Monday, January 28, 2008

FVSU professor in Sierra Leone

In Sierra Leone for the 2007 Elections
By Dr. Peter A. Dumbuya
Associate Professor of History

The Aug. 11, 2007, presidential and legislative elections were the third set of elections to have been held in Sierra Leone since full scale civil war engulfed this West African nation in March 1991, and the first after the departure of United Nations peacekeepers. The civil war, during which an estimated 75,000 people were killed, was triggered when the Revolutionary United Front backed by Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia, invaded Sierra Leone with the aim of overthrowing the All People’s Congress government of President Joseph S. Momoh in the capital city of Freetown.

Parenthetically, the work of British anti-slavery advocates like Granville Sharp and William Wilberforce led to the founding of Freetown in 1787 as the “Province of Freedom” for liberated slaves from the United States. It became part of the British Crown Colony in 1808. In 1896 Freetown was joined with the Protectorate of Sierra Leone which regained its independence from Britain in April 1961.

The military, led by young disaffected officers and soldiers from the war front, eventually ousted Momoh from power in April 1992 and established the National Provisional Ruling Council. In spite of a number of peace agreements, the civil war continued as the RUF expanded its war aims to include the removal of the NPRC and all foreign troops from Sierra Lone. In May 1997 and January 1999, the RUF, in collaboration with the military, seized power in Freetown and ruled briefly but with such brutality and destruction of life and property that President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, the winner of the February/March 1996 presidential elections, sought military assistance from Nigeria and the Economic Community of West African States to reverse the RUF takeover of power in Freetown in January 1999. The UN also sent in troops beginning in July 1998.

Following further RUF rebel advances toward Freetown in May 2000, the British government led by Tony Blair deployed an expeditionary force to Freetown initially to evacuate British and European Union nationals. This force ended up fighting a group of rebels holed up in a village about 35 miles from Freetown, and freeing hundreds of UN peacekeepers the RUF had held as hostages. British military intervention paved the way for the UN to expand the number of peacekeepers to 17,500 by the end of 2001. In January 2002, the government officially declared an end to the civil war. The first post-conflict elections were held in May of that year.

As a historian and a native Sierra Leonean, I have always taken a keen interest in the history and politics of Sierra Leone, more so when fighting began in 1991. I had visited Sierra Leone in 1996/97 and 1998 at the height of the war. I had never participated in direct electioneering campaigns for anyone before. So when a friend of mine (we attended the same primary and secondary schools in Kono District), an attorney by the name of John Lansana Musa, called to ask for my assistance with the 2007 elections, I was excited and promptly accepted the invitation. In Sierra Leone, unlike the U.S., election campaigns can only begin after dissolution of the national legislature, Parliament.

Initially, the National Electoral Commission had set July 28 as the date for the legislative and presidential elections. But for one reason or the other, the president did not dissolve Parliament until June. So the chairperson of the NEC, Dr. Christiana Thorpe, reset the date to August 11. Official campaigning for the elections began on July 10. There was no campaigning a day before the elections. In order words, campaigning and individual rallies for the 11 political parties that participated in the elections ended on August 9, 2007; August 10 was a day to cool things off. I arrived in Freetown on July 27 and returned to the U.S. on August 13, two days after the elections.

Unlike what is happening in Kenya since the presidential and legislative elections of Dec. 27, the elections is Sierra Leone passed off peacefully. In the first round of voting, no presidential candidate garnered 55% of the votes cast as required by the 1991 Constitution. In the run-off election the candidate we worked with, the leader of the All People’s Congress, won the presidency by a simple majority (he won by more than 54%) as required by the constitution. He is now president of Sierra Leone for a five-year term. In my next posting, I will discuss the issues and strategies that won the election for His Excellency President Ernest Bai Koroma.