The run-off polls: Fears & Hopes

3 September 2007 at 04:02 | 589 views

By Lansana Gberie.

Strange things have been happening in Sierra Leone since the last nation-wide elections failed to produce an outright presidential winner and a run-off date had to be set - for 8 September.

First, even before the last vote was counted, the ridiculous Victor Angelo, who heads the vestigial UN edifice called Uniosil, took to the airwaves to suggest that the constitutionally-mandated run-off should be shelved in favour of a so-called National Unity government, with the All Peoples Congress’ (APC) Ernest Koroma as President. It is not the first time that the loquacious Angelo has spoken out of turn, but this time his high-profile meddling has truly gone too far: his ill-advised intervention is so potentially inflammatory that he should, whatever the outcome of the 8 September polls, be asked to relocate to another country where his foolishness could be tolerated without adverse repercussions.

Shortly after the September date was set, violent clashes began in parts of the country between supporters of Koroma and those of the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) Solomon Berewa. Culpability is very hard to assign in these spates of violence: both parties clearly have violent supporters, and both campaigns have suffered attacks. Koroma’s convoy was reportedly assaulted in the east of the country (an SLPP stronghold) and the SLPP’s offices burnt to the ground in the incident, to be followed by frantic assaults on the SLPP’s offices in Freetown by supporters of the APC. These incidents are alarming, but it is noteworthy that they were swiftly contained by the police, and there has been no fatality.

I think this suggests that the attacks are carefully-choreographed by people whose intention is less to cause outright chaos and bloodshed than to intimidate opponents; to send a message that one side can be as bad as the other when it comes to political violence. (There was a bit of low drama about the picture of Koroma’s jeep shown on the internet with the windshield damaged, we were told, by “live bullets” while no one in the packed vehicle was touched by either bullets or stones!)

Even so, these fitful, cowardly attacks constitute a debased strategy, and one which has already accentuated the coarsening of political atmosphere which the ethnic (or ‘tribal’) voting pattern in the August polls brought to sharp relief.

I am not sure what to make of President Tejan Kabbah’s threat to impose a State of Emergency should the violence escalate, though I somewhat share the anxieties that informed the threat. What is clear to me, however, is that the potential for widespread violence during the run-off votes is far less than in 1996, when Kabbah had to confront the then octogenarian John Karefa-Smart in circumstances similar: there were far too many presidential candidates, and the two leading candidates fell far short of the mandatory 55% of the votes to guarantee an outright win. At the time, a horrible ‘rebel’ war was ravaging the country, and during the first rounds of those polls, attacks by the so-called rebels (and renegade army personnel) - who all objected to the elections being held in the first place - killed scores of people, and at least fifty-two people were crudely amputated across the country. A lot of well-meaning people feared at the time that a run-off would be more violent, and called for it to be shelved in favour of a so-called government of National Unity (so you see, this glib, sub-literate idea is not even new, thank you very much Angelo). In fact, polling day during the run-off was actually calmer than during the earlier voting, and Kabbah emerged a clear and convincing winner.

At the root of the current violent incidents is the high degree of uncertainty among supporters of the two candidates about the outcome. Koroma’s supporters like to protest that because they are “clearly winning” they have no interest in causing trouble ahead of the polls themselves. This is nicely put but totally unconvincing. Koroma got 815,523 or 44% of the presidential votes cast, compared to Berewa 704, 012 or 38% of the votes. The insurgent Peoples Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC’s) Charles Margai came third with 255,499 14% of the votes. In the Parliamentary votes (held concurrently with the Presidential one) the APC won 59 of the 112 seats to the SLPP’s 43 seats. The PMDC got 10 seats.
Rhetorical excess comes naturally at such a high-octane moment. To some, the votes represent “people’s power” giving the boots to the ruling party; they are “an overwhelming defeat” for the ruling party’s candidate etc. Every democratic election, of course, is in a way an expression of “people power.” But the verdict of the Sierra Leonean voters in this first round is far more nuanced; it certainly isn’t outright rejection of the governing party and its presidential candidate.
Certainly the results of the Parliamentary polls do not reflect overall voting tally. The elections had reverted to a constituency-based system, away from the Proportional Representation National List (PRNL) and District Block Representation System (DBRS) that was used in previous elections.

A boundary delimitation exercise making use of the provisional results of the 2004 census (which puts the Sierra Leone population at slightly less than 5 million) carved out 112 constituencies. The system has its merits, but they do not include an accurate reflection of voters’ preferences in a broad sense. For example, the SLPP won 31 per cent of the votes in the Western Area, including Freetown, but got none of the 17 seats on offer there. This is simply ridiculous, and efforts must be made in future to design constituencies that would allow for a more representative Parliament. It makes no sense that over 30 per cent of the country’s most cosmopolitan and educated city would be, in effect, devoid of representation in the country’s premier law-making organ. Berewa, in fact, got more than half of the votes received by Koroma in Freetown, a supposed APC stronghold.

A more important consideration is that most, if not all, of the votes cast for Margai would almost certainly have gone to Berewa if the PMDC had not emerged. The PMDC received only 2% or 9,182 in the north (undoubted stronghold of the APC), and got 226,762 votes in the south and east of the country, strongholds of the SLPP. My opinion of Margai remains: I think he is a narcissist and a windbag. But no one can deny that he has had an almost extraordinary impact in these elections, though of course not on the scale of that of the more charismatic and thoughtful Karefa-Smart in 1996.

Margai has since declared his support for Koroma in the run-off, and has joined the APC leader on the stump. But even his closest supporters and friends, a number of whom have publicly abandoned him, think this is a foolish and largely fruitless effort. There is little doubt that a large number of those who voted for him will vote for Berewa in the run-off.

I mean to say, in other words, that the run-off polls will be too close to call, and the results can go either way. In fact, given the fact that Berewa won significantly more votes in all the four regions of the country than Koroma did, the likelihood of a Berewa win is stronger than a Koroma win.

I have to say this because the aura of inevitability which has been confected around the Koroma candidacy is actually quite dangerous. It means that in the event of him losing, even in a fair and transparent fight, his supporters will be tempted to take to the streets claiming that he had been cheated. The APC, after-all, has a history of anti-democratic behaviour, and the rhetoric of some of its leaders recently has not been re-assuring.

Whatever one may think of the SLPP leadership - and I have had very large differences with it - it is the only one in the country that one can comfortably say will guarantee our democratic experiment. The very decent conduct of the August elections, as well as the large space provided for civil society and a free press (over 30 radio stations, most of them anti-government, and several dozen sharply critical newspapers to date), is a clear testament to this record of democratic spirit.

The APC has only a corrupt one-party state and brutal, destructive ‘rebel’ war to show for its 27 years in power before their ignominious overthrow by derelict young officers in 1992. The party won’t campaign on this record, of course, but the idea of a ‘new’ APC is as convincing as the idea of a tooth fairy...