Two-party politics a boon for Sierra Leone

By IndepthAfrica
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Nov 28th, 2012
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by John Stremlau,
SUCCESSFUL elections were held in Sierra Leone this month, another African good news story barely noted amid the headlines of the latest conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Middle East. But the 50-year sentence given to former Liberian head of state Charles Taylor earlier this year by an international tribunal for war crimes in Sierra Leone points to the history of horrors in that corner of Africa, which prompted journalist Robert Kaplan to famously forecast a “coming anarchy” — a proliferation of Sierra Leone-like failed states threatening global peace and security.

The source of such dire speculation now joins its other postconflict neighbours, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia, which since 2010 have held credible elections and are embarked on still-fragile processes of democratic development.

The results of Sierra Leone’s November 17 election were confirmed by its National Electoral Commission on Friday. A former insurance company executive and the incumbent president, Ernest Koroma, was sworn in a few hours later for his second and final five-year term, having defeated Julius Maada Bio by 58.7% of the vote to 37.4%. Voter turnout was 87.3%. This was Sierra Leone’s third national election and the first managed by Sierra Leone’s authorities since an internationally imposed settlement ended a decade of deadly conflicts in 2002.

The elections were remarkably transparent and well managed, including a new biometric system that registered a record 2.7-million voters without controversy. The African Union, the Carter Centre, the Commonwealth, the Economic Community of West African States and the European Union provided extensive, credible international observation. Of further reassurance to voters and a check on partisan abuse was the deployment of 9,000 domestic observers by the nongovernmental National Election Watch, plus there were at least twice that number of party monitors deployed at practically all 9,000 polling stations. Such comprehensive coverage may help explain the absence of formal complaints by party agents on election day and the kind of violence that marred the 2007 voting.

Bio appeared genuinely confident of victory when we met him on the eve of the election and was encouraged by a final rally of his supporters the night before that drew a boisterous crowd of about 50,000 supporters.

Bio’s party enjoyed the power of incumbency in 2007, but he reluctantly conceded when he was narrowly beaten by Koroma’s All People’s Congress (APC). Bio told us he would not concede without a fight this time.

Former Zambian president Rupiah Banda, the leader of the Carter Centre mission, told Bio he had accepted defeat reluctantly last year in a Zambian election for the good of his nation and in the knowledge that, like Sierra Leone, Zambia’s two-party system always holds promise of winning the next election. Thus far, Banda’s logic appears to be working.

Sierra Leone’s two-party system has been unusually durable, surviving even the bloody mayhem when warlords nearly destroyed the state and terrorised the people in the 1990s.

The APC was formed in 1962, an offshoot of the older Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), which was founded in 1951 and has often held power. While the two parties are regionally based, with the APC predominant in the northern districts and SLPP across the south, Sierra Leone has not been afflicted by ethnic or religious conflict, with exemplary amity between Christians and Muslims.

Sierra Leone’s inclusive politics may soon rival the social climate in South Africa, including a high degree of religious tolerance. Political debate between the two main Sierra Leone parties may even be more open than under South Africa’s essentially one-party African National Congress rule. At least there are no parallels to the oddly opaque manoeuvres and musings in its meander to Mangaung.

The World Bank now estimates Sierra Leone’s economy will grow by 25% next year, albeit from a very low base, thanks to skyrocketing iron-ore exports.

This and other resource discoveries should also be of interest to South African businesses. And if increasingly competitive two-party politics can lead to greater transparency and accountability, this could blunt the threat of extreme corruption and allow the country’s newfound wealth to contribute to lasting peace and sustainable democratic development.

• Stremlau is vice-president in charge of the Carter Centre’s peace programmes and observed Sierra Leone’s election.

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