The election is certainly the only thing anyone is thinking or talking about here in Freetown, and indeed nationwide. It has been looming for months, and by now is everywhere: in the larger-than-life photos of the ruling party’s standard-bearer, “Solo B”, adorning banners around town; in the red-shirted crowds outside the opposition APC’s headquarters; in the hysterical and uber-politicized newspaper headlines; in the obsession with what color – red, green, orange – are your clothes… umbrella… vehicle… loyalty. (The parties each have a color, and any display is considered a vote of support.)
This is Sierra Leone’s second national election since the end of the war, and the first conducted without the help (and safety net) of a significant United Nations presence. The UN agencies are still here – UNICEF, UNDP, World Food Programme – as are a small number of Mongolian peacekeepers guarding the Special Court, but the more extensive UN forces were withdrawn at the end of 2005 and have been replaced by a much pared-down support mission known as UNIOSIL.
As countless observers have pointed out, this is a crucial turning point for Sierra Leone. Pull off another democratic election without major violence or insecurity and you’ve scored a major point in proving – and securing – Sierra Leone’s peace and political stability.
Fail to pull it off, and… well, as a local commentator said recently in Freetown’s Concord Times newspaper, “Failure is simply not an option.”
Making things more challenging, but potentially more meaningful should the election go smoothly, is the recent breakaway from the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) of a new party, the People’s Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC). This third party has shaken up the electoral landscape for the two grandfathers, the SLPP and the All People’s Congress (APC), which between themselves have ruled Sierra Leone since independence in 1961 – the APC for 24 years and the SLPP for 16 years, including the last 9 – with the exception of various bouts of military rule.
Voting in Sierra Leone, as in much of Africa, is strongly regional and based in ethnic and family identity. Most places are strongholds for one or the other party – the APC in the predominantly Temne-speaking north; the SLPP in the Mende-speaking south and east – and truly competitive areas are relatively limited.
The splintering of the SLPP, however, has meant that areas that were previously strongholds for the ruling party are being hotly contested. Divisions have emerged within chiefdoms, communities, and even families, in places unaccustomed to political plurality. Moreover, the acrimony of the party’s own division and of the campaign thus far mean that this newfound democratic contestation could be far from civil.
The APC, meanwhile, is eager to capitalize on frustration and disillusionment with the ruling party, and to build on its recent electoral gains. After losing to the SLPP by a landslide in the first post-war elections in 2002, the APC gained ground in the subsequent local elections in 2004, including control of the Freetown City Council. Today, immensely popular songs by artists like Emmerson rail against what they call the corruption and ineptitude of the present government; one of Emmerson’s most popular, “Borbor Bele,” refers to the big round “bellies” of corrupt politicians, who “eat” (steal) money meant for public purposes, while his more recent “Tu fut arata” (two-footed rat) is a pointed indictment. Blasting from poda-podas (minibus taxis) and street-side radios around the capital, such songs serve as a sort of audio manifestation of the anger of those who feel they haven’t benefited from the last 5 years of peace.
The result of all of this is that tensions and emotions are high, and no one is sure – though many are hopeful – that the election will not spark serious violence.
Isolated incidents have already flared in several places: mild skirmishes between competing parades in Freeotwn on Sierra Leone’s independence day in April; a rash of house-burning in the southern province of Pujehun that many believe to be politically motivated; allegations of shots fired during a visit by the PMDC’s candidate Charles Margai in eastern Kailahun district; and, most recently, the beating of an SLPP supporter and former military officer named Tom Nyuma by the bodyguards of the APC’s Ernest Koroma, who claim they were averting an assassination attempt against their leader.
These events themselves are, sadly, not particularly surprising. Nor are they necessarily disastrous. No one expects the election to be completely free of violence; not in a country where thuggery was so recently (if not currently) used to promote electoral victory, and where so many people were so recently involved as fighters in a civil war. Observers of African elections (perhaps not unlike observers of Chicago elections not too long ago) expect a little political violence, though they hope to minimize it; they also know that such violence does not necessarily mean a slide into utter chaos and all-out war.
That said, there are some reasons for concern. Rumor has it that the APC body guards who assaulted Tom Nyuma – as well as his own guards – were all former members of the West Side Boys, one of the most brutal forces in a generally brutal war. Visitors upcountry report seeing guns in the hands of some of the political supporters, though all guns were supposed to have been collected during the country’s Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program. (Popular wisdom has it that there are caches of weapons hidden around the country, but that these are not enough to wage an all-out war against the Sierra Leone military – not to mention any international forces that might turn up.)
But perhaps most worrying are the comments of the candidates themselves. Both Ernest Koroma (APC) and Charles Margai (PMDC) have publicly accused the SLPP of planning to rig the election, and have stated that they will not accept the results of such a contest. Though their suspicions are not unfounded (vote-rigging has been common on all sides in past elections) their threats raise the possibility of post-election violence should the losing parties not accept the results.
That said, the election season is still young, and much can happen between now and the final tally. August 11 is just over two weeks away, but if none of the parties get the required 55% majority – an outcome that many consider possible, if not likely – then the top two go to a run-off on September 3. With any luck, by then the party’s leaders will have toned down the rhetoric, and their followers will be ready to let the election go forward violence-free.
On that note, I attended launch last week of the Artists for Peace concert tour, followed by one of their first concerts. Twelve of Sierra Leone’s young and up-and-coming musicians, some of them relatively well-known and popular locally, have collaborated on a pair of songs promoting a violence free election. They are now off on a cross-country tour to give free outdoor concerts - at strategic venues like Lumley Roundabout and East End Police in Freetown, and major towns upcountry - promoting their message.
The artists launched the tour last Wednesday at Paddy’s nightclub. (Paddy’s is a Freetown institution where, legend has it, during the height of the war you could mingle with shady diamond dealers, humanitarian aid workers, and fighters from every side of the conflict. Today, still, you can meet nearly every swath of Freetown’s population at Paddy’s on a given Friday or Saturday night. )
The act might have be cheesy (“if you want peace, turn to your neighbor and tell them you love them”) but seemed to have a degree of resonance here in Sierra Leone that I cannot fully understand. The songs themselves are catchy and the artists both talented and entertaining. Possibly the strangest moment was when one of the artists, Wahid, capitalized on Sierra Leoneans’ fierce loyalty to English Premiership football teams to get the crowd fired up. “Arsenal, do you want a violence free election?” he said in Krio; then, “Manchester, do you want a violence free election?”, thereby inspiring vocal responses even if only in the name of the teams’ rivalry. (For you Americans, think Yankees and Red Sox.)
I certainly came out of the night a supporter of the Artists for Peace, and traveled to the impoverished and crime-ridden eastern part of Freetown on Saturday night to watch them perform in a parking lot alongside the main road out of town toward the provinces, at a place known as Shell Station for a now-renamed gas station. A crowd of several hundred people gathered to watch the Artists for Peace and their partner acts – a comedian, an MC, a drama group known as the Freetown Players, and for that night, a group of reggae artists known as Zion Lions – put on a high-energy free show. The crowd was rapt and engaged, actively participating in the call-and-response about violence and war and why Sierra Leone should not return to either, and then dancing and cheering as the musicians performed: “vote vote, no violence, vote vote, no violence,” as the catchy refrain of one song loudly proclaims.
I hope the crowds at future shows receive them with as much enthusiasm, and I hope their message is heard. You might think music is a thin shield against possible violence, but given its reach and popularity, it might be one of the best shields there are.
The artists themselves certainly think it is worthwhile. One of them told me he was somewhat nervous to go on tour, afraid they might be branded as supporters of one or another party, though they’ve been at great pains to remain neutral. “My mom doesn’t want me to go,” he admitted.
But he believes that music – the same force that can get a whole dance club bumping and grinding to the same beat – can also help promote a violence-free election.
I hope he’s right.