Sierra Leone’s presidential election threatens to heighten ethnic tensions

The tensions and violence tied to the 2018 Sierra Leone election suggest the country is entering into a precarious political period as people vote today in the second round of the presidential election.

The sporadic violence and appeals to tribalism ahead of the 2018 election were a significant setback for the country, less than two decades after it saw the end of one of Africa’s most brutal civil wars.

“Checkpoints went up around the city head of the election, and I’m concerned what that could mean,” said Mohammed Brock, a Freetown native who works as an office manager.

Others worry the elections could signal more violence in the future. The second round of the election was delayed until Sunday following a supreme court injunction tied to accusations from the ruling All People’s Congress of voter fraud.

Such issues have concerned international election observers such as former Ghanaian President John Mahama, who led the observer mission from the Commonwealth.

“Our initial report includes discussions of the layout of the polling stations, access to polling stations, the voting process, the counting procedures,” he told The Defense Post in an interview ahead of the second round of voting.

“I discussed the issue with the Secretary-General and during the press conference for our mission. The final report will be made available after the second-round of voting. After it is presented to Secretary-General Patricia Scotland, it will be made available to the public.”

In January, a pre-election protest turned into a riot led by supporters of the ruling All People’s Congress and its President Koroma. At least one person was killed. Koroma’s main accomplishments in office include obtaining Chinese funding for a road and airport project.

Outgoing President Ernest Bai Koroma of the All People’s Congress selected Samura Kamara as his successor. His challenger in the runoff is Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party. Bio is a former brigadier general in the Sierra Leone army, and was a key figure in the various coups and barracks intrigue during the 1990s. He was also the country’s de jure head of state for less than two months in that decade.

The two parties have dominated Sierra Leone’s formal politics since the former British colony gained independence in 1991. Bio won the first-round March 7 election with 43.4 percent of the vote compared to Kamara’s 42.7 percent. However, the constitution requires the winning presidential candidate receive 55 percent of the vote.

The injunction, ruling party harassment of the opposition and other factors are worrying and could suggest a return to violence without strong international support for democracy in the country.

Sierra Leone was the site of brutal civil war which lasted from 1991 to 2002. The West African country became a geopolitical concern for countries as diverse as Libya and the United Kingdom, which launched a military intervention in in 2000 in an effort to end the conflict.

The conflict cost over 75,000 lives and internally displaced half of the country’s 4.5 million residents. It also caused half-a-million Sierra Leoneans to become refugees abroad, and many have yet to return nearly two decades after the violence ended. Little-noticed at the time, the conflict has continued to intrigue Hollywood filmmakers, and international musicians have often drawn inspiration from the conflict – not least because of its iconic use of child soldiers.

The conflict partly grew out of a mix of factors – a political system dominated by tribal politics, the geological distribution of diamonds close to the surface, the willingness of international actors like Burkina Faso and Libya to support the main rebel group, the now defunct Revolutionary United Front.

“Competition further widened the ethnic or political divide between the majority Mendes in the south and east and the majority Temnes and Limbas in the north,” Sim Turay, the former head of Sierra Leone’s intelligence, wrote ahead of the election in a blog post that sought to describe the conditions which sparked the civil war, “as political leaders tended to provide jobs for members of their ethnic group and other ethnic groups that form their political base.”

Mohammed Brock’s description of voting patterns in the recent election suggests little has changed in Sierra Leone’s politics today.

“The election results, as in the past, will further entrench tribalism. Some people will stay with a party out of tribal loyalty and the hope … they will have access to positions, contract or employment. They are not voting in the best interests of the country,” he said.

Other observers continue to remain concerned that, despite the election outcome, the tribal appeal and election violence could continue after the ballots are collected. Incidents of violence against supporters of both sides have continued sporadically since the first round of the election. It is unclear, however, to what extent this violence is being organized by the country’s political elites.

A renewed civil war could easily attract international jihadists this was not a factory in the civil war. Sierra Leone it is worth noting is eighty percent Muslim. However, the geopolitics of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) region has changed. The region has seen a surprising outbreak of jihadist attacks in recent years, with a growing insurgency in Burkina Faso and a spectacular attack in the Ivory Coast in 2016.

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