Tuesday, February 26, 2008

In Sierra Leone for the 2007 Elections

Part 2: Issues and Strategies
By Dr. Peter A. Dumbuya, Associate Professor of History

In my previous posting, (found here: http://fortvalleystate.blogspot.com/2008/01/fvsu-professor-in-sierra-leone.html) I examined the nuts and bolts of the August/September 2007 elections in Sierra Leone. In addition to the presidency, the All People’s Congress party, led by President Ernest Bai Koroma, also won a majority of seats in Parliament, the national legislature. The party’s share of seats in the 112 ordinary-member legislature went from 27 in 2002 to 59 in 2007. Parliament also includes 12 paramount chief members who were elected on a non-partisan basis to represent each of the 12 districts into which the country is divided for local government purposes.

In anticipation of the elections, the British Broadcasting Corporation, a major provider of radio/television news and entertainment programs to Sierra Leone, conducted a survey of people’s knowledge about the elections, their priorities, and trust in local and national politicians. The BBC released the results in June 2007. My colleague, John L. Musa, forwarded a copy of it to me. I analyzed it, drafted a concise summary (or position paper) of the various issues, and e-mailed copies to John and party headquarters in Freetown for use by party leaders. We used modified versions of the paper to prepare for the vice presidential and presidential debates in the days before the elections.

It is interesting to note that the issues voters prioritized in the 2007 elections are very similar to the ones that are showing up in various surveys and opinion polls here in the U. S. in this presidential election cycle. Respondents to the BBC survey identified the following as the top five priorities of the current presidential term: education, water, electricity, roads, and peace and security. Closely following these were issues of economic development, poverty alleviation, combating corruption, agricultural development, and foreign policy.

The results of the survey presented both a challenge and an opportunity for candidates of the three major political parties, namely the APC, Sierra Leone People’s Party, and People’s Movement for a Democratic Change, to formulate a postwar strategy for development and national reconciliation. For instance, over 53% of respondents in eight districts and areas in which the survey was conducted had little or no trust in national politicians. Nevertheless, a majority of them saw the elections as an important part of the political process. The study also showed very low levels of involvement in organized social and political activities even though most of the respondents knew the three major political parties.

The lack of trust in national politicians stemmed in part from their inability or unwillingness to deliver public goods. In addition, respondents in six districts that were surveyed did not feel that their views were represented in political discussions by the major parties.

Low levels of trust in national politicians translated in cynicism about the ability of elected officials “to do what is right.” Because of that, it was not surprising to learn that most of the respondents did not believe that the government would respond to protests about “unjust laws.” The sense that the government would not respond to protests against unjust laws undermined confidence in the police and legal system.

The perception that one party is not different from the other on policy issues often creates a political environment in which the voter may find it difficult to choose which party he or she is going to vote for in an election. As the unfortunate events in Kenya have shown, voters often get around this challenge by casting their lot with parties from their region or ethnic group.

Our analysis showed that more than 80 percent of the 2.3 million registered voters cast ballots in the 2002 elections. In the 2007 elections, 2.6 million people registered to vote: 75.8 percent of them turned out to vote in the first round and 68.1 percent in the second round to choose the president.

We urged the candidates to make a very clear distinction between the failed policies of the past eleven years under the SLPP government and the promise of a bright and prosperous Sierra Leone with the APC at the helm. We emphasized people’s confidence in the electoral system as an agent of peaceful change and promised to broaden the decision-making process at all levels of government. Most important, the party made a pledge to give top priority to the issues respondents had identified, namely education, water, electricity, roads, and peace and security. This campaign strategy worked, but as we saw in the Democratic debate between Senators Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton, attempts to draw such sharp contrasts do not always succeed.

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