Sierra Leone’s Political Transition: Is the Peace Deceptive?

  • Rachel Kern, Samantha Fischer

One month ago, anti-government protests in Sierra Leone resulted in over a dozen civilian deaths, an internet shutdown, and a nationwide curfew for all citizens. These protests are not the first instance of violence in Sierra Leone. In recent years, the West African country has seen thousands of its people killed and millions displaced as a result of its 1991-2002 civil war, the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak, the August 14, 2017, mudslide, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March 2018, the country appeared to have found stability after a successful transition of power in its’ highly anticipated 2018 general elections. Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) was elected president despite running against a member of the governing party, the All People’s Congress (APC). This shift marked the successful transition of presidential and political party power from the second administration to the third since the end of the civil war in 2002. 

Despite the peaceful transition, it has become apparent that the shift in power did not bring the results that many hoped. As the country looks ahead to the 2023 elections, lingering concerns must be addressed to ensure free, transparent, and peaceful political processes long-term. 

From 2018-2022, the International Republican Institute (IRI) partnered with other stakeholders in Sierra Leone to produce a program called the Sierra Leone Elections Dialogue Series (SLEDS). This program was implemented as part of efforts to better election processes by increasing the participation of women and other disadvantaged groups in politics, increasing civil advocacy, strengthening media, and building political consensus. During the program, IRI conducted a series of four public opinion polls that informed the project by gauging concerns about political processes (first pollsecond pollthird pollfourth poll). Beyond informing SLEDS activities, IRI’s polls helped to identify concerns that should be addressed in future programming, especially as the country approaches its 2023 elections. 

Among these issues are two main shifts in public opinion regarding electoral processes. Since February 2018, trust in the National Electoral Commission (NEC) has fallen by 49 percentage points. In the first poll, 67% of Sierra Leoneans identified that they trust the NEC a great deal. By the final poll in January 2022, only 18% identified that they trust the NEC a great deal. In addition to this decline, following the 2018 elections, 54% of people believed that the country was headed in the right direction. However, IRI’s latest poll shows that only 41% of Sierra Leoneans believe that the country is heading in the right direction, a decrease of 13 percentage points from 2018. Both declines in public opinion raise concerns about the next election. 

Along with electoral concerns raised by IRI’s polling, a survey by Afrobarometer shows that the majority of Sierra Leoneans experience violence during political rallies and events. Despite this, the government has been submitting new proposals for electoral laws that affect violent areas. One bill suggests that NEC officials would be able to stop counting and could cancel the votes in an area where there is violent disruption on election day. In this bill, a new election would be held only if the NEC deemed that the regions’ outcome would have impacted the national outcome of the elections. 

Furthermore, recent events such as rapidly rising inflation, violent protests, and the nationwide curfew, all add to rising concerns about the political landscape in advance of the 2023 elections. These issues must be addressed in order to ensure peaceful electoral processes and a secure future for Sierra Leone.  IRI’s work with representative public opinion surveys and research, its deep understanding of political context, and its history in elections programming will help future work in the country and aid efforts to maintain a peaceful election. IRI is once again ready to support Sierra Leone to conduct free, fair, and transparent elections and to further sustainable, democratic development.

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