By Ishmael Dumbuya
As Sierra Leone’s elections are scheduled for June 24th 2023, the main front-runners are the incumbent President Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), and the main opponent, Samura Kamara of the All People’s Congress (APC). For the sake of clarity, it’s important that we look at three key determinants that could influence the outcome of the June 24th elections across the country.
It’s no secret that under the current administration, the state of the country’s economy is so dire, and addressing issue of ‘Bread and Butter,’ is a prominent feature in the upcoming elections.
According to Human Development Index, Sierra Leone was ranked 179 out of 188, and two-thirds of the populations subsist on less than $1.25 per day, and almost 50 percent of the populations is malnourished.
The country’s inflation rate in 2018 was over 16 percent, but was brought down to 11 percent by 2021, which is still a staggering rate. The economy grew by 3.2 percent in 2021 after shrinking 2 percent in 2020. A doubling of the prices for goods and services by the end of 2022, however, eroded the 2021 gains, leading to an inflation rate of over 26 percent. The youth unemployment rate is 60 percent, one of the highest in West Africa. Regardless of other challenges facing Sierra Leone, if the candidates—and the eventual winner—fail to effectively address this issue there will be continuing problems.
A secondary, but potentially explosive issue is the inclusivity—or possible lack thereof—of the electoral process. In the past, there have been a large number of contenders in the national elections, but there is a possibility that participation in the 2023 general elections could be limited. Abdullai M. Bangura, chair of the Political Parties Regulation Commission, speaking at a seminar on the state of electoral justice in Sierra Leone in Freetown on March 23, 2023, said that, of the seventeen registered political parties, only three, SLPP, APC, and NGC, meet the functionality requirement of the PPRC Act of 2022. In order to be considered functional under the Act, parties must hold delegate conferences and elections for national offices and have offices in all regions of the countries. As of the date of the meeting, Bangura said only the three aforementioned parties satisfied these criteria. In a best-case scenario, the disqualified parties will accept the situation and work to prepare for the next elections. But there is also the possibility of prolonged legal battles or even localized violence in response to the PPRC decision.
Another strategic component that might determine the outcome of the June 24th election is that of misinformation and disinformation.Lately,we have seen instances wherein social media frequents have been misinforming people with series of inciteful and hate messages which eventually led to a riotous protest on August 10th in Freetown, the Tombo riot, and the Makeni incident, leading to the loss of lives and destruction of properties in those areas.
On the 24th March 2023, in order to combat disinformation around the country’s 2023 elections, a project was launched at the Elections Commission for Sierra Leone (ECSL) Conference Hall in Freetown. The Project basically focuses on ways in which key stakeholders’ in the information sector can combat the scourge.
During the engagement, the Chairman of the Independent Media Commission (IMC), Dr. Victor Massaquoi, warned that disinformation can reduce trust in Government institutions and urged everyone to take responsibility for combating the scourge of fake news.
According to Ahmed Sahid Nasralla, President of SLAJ, the project will monitor, identify, pre-bunk, and debunk disinformation and its engendered forms, including hate speech. It will also build SLAJ’s capacity to counter disinformation, increase citizens’ awareness of disinformation trends, and improve access to credible information on national political processes. He also added that the project will promote media safeguards against engendered disinformation and hate speech and support women’s chances of success in the 2023 elections.
“Accurate information is crucial to the success of public elections. Citizens should have access to the correct information to enable them to participate and make informed decisions around the elections,” said Nasralla.
Social media is playing an increasingly important role in shaping African political engagement, and Sierra Leone is no exception. On the one hand, social media has helped develop spaces for political participation. WhatsApp, for example, plays a key role in Sierra Leone as an avenue for smaller political parties and new voters. On the other hand, social media can also be a conduit for disinformation that can be used to incite election-related violence. While Sierra Leone has the fourth-lowest level of internet usage in the world, it has one of the fastest growing numbers of internet usage in Africa. During the 2017–2018 election cycles, 16 percent of the population used social media, and it played a pivotal role. While many relied on it to provide information and promote peace and cohesion, others used it to promote misinformation and hate.
The Electoral Commission for Sierra Leone, EC-SL has lately been very apprehensive and concerned about the level of disinformation in the build up to the country’s election.
The Chairman of the Electoral Commission for Sierra Leone, Mohamed Konneh, has identified disinformation as one of the major threats to the country’s democracy and good governance ahead of the elections. Konneh urged members of the public to listen to authentic sources of information and confirm when they receive information on social media. He also assured the public that the Electoral Commission will continue to be transparent, inclusive, and open to members of the public.
The Sierra Leone Police
Whenever elections approach, the functions of the SLP are compromised, as the opposition always make statements of police harassment and brutality during polling day. The impartiality of the police during elections are highly compromised as the citizens lack trust in them and often accuses them of siding with the incumbent government during polling day.
However, the Sierra Leone Police has counteracted these claims, describing them as baseless and noted that they as a security institution are there to serve and protect Sierra Leoneans as that is there paramount constitutional mandate. The SLP has been putting out statements warning against hate and inciting remarks, noting that it will undermine the security of the state. In my conclusion, ethnic tension has bedevilled the country in the past, but it is not as pronounced in Sierra Leone as in other countries. Most of the violence has been caused by economic inequality, incumbents unwilling to give up power, and the enlistment of former military and youth to intimidate opponents