will give politics in our country, and indeed any country, the character and nature of a SOCIAL CONTRACT.

One significant lesson to draw from the entire process is perhaps this: that until the relationship between voters and their leaders becomes contractual our politicians will always be tempted to sleep in their wings, criminally abandoning our aggregate interests and rendering our social and economic institutions hopelessly dysfunctional. This principle of social contract may not perfectly obtain everywhere every time. But given the chance to operate, it provides the common people the opportunity to hold their leaders accountable and change them whenever necessary. This periodic transfer of power in an atmosphere of peace and tranquility is an apparent political luxury in nearly all developing countries, especially in Africa, but an obvious political reality and a crucial benchmark for development that many in the advanced West take for granted.

Politics in most of Africa continues to be a zero sum game in which participants compete for access to and control over public resources. Losing an election therefore is equivalent to losing one’s very source of existence and survival. Little wonder then that elections are sometimes violent and extremely ferocious. If you have watched the movie “The Titanic”, you will probably agree with me that the last few days to the final election results in Sierra Leone were reminiscent of the last hours of the sinking Titanic. Incumbent politicians especially became more nervous, confused and desperate - wealth, power, privilege and personal fortunes were all at stake.

And where was Christiana Thorpe in this entire admixture? At one time she seemed to be in the belly of the devil, and at another time the poor lady was swimming with the sharks - a bunch of self-serving politicians who were determined to ‘eat’ her alive in order to keep their hold on power - power without responsibility. At some crucial moments Miss Thorpe even complained of several personal threats on her life. Under such circumstances other individuals would probably have cowered into submission and abandon the national fray.

Yet it was her indomitable courage perhaps more than anything else, that gave her the strength to continue in her role as a dispassionate and uncompromising umpire standing above the interplay of hostile interests. Her role in guiding this historic and histrionic exercise to a well choreographed end did not only help midwife a new and fair election framework for our country, but by allowing the common sense of the common people to prevail she saved Sierra Leone during its maximum hour of potential danger. It is now left with civil society organizations, religious groups, the media, well-meaning politicians and all stake holders, to consolidate this meaningful gain and incorporate it into our body politic.

When the balance sheets of our political accounts are drawn tomorrow, hers is the remarkable story of one woman who decided to put her country’s best interest above her own personal safety and comfort. I consider her to be the new shining armor for our country’s infant democracy. If people who strongly believe in defending principles are considered endangered specie in our country today, this one shining act is enough evidence that they are afterwards not extinct. Christiana Thorpe was entrusted with a historic opportunity to conduct an election. By her actions she has demonstrated firmness of mind and will to do what she believed was right in the face of danger or extreme difficulty. She has done the one thing I admire most in people, it is called COURAGE!