On 17 November Sierra Leoneans will go to the polls in presidential, parliamentary and local elections. Over a decade ago, after years of turmoil and unrest, Sierra Leoneans were encouraged to embrace democracy as the means of restoring peace and reviving this once flourishing West African country. Great sacrifices were made for the cause of democracy – just by voting people ran the risk of having their hands and legs chopped off. It took the largest UN peace operation and the deployment of British troops to finally bring an end to the 11 year rebel war and usher in Sierra Leone’s democracy.
Now ten years on since President Kabbah declared ‘di wor don don’ (the war is over), this will be the third democratic election to take place since then – a notable achievement. At the previous elections in 2007, the APC party led by President Ernest Bai Koroma defeated the incumbent SLPP resulting in a peaceful democratic transfer of power – a rare event in Africa. This time around, ten political parties and 586 candidates will contest the 124 parliamentary seats; nine presidential candidates will vie for the top spot.
There are, however, still some shortcomings in Sierra Leone’s electoral process. For example, one would like to see a greater gender balance – at present women make up only 15 percent of the representation in parliament and only 38 are contesting this time; none of the presidential candidates are women (although four out of the nine Vice-presidential running mates are female).
There is also some concern that the polls will pass off peacefully. In May all the parties signed a pact to ensure peaceful elections but there have already been one or two incidents of violence around the country. A worrying feature generally of African politics is how the healthy cut and thrust of political differences debated in the capitals’ parliaments can be misinterpreted when they reach the rural areas. Africa’s political leaders could do much more to quell the enthusiasm for turning political differences into violence.