By Amin Kef (Ranger)
In a report presented by the Sierra Leone Bar Association (SLBA) it was stated that based on observation of the 24th June, 2023 multi-tier elections in Sierra Leone ,the SLBA at its Annual General Meeting on 17th March 2023, facilitated the undertaking by all key stakeholders in the electioneering process including but not limited to the incumbent Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) and main opposition party the All Peoples Congress (APC) to commit to a peaceful, fair and fair electioneering process through the signing the York Declaration.
It continued that two (2) weeks prior to the day of the polls and as part of efforts to promote voters’ education, they implemented “KNOW YOUR LAWS” Series from 9th – 23rd June 2023 maintaining how the objective of the series was to roll out a nationwide sensitization of citizens about the “dos and don’ts” of all electoral laws in Sierra Leone.
Revealing that such climaxed with community engagements in Freetown, Bo, Kenema and Kono on both electoral laws and peace messages the SLBA noted that it was of the view that those exercises would help promote and achieve a free, fair, and non-violent elections.
The SLBA disclosed further that it was accredited by the Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone to observe the June 24th 2023 multi-tier elections.
Accordingly, it said it deployed 63 observers in all the 16 districts in Sierra Leone for the June 24th Elections pointing out that one (1) week prior to elections day and as part of strengthening collaboration with other election observation groups, they had productive engagements with various International Election Observation Missions such as European Union Election Observation Mission, Commonwealth Observer Group and Carter Center.
In a summary of its findings, the SLBA said it noted that the Public Elections Act 2022 was enacted with the objective to address the gaps identified in the Public Elections Act 2012, as raised by political parties, election observers, civil society groups and other stakeholders following the previous public elections in Sierra Leone stressing that the Public Elections Act 2022 complements the Constitution of Sierra Leone, Act No. 6 of 1991.
The SLBA maintained that the Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone (ECSL) in the election process has not acted at variance with the applicable law.
In terms of Early Voting, the SLBA observed that citizens who were to embark on pilgrims were allowed to exercise their franchise and were thus allowed to vote on the 15th June, 2023.
It noted that the process met the standard required by the applicable law and acceptable national practice.
With regards the Media, the SLBA said it observed that media Regulations and Codes of Conduct were adhered to and journalists were largely professional.
However, the SLBA pointed out that it observed the blatant misuse and abuse of social media, with serious misinformation, disinformation and falsehood posted and circulated across major social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok; and among others were fueled by political agents, leading to heighten political and ethno-regional tensions.
On Polling Day, the SLBA revealed that it observed that late start in voting was recorded in all 16 districts of Sierra Leone but stated that, however, a high voter turnout was also observed, and voters were not prejudice by the late start of voting adding that all eligible voters that wanted to vote in the June 24 multi-tier elections had the opportunity to do so.
On the issue of Identification of ECSL Personnel, the SLBA observed that not all ECSL personnel had ECSL personnel ID cards saying upon enquiry, the SLBA learnt that late distribution was the reason for the lack of identification cards.
It reported that, however, in most polling centers save for few the ECSL personnel put on the ECSL overcoat but, however, because of the lack of ECSL ID cards, the voters faced some difficulties in sufficiently identifying ECSL staff from possible imposters.
On its observation of Party agents it noted that party agents were well represented in all polling stations and tally centers across the country revealing how they were vigilant in all the electioneering process on the polling day to the tally centers. It said though the SLBA noted that there were some isolated cases of strong disagreements, those differences were quickly resolved.
With regards Security personnel it said the election was not heavily securitized, but the presence of security forces was visible furthering how at polling stations, there were unarmed security personnel which emphasized the civil nature of elections.
It continued that at some polling centers security personnel were responsive to potential breach of the electoral laws adding how it further observed that security personnel who were deployed in polling stations were not disadvantaged from voting, even when deployed in stations where they did not register.
On the Voting and counting of ballot papers, the Bar Association said that it noted,the voting process started late (i.e., around 9 a.m.) in most polling centers, but the voting period was extended until the last individual in the queue voted.
It also reported that it observed that after the close of polls, counting of ballot papers were done transparently in the presence of all political parties’ agents and observers.
The Bar Association said where there were discrepancies, the ECSL personnel availed opportunity for verification saying though in few stations the RRFs were not enough, the information was written on a sheet of paper and party agents and observers were allowed to take evidence of same.
It noted, however, that those challenges did not hamper the election, nor affect any contesting candidate.
In the area of Freedom of Movement, the Association said movement was largely a challenge in the previous elections but maintained that ,however, during the 24th June 2023 elections there was free movement of persons and vehicle which contributed to high turn-out of voters.
It commended the security sector, noting the importance of the judgment of the Supreme Court in the case of Augustine Sorie-Sengbe Marrah v The Inspector General of Police (2022 unreported).
The SLBA said it also observed that there were some unofficial bodies accredited by ECSL to observe the 2023 elections that wrongly held a view and misinformed the public about the outcome of the 2023 elections before the official announcement by ECSL which it said created unnecessary political tension and appeared to deliberately undermine the credibility of the electoral process.
In giving out recommendations in the report, the Bar Association said the ECSL should improve on logistics planning to ensure early and effective distribution of election materials to designated polling stations as such will reduce late opening of polling stations.
The Bar Association also recommended that the ECSL should provide adequate essential election materials for all polling stations to prevent delays during voting and should ensure that all ECSL staff at polling stations are clearly and adequately identified to prevent imposters and facilitate smooth voting process on election day.
It also proffered that the ECSL should improve on its communications with the public to address misinformation and disinformation which have the potential to undermine the credibility of the institution.
According to the Bar, Election Observation Groups should refrain from announcement of election results saying because it is not only a usurpation of the constitutional mandate of ECSL but also it heightens political tension and that where concerns are raised by any election observation group or political party, the issues should be determined in a court of competent jurisdiction.
The Sierra Leone Bar Association concluded by stating that save for the few challenges which it believes did not materially affect the outcome of the 24th June 2023 multi-tier elections, the Association noted that the June 24th 2023 multi-tier elections were free, fair and largely peaceful and therefore commends the ECSL as well as the security personnel for their selfless service.
It said in the above regard, it congratulates His Excellency Dr. Julius Maada Bio on his re- election as President of the Republic of Sierra Leone.