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Bye-Election Violence: The Paradox of ‘Peaceful’ Sierra Leone

July 8, 2016 By ABU-BAKARR SHERIFF

In June this year, Sierra Leone was rated ahead of Ghana – an acclaimed oasis of peace and democracy – as the second most peaceful country in West Africa in 2015, according to the Global Peace Index of the Institute for Economics and Peace in Australia.

Unlike numerous other reports which highlight the bad and ugly about contemporary Sierra Leone, this good report got the government PR people into frenzy, serenading the fact that we have beat Ghana to this one! As expected, there was no official or unofficial attempt to discredit the report, as often is the case when reports are damning. Instead, the praise, as usual, went to the president for making it happen!

While I do not intend to question the validity or credibility of the Global Peace Index report, lest I look like those in the government PR employ, I would hasten to say that recent political developments in the realm cast an ominous shadow about things to come.

Come to think about it, 2018 poses potentially tough questions for us as a nation and people, perhaps unrivaled in our democratic journey, than the current bye-elections. 2007 had its challenges, which we surmounted. But 2018 will present another – a second democratic transition from one president to another. The opposition would want to emulate the current ruling party, who ousted them through the ballot box. On the other hand, the ruling party would be going for a hat trick of electoral victories. That makes the duel potentially mouthwatering, not least because ours is a crude form of the “winner takes all”.

But this is 2016 and the elections on Saturday, 9 July are mere bye-elections; the winners shall be spending less than twenty-four months in parliament. So what is responsible for the violence which threatens to undo our ‘peaceful’ tag and instead represents a paradox of that rating? The violence in Port Loko and Kailahun are not isolated; rival political party supporters have clashed in Kono and Freetown during bye-elections. Such begs the question whether in fact we are peaceful or tend to maintain the peace only when our core interests – political, economic – are not threatened?

According to the International Alert, “Peace is when people are able to resolve their conflicts without violence and can work together to improve the quality of their lives.”

Violent events in Constituencies 001 in Kailahun and 050 in Lunsar, Port Loko District, in the lead up to parliamentary bye-elections this weekend have become an embodiment of campaigning and canvassing for votes. It exemplifies our failure to peacefully ‘resolve conflict without violence’ and a blatant inability to manage our political differences, which often manifest themselves in violent skirmishes between rival political party supporters.

The key suspects are the ruling All Peoples Party (APC) and the opposition Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP). Between them, they have ruled the country for almost fifty years! According to the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, they both share most of the blame for the brutal war and current decadence and rot in all facets of our society.

Yet the lessons of yester years have not helped shape their modus operandi, at all, despite their admission to having transformed. If anything, it is business as usual, expressed by massive corruption, political intimidation and violence, lack of real democracy within their respective party structures and the desire to hold on to power at all cost. The dividend of political capture is a gluttonous share of the spoils, which express itself in looting and pillaging state resources.

The result of this rat race for power is a naked diabolical battle to grab power at all cost. Thus, what is being displayed in Port Loko and Kailahun is a dress rehearsal or sign of ominous things to come in2018.

In order to preserve their top dog position within a geopolitical spatial area, political parties are quick to brag about strongholds. However, despite their insistence that there is no stronghold in our politics, the ruling party regards the north and west of the country as their turf. Thus any real substantial threat to torpedo the status quo in both regions is often met by threats and intimidation – actual or ostensible.

Mohamed Kamarainba Mansaray, leader and chairman of the new opposition Alliance for Democratic Party, was at the receiving end of the actual or ostensible wrath of ruling party cadres. After coming a close second in another bye-election in their heartland in Bombali, Mr. Mansaray is no longer regarded as a pushover. In order to prevent a repeat, the APC has channeled their big wigs to campaign against the ADP candidate – Kamarainba Mansaray – in the bye-elections in constituency 050. As if that is not enough, raw excreta was splashed at his office, while his vehicle was attacked few weeks ago, with his driver allegedly sustaining injury.

The intent clearly was to intimidate the ADP leader and supporters. Besides, there have been allegations of vote buying, though not confirmed. In all, it shows that if and when their stranglehold on power is being threatened, the APC, like their political rivals, can resort to violence and intimidation to achieve both their short and long term goals

In Constituency 001 in Kailahun, violence erupted last week when the standard bearer of the opposition SLPP in the 2012 presidential election – Retired Brigadier Julius Maada Bio – went to campaign with their candidate for the bye-election – Ms. Navo Kaikai.

Kailahun is predominantly an SLPP stronghold, with few areas traditionally voting APC since the enforced one party era. But the constituency in question has voted SLPP since democracy was restored in 1996, including in another bye-election in 2013 when the late Hon. Patrick Foyah won at least 70 percent of the valid ballots. That defeat, despite a reported energised strong showing by the ruling APC, allegedly spiced with big spending, left a bad taste in the mouth of ruling party operatives in the district.

This could be the reason for the animated push in the constituency this time around, partly to prevent another humbling defeat to an opposition often maligned to have done nothing in their stronghold during eleven years, albeit only five of those years being peace time.

The current Resident Minister East, Maya Kaikai, and the APC Deputy Publicity Secretary, Robin Fallay, are the newest converts of the ruling party. They both hailed from Kailahun district and want a victory at all cost, in their words, to tell the world that ‘Kailahun is nobody’s stronghold’.

In the aftermath of the violent skirmish in the township last week, residents say the atmosphere is eerily quiet, ahead of the bye-election tomorrow (Saturday, 9 July). More police officers have been deployed in the constituency to help ensure that the election is conducted without any major incident. Police have reportedly searched the house of the opposition candidate for arms, without finding any. The opposition has condemned the act as intimidation.

Meanwhile, the ruling party aspirant in Kailahun, Haja Nasratu Jalloh, reportedly goes around with armed soldiers, instead of policemen. The opposition has decried this as intimidation, while political observers have labeled it a disguised way of involving the army in national politics; again reminiscent of the one party era, when soldiers and armed police men used to be put in charge of ballot boxes.

To put things into perspective, developments in both constituencies 001 and 050 do not seem to suggest that ours is a peaceful democracy just yet. Rather, they suggest that while the majority of our countrymen may be peaceful, the politicians and their supporters often manifest violent inclinations when their stronghold is being threatened by their opponents or in their penchant to assert themselves in another’s stronghold.

In sum, a country or constituency which cannot hold peaceful elections campaign without bloodshed, curfew and accusations and counteraccusations is not at peace with itself and its members. Such country is without doubt a paradox of its ‘peaceful’ characterisation.

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