On Saturday, June 24, Sierra Leoneans will go to the polls to elect a new president and members of parliament. This will mark the country’s fifth consecutive presidential elections since the end of the brutal 11-year civil war – more than two decades ago –which left many dead. About 3.4 million people have registered out of a population of 8.4 million people.
Voters Concerns & the Political Campaigns
13 candidates and political parties are contesting the elections even though heavily dominated by the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) and the main opposition, All-People’s Congress (APC). Both the SLPP and APC are going head-to-head, actively campaigning and disseminating key messages to the electorate. Voting is expected to be competitive as incumbent President Julius Maada Bio of the SLPP, seeks a second five-year term, against his major contender, Dr. Samura Kamara of the APC. In Sierra Leone, ethnicity and region are historically a major deciding factor of who emerges the winner. While the southern and eastern regions are considered strongholds of the SLPP, the northern and western regions come across as pro-APC.
High cost of living, high taxes on businesses, rising inflation, electricity challenges, high cost of fuel are some of the key issues on the minds of voters. Others are youth unemployment, education, peace, and security and infrastructure. The country in July 2022 launched a re-denomination of its currency to strengthen its value. But as of April 2023, Sierra Leone had seen inflation rise to about 43%. In the final days of campaigns, the political landscape in the country is already bustling with activity and anticipation. The winner of Saturday’s polls needs 55% of the votes to clinch victory in the first round otherwise it goes into a runoff within two weeks, a repeat of the 2018 elections.
Shoring up women’s participation in the elections with the new Gender Policy
Sierra Leone’s elections management body, the Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone (ECSL) has assured that the polls will be held as scheduled. The ECSL is hopeful of a high voter turnout as the number of registered voters this year is an increase of almost 200,000 from that of 2018.Women’s participation is also tipped to somewhat increase as the ECSL, consciously implemented the 2022 Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment (GEWE) Act which requires that 30% of candidates put forward by any political party for parliamentary and local elections are women. The policy was intended to encourage political parties to actively seek out and support capable women to run for office and help deal with the country’s Gender Inequality Index value of 0.644, ranking it 153 out of 162 countries in the 2018 Index.
The Media and the 2023 Elections
The media in Sierra Leone is diverse and pluralistic and has seen some significant improvement over the past few years. In 2020, the country witnessed the historic repeal of the 55-year-old Criminal Libel and Seditious law (Part 5 of the Public Order Act, 1965) that hindered media freedom in the country for half a century. A new Independent Media Commission (IMC) Act was also passed which strengthened the Commission’s regulatory powers to address media challenges in the country. Consequently, Sierra Leone made an impressive showing in the 2021 World press freedom index as its ranking improved by ten places from 85 out of 180 countries to 75 out of 180.
As of 2022, the media landscape in Sierra Leone had over 200 radio stations, 20 television networks, 240 newspapers, even though, viability, professionalism and conditions of service remain key challenges. The media are relatively free and enjoy a cordial relationship with government despite the incidents of journalists’ harassment, arbitrary arrests and detentions. The Sierra Leone of Association Journalists (SLAJ) as part of its 52nd anniversary has also launched the “Media We Want” Manifesto as a comprehensive roadmap towards advancing media freedom, professionalism, viability, gender equality, inclusivity and journalists’ safety.
Ahead of the 2023 elections, several pro-media development and democracy organisations have partnered local-based media associations, to prioritise support to the Sierra Leonean media to enable it play its critical role in ensuring peaceful elections. This has included trainings on elections coverage/reporting, peace journalism; safety of journalists and countering mis-disinformation as well as dialogues aimed at strengthening media-security relations and nurturing a safe environment during the elections. To help counter mis-disinformation, this year’s elections has also seen the heavy deployment of fact-checking mechanisms in the country including the UNDP’s automated fact-checking tool, iVerify platform run by SLAJ and Independent Radio Network (IRN); the #MatterOf Facts campaign by Media Reform Coordinating Group and Africa-Check, and Dubawa.
The Elections and its outlook on Democracy in West Africa
Until recently, the West Africa region had been experiencing considerable steady progress in democratic governance. Almost all countries in the region had transitioned from military dictatorships to elected governments by 2015. The progress in democratic development was characterised by the liberalisation of the media sector, the opening up of the civic space and conduct of democratic elections. However, in the last couple of years, the regionis experiencing a democratic rollback of the gains made marked by factors including a shrinking civic space,the recent wave of military coup d’etats and attempts by some sitting presidents to tweak constitutional term limits and elongate their stay in office.
Senegal which was traditionally a poster child of democracy in the region is going through political crises which resulted in the death of some citizens. Indeed, Sierra Leone had also earlier recorded some deadly anti-government protests against economic hardships with the latest in August 2022 resulting in the death of some civilians and security officials amidst internet shut down and an imposition of curfew.
Local and International election observers, including the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) say, the Sierra Leone 2023 polls is a litmus test for West Africa’s democratic resilience asit provides the opportunity to entrench the country’s democratic progress and by extension, regional democracy. This will certainly improve ongoing efforts to restore and consolidate democratic governance in the region.
Ensuring peaceful elections and addressing the democratic backsliding in West Africa requires actions on the part of all stakeholders including a media that is free, professional and independent; a media that is able to facilitate quality citizen-authorities dialogues, public discourse and fact-based programming and reporting. The media are therefore encouraged to use their platforms to sensitize and educate the public about the voting processes and exhibit a high sense of professionalism in their work. They should practice peace journalism, desist from and condemn any form of hate speech that have the potential to incite violence. Both the media and security must also commit to dialogue and collaboration before, during and after the elections, and to modalities of working together to ensure peaceful elections and towards protecting the peace of Sierra Leone thereafter.
As the world watches with a bated breath, we wish the people of Sierra Leone peaceful elections.
This article is written by Abigail Larbi Odei, Programme Manager for the Media and Good Governance Programme at the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA). She can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org