How to forge national unity and democratization in Sierra Leone: Beyond the Two Party System

18 March 2008 at 23:25 | 1031 views

By M. Saffa Lamin,USA.

In my last article, I argued that a two party system would serve as a catalyst for national integration and democratization in Sierra Leone. Unlike the multi party system, the two party system severely diminishes the capacity of politicians to drive an ethnic wedge between people which ultimately stifles democracy and hinders development. However, national integration and democratization are such broad and enduring issues (as I argued previously) that it would be naïve to assume that the two party system alone would address them fully. In this article, I offer other principles, policies and programs that would in concert with the two party system serve as bedrocks of democracy and an adhesive for national integration.

One major democratic principle that would perfectly complement the two party system is the system of Proportional Representation. PR is a principle which aims at matching the percentage of votes a party earns in an election to the number of seats it gets in parliament. Unlike the “winner takes it all” which is the hallmark of our current single member constituency system, the system of Proportional Representation offers the loser a consolation price which amounts to the actual percentage of votes earned.

Though Proportional Representation is not a novelty in the politics of Sierra Leone, it seems that we missed a major opportunity when we reverted to the single member constituency “first past the post” system after the PR was introduced in the 1996 elections with resounding success in the midst of a war. The 1996 elections were judged by all international standards (like the 2007 elections) to be free and fair. The difference however was that it posed less threat to the precarious stability in the country during a civil war than did the 2007 elections during a time of peace and reconciliation. What does the difference between PR and single member constituency system/“winner takes it all” mean beyond maintaining stability in the country? How can the advantages of the PR system be harnessed to for the benefit of the country? Finally, how would PR promote democracy and national integration in Sierra Leone?

The system of Proportional Representation especially the “closed party list” proportional representation (wherein the party ranks candidates based on specific criteria) shifts the reason for voting from personalities and particularities to national policies and programs represented by the parties. Under this system, the voters rationally examine the purpose and direction of the party and vote along those lines which causes each party to redefine its purpose to reflect the needs of a national constituency rather than a narrowly carved out constituency. This shift in focus from the ethnic/local to the national constituency is what the country needs for people to see and define themselves as Sierra Leoneans first rather than the other way around.

PR, while promoting national integration, would also confine ethnicity to local politics which is where it belongs. Whereas people with national political interests are forced by the system to promote national agendas, those at the local level have the flexibility to pursue local issues. By so doing, local customs, institutions and issues would be adequately addressed at the local level without obstructing the pursuit of a national agenda. The power of the local politicians would remain rooted in their communities and that of national leaders would be earned by the extent to which they are seen as embodiments of the national character. This new basis of authority at national level would positively transform the political arena and create new power relations and personalities that would actively pursue national unity as a precondition for development.

It is also very clear that PR with a single national constituency in a country with a population of roughly 5 million (and nearly 2 million voters) would better represent and unite that country than single member constituency system which shreds it into more than 100 constituencies for the purpose of an election and then try to patch it back together afterwards. It is important to underscore this point in light of the fact that PR is no less democratic than the single member constituency simply because it creates a single national constituency.
In terms of cost, there is a prima facae case to be made that PR is a more efficient system than the single member constituency system currently in use.

Under the PR system, the cost of printing ballots for a single national constituency as opposed to doing the same for 112 constituencies mean savings for the Electoral Commission that could be redeployed to other areas of priority like voter education. In the 2007 elections for example, 144,898 of the 1,984,106 (about 7.5%) votes cast were declared invalid. That number could be significantly reduced with better outreach and broader voter education programs. Without adequate resources, the Electoral Commission may want to revisit this proposal in future with the hope of maximizing its resources as well as increasing participation in the electoral process.

In addition to the PR system, the fundamental purpose of education needs to be redefined to focus on civic education and participation as a way of fostering democracy. It is important to stress throughout the school system the role of the individual in society; the purpose and functions of government; and the rights, duties, and responsibilities of the citizen. This civic grounding would lead to the development of a participant political culture in which the citizens are not only competitive but cooperative in their zest to transform their society.

It is also important that deliberate steps be taken in all schools and institutions of learning (from elementary to university) to increase participation in the democratic process. Teachers, head masters/mistresses, and principals would help the process (perhaps by mandate but certainly by good will) by conducting popular elections for class monitors, school prefects and all other positions of responsibility that students may assume in the school system as opposed to selecting students to those positions based on the judgment of the administration or other authorities. The school would therefore give meaning to the theories of democracy that students learn and instill in them a sense of responsibility for charting the course of the events. When students grow up knowing their place and role in society, and demand from government accountability and of themselves responsibility, they each become agents of change that are needed to revitalize democracy in a society.

The school system must also stress the need for dissent and debate in the democratic process and encourage the formation of Literary and Debating Societies in schools.

The Debating Societies would give students a forum to critique policies and programs in a systematic way without resorting to violence, as well as help expand their intellectual horizons. These programs would be enriched by partnerships between the schools, the public and private sector, as well as NGO’s to provide guest speakers from all walks of life to deliver periodic lectures in schools all over the country so that they can offer students first hand information about their society.

These guest lecture series would not only complement what is taught as part of the curriculum but they would also give students fresh perspectives into how their government works and how they can contribute individually and collectively to make the world a better place. The guest speakers (doctors, lawyers, civil servants, police officers, nurses etc.) would also serve as positive and inspirational forces for students who may want to embark on those careers in future with the aim of promoting the public good.

Outside the school system, adult education programs also need to incorporate fundamental aspects of civics that would help the people understand their role as citizens in a society. While there is a plethora of agencies and NGO’s currently promoting adult education in Sierra Leone, the focus of the majority of those organizations seem to be on fostering self reliance through job training. Though it is a critical need in that it focuses on the livelihood of the people, it has to be borne in mind that people live in societies and that they bear responsibility for what goes on in their communities.

Learning about citizenship along with job training would not only create more productive citizens it would also produce a more proactive citizenry that understands the interconnectedness of societies. In addition, it would gradually take most of the adults (who are often settled in their ways) out of their comfort zones and bring them into new frontiers of cooperation based on a common purpose. This focus on adult civic education would aid the removal of the vestiges of ethnicity that still remains etched on the minds of the illiterate and “uneducated” population in Sierra Leone.

Finally, the creation of a National Volunteer Corp would aid the process of democratization and national integration in Sierra Leone. The purpose of the Volunteer Corp should be directed towards providing students and youths an opportunity to volunteer on a smorgasbord of issues that directly relate to their welfare from public health to environmental protection to democratization.

Students in secondary schools and colleges could work with the Volunteer Corp and their school authorities to match their skills and interests with that of the needs of organizations with openings in the student’s area of interest or areas of compelling national need to create a win - win situation for the students and the government. The students get academic credit and work experience (in return for their service) which ultimately makes them more marketable in this era of globalization. The government on the other hand gets direct inputs from the citizens, as well as, saves money by using volunteers to work passionately on some crucial national programs instead of full time employees who would then focus on other pressing responsibilities that their jobs may require.

The volunteer program can be designed in such a way that it “posts” students to different parts of the country to work on a variety of projects. The students can then be housed by host families for the duration of their assignment so that they have an opportunity to learn some aspects of the culture and language of the host families thus, promoting ethnic neutrality and a sense of nationalism that stretches beyond the comforts of their ethnic enclaves. By the way, if the next generation of Sierra Leoneans is to participate effectively in the global economy they need to explore opportunities that are rarities in their communities. The volunteer opportunities would provide both the job skills and lessons in tolerance and cultural relativism that are the social pillars of globalization.

As with civic education, the volunteer program must also target youths who are not in the school system and harness their energies for national development while providing apprenticeship opportunities for them. Most of the youths in Sierra Leone are willing to work but find that their lack of skills serve as major limitations to their ambitions.

These youths would willingly volunteer for stipends to work as apprentices to local tradesmen and earn invaluable work experience and an entrepreneurial drive or work as volunteer health inspectors, environmental protection agents, and youth advocates or aid in voter education and registration. It is clear that the youth are willing to serve when the national interest demands service of them as demonstrated by the unprecedented level of volunteering during the civil war. If the youth can serve as ill-equipped volunteers and risk their lives in a civil war in which they had no stake, there is little doubt that they would be predisposed to serve as volunteers for social justice.

In order to maintain the integrity of the volunteer program, it should be funded by both public and private funds so that it does not end up being a propaganda instrument controlled by the government or a vigilante group controlled by citizens who have a vested interest in the political process. With a public-private partnership, the government would provide general direction and basic guidelines about the functioning of the organization but the day to day administration of the organization would not be under direct governmental control so that it has the flexibility and agility to function at a fast pace to address some of the current national human resource priorities that the government does not have the capacity to fund.

The road to national integration and democratization are fraught with obstacle courses which require a strong vision from government and the collaborative efforts of citizens to navigate smoothly. Integration and democratization also require the institutionalization of certain basic structures for them take root in a society. In Sierra Leone, the two party system along with PR would speed up the process by forcing national leaders to think national rather local when making and implementing policies. The creation of a National Volunteer Corp that empowers citizens to take responsibility for and work passionately on a myriad of projects relating to national development would also accelerate democratization and national integration efforts in Sierra Leone. Finally, refocusing the fundamental purpose of education on civics would in the long run produce an enlightened and a politically active population capable of celebrating differences while working towards a common purpose.

*Mohamed Saffa Lamin(photo) holds a BA degree in History and Political Science from Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone,an MA in Political Science and a Masters in Public Administration from Ohio University in the USA. He is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in Colombus, Ohio. He was a school teacher and civil servant in Sierra Leone.