Sierra Leone Telegraph: 10 August 2023:
Exactly a year ago today in Sierra Leone, dozens of people were shot dead by security forces in street protests against rising cost of living and human rights abuses. Twelve months on, Sierra Leone has regressed. The country’s economy has slumped, inflation is running at 49%, unemployment remains high at over 70%, and government revenue from taxation has dropped significantly as businesses struggle with rising costs of import.
The political crisis between the main opposition APC and the ruling SLPP which engulfed the country twelve months ago has worsened, threatening to derail constitutional rule, peace and stability.
Today, on the anniversary of the unlawful killing of those unarmed citizens across the country by security forces with impunity, President Bio is calling for peace. Writing on Twitter, he said: Fellow Sierra Leoneans, today marks the one-year anniversary of the regrettable events of August 10th, 2022 that threatened the peace, stability and hard-earned democracy of our dear nation.
“On this anniversary, I urge us all to reflect upon the challenges, sacrifices, and lessons that have shaped our journey since that fateful day. The incidents of August 10th, 2022, are a stark reminder of the complexities and vulnerabilities inherent in our society. It underscores our commitment to elevating the self-worth of every Sierra Leonean to help in addressing the root causes of discontent, inequality and frustration among our citizens.
“As we remember those who lost their lives and those who were affected by the fateful events, we must renew our commitment to building a more just, inclusive and prosperous SierraLeone. As law-abiding Citizens, let us unequivocally reject any form of violence and lawlessness and denounce those who instigate and incite hatred and civil unrest in our land.
“As we look to the future with optimism, let us honour the memory of August 10th by rededicating ourselves to the values of peace, stability, and social harmony. Let us stand for the rule of law to preserve the flame of democracy. Let us remain vigilant against unpatriotic forces that seek to divide us and sow discord. We’re a nation of law and order, not chaos; of peace, not violence.
“So, let us come together, as one people and one nation, under God, indivisible. Determined to forge a country that stands strong against the challenges of our time. God bless Sierra Leone and its people. May God stand watch over our democracy.”
Presidential and general elections held two months ago, in anticipation of ending the political crisis that started last year, have done far more damage to peace and stability in Sierra Leone. The elections were marred by shocking scenes of grotesque violence, tribal hatred and electoral fraud.
The introduction of a District Block (Proportional Representation) electoral system, replacing the constituency based – ‘first past the post system’ was seriously flawed, and was designed to ensure President Bio remained in office for another term.
The main opposition APC is refusing to accept those election results, and is boycotting all forms of engagement with the Bio-led SLPP government, including refusal of its elected Members of Parliament to take their seats in Parliament.
Sierra Leone is at crossroads as the country effectively is now being governed as a de-facto One Party State.
The position of the opposition APC is clear. They are refusing to accept the results of the elections held in June. In their latest statement published a few weeks ago, they accused the Electoral Commission of fraud and vote rigging in favour of President Bio and his SLPP party.
Is there room for political dialogue to end the crisis?
APC are demanding all disaggregated polling station results which the Electoral Commission has refused to declare to be published. In response, President Bio has instead proposed to set up a committee led by the vice president to review how elections are conducted in the country, stopping short of meeting the opposition APC’s demand.
The position of the APC was reinforced last week at a meeting in Makeni of the party leadership and all elected APC MPs, with the exception of two who have since returned to Parliament against the Party’s directive.
Addressing his APC MPs, Presidential candidate – Dr Samura Kamara, spoke about the importance of fighting for democracy in Sierra Leone, and called on his MPs to stand firm in unity until the party’s demands are met by the government and the Electoral Commission.
An end to the crisis is nowhere in sight. The government along with the Electoral Commission are standing their ground, and the opposition APC are refusing to return to Parliament to engage with the government.
An added dimension to this political crisis is the somewhat nebulous position of the international community, who previously had also condemned the conduct of the June 2023 elections and called for all polling station results to be published to ensure transparency and credibility.
The United States, UK, Ireland, Germany, and the European Union had refused to accept the outcome of the elections. But now it seems their position has softened and shifted, leaving the opposition APC in a dilemma.
First it was the US Ambassador to Sierra Leone who wrote against “boycotting democracy and governance”, without naming the opposition APC. Then came a statement by the UK High Commissioner to Sierra Leone, calling for political dialogue to end the crisis.
Although this shift in the international community’s tone is significant, it is worth noting that none of the Western countries operating in Sierra Leone has so far congratulated President Bio, following the announcement of his election victory two months ago.
Since the end of the war in Sierra Leone, the international community have invested Billions of Dollars to improve the country’s governance structure, education system, healthcare, judiciary, security sector, roads infrastructure, and economic development.
Although the promotion of democracy is central to the international community’s mission in Sierra Leone, it is clear that by softening their position on the current political crisis in the country, they have decided not to throw away the baby with the bath water in pursuit of their democratic principles.
But despite the huge investments, Sierra Leone is still one of the poorest nations in the world, due largely to rampant corruption and poor governance. The government relies on the international community, the World Bank and IMF for over 60% of its spending budget.
As the political crisis deepens, two weeks ago the police announced that they had foiled a plot by some military and police officers to overthrow the government, and that several senior officers and civilians have been arrested as investigation continues.
Whether government engineered fake news or not, any talk of coup in Sierra Leone must be taken very seriously, not simply because of the country’s history of its brutal ten-year war, but in the context of a resurgence of military coups in West Africa that could destabilise the entire region.
As call for political dialogue grows, there are questions about what form the dialogue should take:
Who will lead the parties into dialogue?
What will the dialogue be about?
Will the dialogue simply be another sticking plaster to an aged-old wound that is proving difficult to heal?
Will political dialogue lead to genuine and sustainable change for the better?
More important, will the APC respond to the call for dialogue?
And will the dialogue agenda include the transparent publication of all polling station results?
There have been calls by the Sierra Leone Telegraph and others for the Commonwealth to get involved by providing experienced Judges from member countries to ensure justice and due process.
Yesterday, Commonwealth Secretary-General said in a statement that she offers “full support and engagement in helping to facilitate that peaceful, constructive dialogue.”
This is what the statement says: “On 25 May, following months of peaceful and constructive dialogue, the leaders of all of Sierra Leone’s political parties accepted the invitation to stand before the nation and pledged themselves and their supporters to peace. Today, I call on all to honour the terms of that commitment.
“The democratic process requires calm and responsible leadership, functioning institutions, a commitment to justice and the rule of law, and an active, collective choice to unite rather than to divide.
“This is not always easy, but it is the essential foundation for peace and progress, and Sierra Leone’s own history underlines its importance.
“In challenging times, leadership matters. This is the moment for Sierra Leone’s leaders to engage in peaceful, constructive dialogue to honour the promises they made to the people when we stood together in Freetown, and to ensure a strong democratic inheritance for future generations.
“I said then, and I say again now, that the Commonwealth is with you. I offer my full support and engagement in helping to facilitate that peaceful, constructive dialogue, and I share the hopes of millions across Sierra Leone, Africa and the world that the courage, integrity and love which make this nation so special will not fail.”
In the wake of a military coup in Niger and the protracted efforts by ECOWAS to seek a peaceful return to constitutional rule, the people of Sierra Leone do not need a military coup if politicians from all sides are honestly committed to peace, democracy, justice and the rule of law.
Political dialogue as a means of ending the current crisis must be strongly embraced by the opposition APC and the ruling SLPP, but the agenda for those talks must include the integrity of the June 2023 election results and the publication of all disaggregated results to ensure credibility and legitimacy of the Bio-led government.