By Alfred Fornah
The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IIDEA) is implementing a 2-year European Union-funded project titled: ‘Sierra Leone Democracy Strengthening Project’. The Project aimed at supporting democratic institutions and civil society (including the media) toward credible and peaceful conduct of the 2023 elections and the democratic governance and reform processes in the years after the elections to contribute to further consolidation of democratic gains in the country.
The Sierra Leone programme is delivered through five boundary partners, including the Electoral Commission for Sierra Leone (ECSL), the Political Parties Regulation Commission (PPRC),National Commission for Democracy (NCD), National Council for Civic Education and Democracy (NaCCED) and the Independent Media Commission (IMC).
In addition to the five boundary partners, I-IDEA also works with civil society organisations, including National Election Watch (NEW), the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), the Independent Radio Network (IRN), Election Conflict Prevention and Mediation Group (ECPMG), and the 50/50 Group – Sierra Leone.
Since the commencement of the project in December 2022, International IDEA has worked with the five boundary partners and civil society organizations to implement a series of interventions ranging from capacity development for Elections Management Bodies (EMBs), civic and voter education for young people, women and persons with disabilities, electoral risk management for the electoral commission, support to media regulation, media literacy and the promotion of non-violent election, among many other interventions. This article summarises some of the major interventions supported by International IDEA in the lead-up to the elections in June 2023:
Elections Preparedness National Stakeholders Dialogue Conference (8th June 2023)
To help deliver credible and peaceful elections in Sierra Leone, in a manner that is inclusive, engaging, peaceful, and transparent, International IDEA supported the ECSL, PPRC, and Office of National Security (ONS) – including other electoral and democracy institutions – to organize a one-day national stakeholders conference on elections preparedness.
The conference brought together the two EMBs (ECSL and PPRC), ONS, the judiciary, political parties, civil society, international development partners, diplomatic missions, international and national observers, and citizens from across the diverse political divide to talk about election preparedness. Through a series of panel discussions and a guest speaker from Cameroon (former Chair of the Cameroon electoral commission), international best practice on election preparedness was discussed, and questions on voting and the counting of the ballots were asked and answers provided. Among other things, participants discussed about elections campaigns and expectations from political parties and the security sector, the printing of the voter register, and ballot papers, and the general preparedness of the ECSL and the PPRC.
Formally opening the conference, the Chief Electoral Commissioner and Chairman of the Electoral Commission for Sierra Leone Commissioner Mohamed K. Konneh, applauded International IDEA for supporting such a high-profile conference, which he described as timely and appropriate, considering rumour and disinformation in the lead-up to the elections. In particular, the Chair of the Commission thanked International IDEA for setting up the Election Risk Management Tool (ERMTool) to identify electoral risks and to deal with them as a commission and other actors in the electoral process. He urged participants to be open and honest in identifying the challenges and end on the note that, while ECSL is not one hundred percent perfect, the Commission is prepared to conduct the June 2023 elections in accordance with the laws of Sierra Leone and consistent with international best practices. Similar sentiments were shared by the PPRC, the Judiciary, the Office of National Security and other elections stakeholders. Following the formal opening process, the conference went through detailed election preparedness conversations through panel discussions with question-and-answer sessions. There were four-panel discussions as follows:
- State of Election Preparedness – How prepared is ECSL for the June 2023 elections led by the Electoral Commission
- Political Campaigns, Political Party Preparedness, and the Regulatory Environment, led by the PPRC
- Electoral Information, Security, and Electoral Justice, with representatives from IMC, SLAJ, ONS, and civil society
- Civic Education, Civil society Engagement, and Citizens’ Election Observation, with participants from NEW, NaCCED, NCD, and traditional/religious groups .
During the conference, elections stakeholders across the country had the unique opportunity to collectively assess the state of elections preparedness, identify challenges and approaches to dealing with those challenges, and points for collaboration between and among actors. A major achievement of the conference was the platform it created for dialogue and providing answers to critical election preparedness questions which contributed to calming down nerves ahead of the elections.
Election Peace Promotion Parade: Following the completion of what has been referenced to as a peaceful election campaign period, the ECSL and PPRC reserved the last two days of June 22nd and 23rd as cooling off days with no political campaigns. With support from International IDEA, PPRC organized atwo-day peace promotion float parade in the 16 administrative districts on June 22nd and across the 5 regional cities on the 23rdof June 2023. The aim of the symbolic float parade was to raise awareness among citizens on the importance of peaceful elections, promote unity and cohesion among different players, engage young people as agents of peaceful elections, promote collaboration among stakeholders on their collective efforts towards peaceful elections, and seek public commitment from the leadership of political parties for peaceful elections. The highlight of the float parades was in Freetown where the Chair of the PPRC joined a team of renowned musicians (artists for peace) who were contracted for live performance across the streets of Freetown while sending messages of peaceful and non-violent elections
This event attracted the participation of different government and nongovernmental organizations such as the Sierra Leone Police, and Youth groups among others. This reinforced the collaborative efforts of state and non-state actors to promote peaceful elections. By bringing together these stakeholders, the PPRC and I-IDEA created a united front against violence. The Chairman of the PPRC praised participants especially young people who showed up in the parade. He advised those who might feel aggrieved in the electoral process to use the legal procedures to address their concerns instead of perpetuating violence.
Support to the ECSL’s Youth in Election Working Group:
On another front, International IDEA worked with the ECSL on the Youth in Elections Program to engage young people in activities such as the Football Tournament and Community Engagement for peaceful elections.
The tournament was organized to promote the need for peaceful cohabitation, tolerance, and peaceful coexistence among young people in Freetown. Four teams were drawn from East, Central, and Western parts of Freetown to participate in a one-day competition at the parade grounds.
“Football is a beautiful game that has the power to mend wounds and unite communities for good. And this is really important for us young people, especially at this time. So, we are extremely happy to coordinate and host this tournament with support from ECSL and International IDEA ” said Augustine Vandy Kenny Kamra , a Participant of the ECSL Youth in Elections Programme.
On the same day of the tournament, Youth Groups were equipped with Information, Education, and Communication materials and deployed in various communities to engage young people who constitute over 60% of registered voters- to promote peaceful electoral dialogue before, during, and after the June 24th Polls.
Supporting Democracy Institutions for peaceful and inclusive elections
To support the prevention and mitigation of violence ahead of the elections, International closely with democratic institutions including the National Commission for Democracy (NCD) and the National Council for Civic Education and Democracy (NaCCED), to foster a culture of non-violence before, during, and after the elections. Together with these institutions, capacity-building initiatives, sensitization programs, and campaigns were developed and rolled out to reach a wide range of citizens on issues related to peace, unity, and non-violence across the country. Key among these activities included a National Stakeholders Dialogue on the Proportional Representation (PR) system, a town hall meeting for young people including first-time voters, persons with disability (PWDs), and women at the district level. Messages that seek to promote peaceful and non-violent participation were also developed and shared with local radio and TV stations for awareness raising on peaceful and inclusive elections.
Civil Society and the Media
As part of its work to support democratic consolidation in Sierra Leone, International IDEA supported civil society and the media institutions in the lead-up to the elections. These institutions include the National Election Watch (NEW), the Independent Media Commission (IMC), and the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ). To support the work of citizens’ elections observation, International IDEA procured 170 tablets for NEW for its Parallel Voter Tabulation and provide them with technical support to enhance their capacity for effective pre -and post-election communications.
Ahead of the June 24th Polls, Sierra Leone’s social media was awash with fake news and misinformation. Citizens especially Sierra Leonean social media users were deluged with fake stories regarding the electioneering process on their social media feeds. With technical support from International IDEA, SLAJ conducted a training workshop on media literacy for journalists, youth advocates, and bloggers on the identification and verification of fake news to promote peaceful electoral dialogue. Another training was also delivered for journalists across the regions on the Revised IMC Code of Practice, regulations& elections coverage.
The International IDEA not only provided training for journalists but also made efforts to support the Independent Media Commission (IMC) with equipment and institutional capacity to set up a situation room. The situation room conducted real-time monitoring of election reportage through media monitors recruited by International IDEA across Sierra Leone’s 16 districts. This was done to ensure journalists complied with the revised IMC Code of Practice.
“International IDEA promotes and strengthens the values and ethos of democracy and democratic governance. The media is a partner in achieving this because public interest media is critical for democratic strengthening as it provides a platform for dialogue, debate and holding elected leaders to account,” said Dr. Idrissa Tarawallie, Head of Sierra Leone Country Programme, International IDEA -during the launch of ‘The Media We Want’ Manifesto- which was developed and launched by SLAJ with support from International IDEA.
The European Union Ambassador to Sierra Leone, Manuel Müller has pledged the EU’s Commitment to stand with the media and offer opportunities that can further strengthen its capacity, and support media initiatives to protect media freedom and pluralism in Sierra Leone.