The results of presidential, parliamentary and local elections that took place in Sierra Leone on March 7th, 2018 have rendered into sharper focus the debate about ethnically driven politics which is threatening next week’s run-off.The deep ethnic division in Sierra Leone politics risks causing social upheaval ahead of the presidential runoff scheduled on March 27th, 2018.
Sierra Leone with a history of high youth unemployment and a 12-year bloody civil war might be vulnerable to individuals wanting to use the ethnic card to stoke social division to win votes in a country with diverse ethnic fractionalization.
A 2011 report on Sierra Leone by the Oakland Institute said “[D]ominant ethnic groups include the Temne (35 percent), Mende (31 percent), Limba (8 percent) and Kono (5 percent) tribes. In addition, 2 percent of the population is Kriole (or “Krio”), an ethnic group comprised of descendants of freed slaves from the Americas who were settled in the capital of Freetown in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.”
The main opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party’s Brigadier (Ret.) Julius Maada Bio will face the ruling All People Congress’ Samura Kamara at the presidential runoff after both candidates failed to secure 55 percent required to win the presidency in the first round. Bio got 43.3 percent and Kamara got 42.7 percent of the total votes cast.
Kamara who has worked in government for over 20 years is running for president to succeed president Earnest Bai Korom who is stepping down after completing his two term limit. Bio, who ruled Sierra Leone as president for three months, is making his second bid for the presidency since he handed over power to a civilian government in 1996.
According to the results announced by the National Electoral Commission (NEC), Bio and Kamara respectively got 67 and 89 percent of their votes from towns or regions where their ethnic groups make up a majority of the population.
Bio and Samura are from the two biggest ethnic groups, Mende and Temne respectively. A total of 108274 votes cast for the APC, 959,040 were from North-West regions dominated by the Temnes and a total of 1,097,482 votes cast for SLPP, 735,037 were from polling stations in the South-East and South-West populated by the Mendes.
However, political division along ethnic and regional lines risks plunging the country into social upheaval. Bio, on Radio Democracy on Sunday warned against using the ethnic card to win vote. Kamara, on Monday told AYV television channel that he had talked to Bio on the phone on how they could work together to prevent ethnic tension and violence ahead of the runoff.
Unfortunately, some supporters of Bio and Kamara are preaching ethnic hatred, ignoring the message their candidates are sending through the media.
Local media reported on March 15th, 2018 that police in the Southern district town of Bo had to deal with violent clashes involving supporters of the SLPP and APC. The increasing political violence in Sierra Leone ahead of the second round of the presidential election has prompted the international community to urge for calm.
A joined statement issued on March 15th, 2018 and signed by the diplomatic missions of US, UK, EU, Germany and Ireland expressed concern about the escalation of violence and called on the government to investigate and bring the perpetrators to justice. They also called on the political leaders to renew calls for peaceful conduct of their supporters and followers.
Appeals have come from politicians, civil society and the diplomatic community. The Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) described the trend of political discourse as “ugly” for the country’s nascent democracy and warned it had a potential to undermine the peace and stability of the country.
The African Press Agency on March 20, 2018 talked to voters selling in Sani Abacha Street, asking them if they will vote along ethnic lines in the next runoff. Street vendors have illegally occupied about 20 percent of the two-way Sani Abacha Street in the capital city center of Freetown. Both APC and SLPP governments have promised to end vendors’ occupation of streets including Sani Abacha.
However, majority of respondents said the ability to continue selling in Abacha Street was what they would defend at the ballot box on March 27th, 2018.
Isatu Kamara, who had to move her table full of vegetable to the corner to give way for a passing delivery truck, said she cared less about the ethnic background of Bio and Kamara. She will vote for anyone promising to let them sell in Sani Abacha Street.
A single mother with four children, Isatu added that she could not afford to feed her family if the City Council decides to remove her from the street without providing public market as an alternative.
Sierra Leone is still recovering from the 2014 catastrophic Ebola outbreak and the deadly mudslide that claimed over 1000 lives on August 14th, 2017. Weak state and economic institutions with low political and economic participation have sunk the country into widespread poverty.
According to the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) in 2013, 77.5 percent of Sierra Leone’s population are multidimensionally poor.
However, debate over ethnic division in politics have overshowed the discussion on how Sierra Leone could lift millions out of poverty or provide clean drinking water, food, shelter, healthcare, education and transportation, electricity and road infrastructure for its 7 million population.
According to the 2012 year book of ‘Science for Changing the World’, “Sierra Leone ranked among the world’s top 10 producers of diamond and rutile by volume.”
Minerals worth $1.1 billion accounted for 71 percent of export revenue in 2012, employing 3 percent of the total workforce, according to the Ministry of Mines and Mineral resources of Sierra Leone (MMR).