Sierra Leone emerged with much difficulty in 2002 from a decadelong civil war, which claimed approximately 50,000 lives. It is now 10 years since the democratic process first sprouted in the nation, and experts are hopeful that the recent election shows its roots hold firm.
“These elections are the third ones after the civil war, so we can define them as elections to consolidate democracy,” said Mariya Gabriel, head of the European Parliament delegation responsible for observing elections in Sierra Leone.
The elections took place Saturday, but results will not be announced until later this week or early next week. Some tension and fear of violence remain. Preliminary results will not be announced to prevent possible unrest.
“The main worries are whether the loser accepts the victory of the other,” said Gabriel. “The other is if the country will be able to sustain another campaign if the 55 percent [of the votes necessary to win the election is] not reached by either of the main candidates.”
Waiting, watching, and hoping for continued peace, Julie Owono remains confident in the nation.
Owono is a Cameroonian blogger and writer on sub-Saharan issues for Global Voices Online. Owono said in a phone interview, “Sierra Leone is definitely one of the countries where we can say the current leader was democratically elected and the next one will be democratically elected.”
“Sierra Leone is one of the examples for political stability and democracy [in Africa],” Owono said.
Will of the People
Sierra Leone’s electorate also shows faith in its nation’s democratic process.
Traffic was banned on city streets on Election Day. Gabriel says Europeans would view this as an obstacle—a limitation on their freedom of movement on Election Day. Sierra Leoneans, however, saw it as a security measure that ensured their safety on voting day, and were undeterred.
“People would walk miles under the tropical sun and then wait at the polling station for some time, with the sole wish to cast their votes,” said Gabriel. “This really impressed me.”
Turnout was high across the country’s 14 districts: according to data from National Election Watch, the turnout was 65.1 percent of eligible voters by 1 p.m. at about 1,200 out of about 9,500 polling stations.
To put that in perspective, the last time voter turnout was that high in the United States was 1908. In the 2012 U.S. presidential election, the turnout is estimated at 57.5 percent of eligible voters.
“When you observe the excitement of each and every citizen … up as early as 6:30 a.m. to come to vote and his belief that it is important to vote,” Gabriel said, “this is something which can only delight you.”
Elections Only One Ingredient for Democracy
It will take not only a democratic electoral process to ensure political stability in the country, said Gabriel. “The main topic of these elections remains preserving peace and nonviolence, but with more concrete emphasis on projects, which can bring real economic development,” she said.
Democracy, without economic development, will always remain something very fragile and unstable.
— Mariya Gabriel, member of European Parliament
“Democracy, without economic development, will always remain something very fragile and unstable.”
The scars of civil war remain in Sierra Leone: lack of infrastructure, insufficient education, and inadequate health care.
The country is rich in natural resources, including diamonds and iron ore.
“More than 70 percent [of the population is] poor, 55–60 percent are unemployed,” Owono said. “What lacks is a policy to secure revenues from the natural resources, how to give employment, and to involve youngsters in huge infrastructural projects.”
Strengthening the economy will be the onus of the newly elected president. The candidates are incumbent Ernest Bai Koroma, who represents the All People’s Congress party; and ex-military leader Julius Maada Bio from Sierra Leone People’s Party.
Both the president and the opposition leader will be responsible for upholding democracy.
“All conditions are united to make for a democratic vote,” said Owono. “So it is in their hands now to pave the way to a sustainable democracy and to not break the 10 years of peace.”
She hopes Sierra Leone will overcome the “negativity and fatalism” that dominated the country for so long, to become a sign of hope “that Africa is able to overcome its bad memories.”
Owono said, “We are all watching and hoping that Sierra Leone will be able to overcome all challenges because it has all ingredients in place. If it succeeds, it will be a shining example for all Africa.”
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