By Amin Kef-Ranger
The Chief Electoral Commissioner of the Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone, Mohamed Kenewui Konneh, on the 21st July, 2022 presented the Commission’s Annual Report 2021 to President Julius Maada Bio at State House.
The Annual Report catalogued the achievements and challenges of the Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone as well as plans it intended to roll out.
After receiving the Report, President Bio thanked the Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone both for its commendable efforts in conducting largely violence-free and fair elections at all levels wherever vacancies have occurred.
He pointed out that the parliamentary contests have been competitive maintaining how both parties have won some and lost some adding how one party has graciously accepted its losses and one party maybe not as graciously but said that is the nature of competitive politics.
President Bio said a cursory look at the history of elections in Sierra Leone would highlight elite domination of politics – a mindset where a party uses a toxic blend of divisive rhetoric, misinformation, and unleashes violence – that is orchestrated and controlled by a few key players – on the voting public.
He continued that while some parties have never used that approach some parties have probably significantly intensified its use pointing out how they would rather not present and debate alternative policies and positions and engage citizens in peaceful ways about why their positions and perspectives are better.
“Our position as a Government has been that there is a better way,” he underscored adding how first they believe that a better governance ecosystem is good for the country’s democracy.
Freedom of the Press, he said, is guaranteed in the country’s laws adding how they have removed seditious libel laws and unfettered free speech maintaining that no journalist is in prison for the practice of journalism, how no media house has been attacked or closed down for what they publish or broadcast and that the Independent Media Commission has a clearer mandate.
The President stated that there is greater cooperation between law enforcement and the press saying he is calling for both the responsible practice of journalism on all platforms on one hand and zero tolerance for intimidation and threats by the security forces and the public of media practitioners revealing how Government has supported greater professionalism in journalism and advocated for investments in the media.
He said journalists are working with development partners, international organizations, and national stakeholders to further enhance freedom of expression.
As a consequence, he continued, Sierra Leone has moved up 29 places higher from 75h position to 46th out of 180 countries in global media freedom rankings.
President Bio informed the audience that Government does not interfere with the work of civil society organizations and rights activists who continue to operate freely within the ambits of the law saying they have observed elections freely and generated and discussed post- elections reports freely on all media platforms.
He said secondly, the Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone operates freely and independently and there is also greater access to justice and citizens can now get redress from the courts on petitions and elections-related matters as the courts deem fit stating how a National Commission for Peace and National Cohesion is now up and running.
According to him, there is a greater engagement of traditional and religious leaders in tamping down tensions within and between communities saying Sierra Leone is now the fourth most peaceful country in Africa for a reason.
President Bio said thirdly, his Government has instituted reforms that guarantee the equal exercise of citizenship rights, especially for hitherto marginalized and vulnerable populations.
He said there is an unprecedented Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment bill in Parliament that guarantees greater participation, representation, and empowerment for women.
“I urge parliamentarians, development partners, and local stakeholders to support the passing of the bill in Parliament,” he said disclosing that Sierra Leone’s progress on the issue of disability rights and participation has been noted in international fora.
He applauded efforts by the Electoral Commission to form External Stakeholder Groups for Gender and for Persons with Disability at the national level stating that he urges the Commission to cascade the formation of the stakeholder groups to the district level.
President Bio said in his response last year to Strategic Pillar 8 of the Commission’s Strategic Plan, he particularly highlighted inclusion, participation, and equity as critical.
“As I stated last year, my Government approaches that pillar from a rights perspective – that every citizen has an equal and inalienable right to fully participate in political life; to fully participate in political debate; to be consulted, to vote, and to be voted for,” he stated adding that gender, sexuality, disability, age, youth, levels of literacy must not be hindrances.
He said they must be fully accounted for in inclusive democratic elections at all levels maintaining that the views and voices of every citizen must matter on how to move the nation forward.
“I urge us all, therefore, – stakeholders, citizens, development partners — to continue working to ensure that the future of elections in Sierra Leone is fully inclusive,” he appealed.
The President said he was briefed on the generous support by the UNDP for the consultative conference that led to the adoption of 103 of 111 recommendations of the Election Observer Missions (EOMs).
According to him, progress on implementing details of the legal and non-legal issues has been mentioned further urging the Electoral Commission to continue to work with other Election Management Bodies and other stakeholders to fully implement those recommendations.
He said his Government remains fully committed to supporting peaceful, free, fair and credible electoral processes adding that dates for the parliamentary and local council elections have been declared at least fifteen months to Election Day.
The President said they have also proposed fixed dates for elections and other such reforms that will enhance the quality of elections and the governance space. He said the Chief Electoral Commissioner has also declared dates for Presidential elections in accordance with his mandate.
He said he is pleased to note that the constitution of the Electoral Commission is in accordance with extant constitutional provisions and he is urging Parliament to ensure that all regions are fully represented on the Electoral Commission.
The President said he also acknowledges the administrative and organizational restructuring within the Electoral Commission and thanked the country’s partners and the Commission for working on further strengthening the capacity of the Electoral Commission’s staff.
He pointed out that efforts to construct offices and warehouses at the district level are commendable and should support transparency, fairness, and timeliness in delivering the results of public elections.
“I also wish to commend the Electoral Commission for preparations made so far regarding the upcoming voter registration exercise from September to October of this year,” he said urging the Electoral Commission to intensify its public sensitization efforts on the processes and procedures of voter registration.
President Bio also stated how his Government also acknowledges decisions and efforts at boundary delimitation in accordance with constitutional provisions.
He said he notes the memorandums concluded with other agencies to facilitate both the voter registration and boundary delimitation process adding how he appreciates the immensity of work and time needed to successfully conclude the processes within the time set by the constitution.
“The Electoral Commission can always count on the support of my Government in achieving the best outcomes for Sierra Leoneans,” he stated adding that his Government will patiently await Parliamentary deliberations and conclusions on proposed electoral law reforms.
He said Parliament is the only competent body that will change existing laws saying he is confident that their work is informed by what is in the best interests of the country – laws that permit inclusive, fair, peaceful, and transparent elections at all levels of the country’s democracy adding that aggrieved persons must also be able to access and receive speedy and fair hearings in a competent court of law.
President Bio said they believe that the country’s partners can provide additional funding and technical assistance, and support in increasing voter education and civic participation of hitherto marginalized groups – especially women and persons with disabilities.
He concluded by highlighting that they have heeded to the recommendations of the EOMs; opened up the democratic ecosystem with progressive rights and other reforms; improved the capacity of the Electoral Commission and strengthened its legal mandate; and, supported equity and inclusiveness both to represent and to make free and fair electoral choices.
President Bio said he , therefore, acknowledges and receives the report with great optimism that we are, as a nation, becoming better at getting democratic elections right.