UPDATED: Sierra Leone’s Peaceful Election Is Another Step Forward

Publication Date: 
19 Nov 2012

On Saturday, November 17, Sierra Leone held the country’s third presidential election since the decade-long civil war came to an end in 2002. The November 17 poll was also the first election that the National Electoral Commission (NEC) has taken a primary role in organizing and executing. Because the 2007 election was marred by violence, security was a main concern in this election. And as the country continues down the road to recovery, establishing the credibility of the electoral process was also a priority. IFES Regional Director for Africa Almami Cyllah and IFES Chief of Party in Sierra Leone Gray Mitchell answer some questions about Election Day and its aftermath.

How was the mood on Election Day?

On Election Day, we saw an enthusiastic population waiting in line to cast their ballots. Most polling stations opened on time at 7:00 a.m. While there were delays in areas around the country, reports are that all polling stations were open by 8:00 a.m. 

From a technical point of view, there were sufficient balloting materials and polling station staff. The NEC staff responded quickly to issues that arose throughout the day. 

As far as security is concerned, the election was largely peaceful. According to reports from provincial capitals outside Freetown, the streets were quiet. The queues to vote were long, but there were very few, if any, incidences of conflict. 

Please tell us more about the security situation.

Police personnel were present in most polling areas around the country. Only a few minor security problems have been reported. Also, the transportation ban that was announced by the NEC prior to the election seems to have been well respected, so only accredited vehicles were seen on the road.

How was turnout?

Voters were patient and stood in line in order to cast their ballots. While the lines were long, voters were processed in reasonable time. As of this writing, it is too soon to get an accurate reading of turnout around the country based on media reports, as NEC data and information is the only official source that should be recognized.

The country’s first biometric voter registration initiative was launched for this election. How did it affect the voting process?

There were some instances in which voters had voter ID cards, but their names could not be found on the voter list. There are a number of possible reasons for this.

One reason is that some voters were in the wrong lines or at the wrong polling stations. There were a number of polling stations per ward, and some wards contained many polling stations – in some cases, very close to one another. For some voters, there was confusion as to which polling station they were assigned to.

In addition, due to illiteracy, some voters were confused by the fact that their names were listed in alphabetical order by last name. A voter whose first name begins with A and whose last name begins with M may have mistakenly stood in the line for those whose last names start with the letter A – instead of standing in the M line. Many were discouraged when they got to the front of the wrong lines only to be told they had to begin queuing again in the appropriate line.  

Aside from these issues, a district capital with two polling stations reported a large number of voters with valid IDs whose names did not appear on the final voter list. By 1:00 p.m. senior NEC officials ordered polling station staff to process these groups immediately by manually recording the names and ID numbers of those voters. This was apparently a satisfactory solution. We received no other reports of that type.  

Overall, the process of identifying voters, once inside the station, was simpler and faster than in past elections. Voters reported that they cast the two sets of ballots (one set for president/MP, the second for mayor or local council chairperson and local councilors) very quickly and efficiently.

How was access for persons with disabilities?

While there were no specific accommodations for persons with disabilities, there was a high level of awareness among the voters to facilitate the voting process for the physically challenged. As a result, persons with disabilities, the elderly, pregnant women and nursing mothers were able to bypass the queues. It was a citizens’ effort, and many voters were seen helping persons with disabilities to access the polls.

On Friday, November 23, the All People’s Congress candidate, incumbent President Ernest Bai Koroma, was declared the winner of the 2012 presidential election in Sierra Leone.  What is the process for declaring, certifying and swearing in the new president?

Sections 52, 53 and 54 of the Public Election Act (PEA) of 2012 cover the procedures for declaring and certifying the results of the presidential election, and for assumption of office by the elected candidate.

On Friday, November 23, at around 6:00 p.m., the National Electoral Commission (NEC) Chairperson and Chief Electoral Officer Christiana Thorpe called a press conference in Sierra Leone’s capital city, Freetown, to announce the final results of the presidential election. By law, the NEC chairperson serves as the national returning officer who has the authority to declare and certify results. 

NEC Chairperson Thorpe certified that 1,314, 881 votes ( 58.7 percent of valid votes cast) were for the incumbent President Koroma.

The PEA of 2012 specifically states that the winner of the presidential election shall be sworn in on the same day that the certified results are announced by the national returning officer. President Koroma and his running mate, Vice President Samuel Sam-Sumana, were sworn into office shortly thereafter on Friday evening in a ceremony at State House presided over by Chief Justice Umu Tejan-Jalloh of the Supreme Court of Sierra Leone. 

What has been the main opposition party’s reaction to the declaration of the presidential results?

During the week of November 19, the main opposition party (the Sierra Leone People’s Party) released a statement raising concerns about “electoral irregularities” and “malpractices,” issues which the party reiterated in a November 24 statement signed by the party’s presidential candidate, Julius Maada Bio.

By law, any citizen of Sierra Leone may challenge the validity of the presidential election by petitioning the Supreme Court of Sierra Leone within seven days after the declaration of the presidential results. As of now, to our knowledge, the executive committee of the main opposition party is scheduled to meet on Tuesday, November 27, presumably (though this is not confirmed) to discuss their options, including further court action.

It should be noted that, while the domestic (National Elections Watch) and international observation teams (European Union, Economic Community of West African States, Commonwealth Observers, and the Carter Center) in Sierra Leone did document specific issues,  they overwhelmingly lauded the peaceful environment surrounding these elections.

How have Sierra Leoneans reacted in the days following the announcement of results? 

Some instances of localized conflict have occurred since the certified results were announced on November 23, most notably in and around the major cities and regional capitals of Bo and Kenema. Overall, however, the environment in Freetown and across most of the country has remained peaceful.

Have results been called for parliamentary and local council races?

Yes, they were announced on Monday and Tuesday (November 26 and 27). The NEC read them and certified them, but they have yet to release hard or soft copies of the results (photocopies of the certified results and postings to the NEC website), which is a part of the process. That is understandable at this point, however, since there are 112 seats in parliament and several hundred local council seats. It is therefore possible that the NEC is still in the process of updating its website and releasing hard copies.

When will the elected take office?

The elected officials can take the oath of office almost immediately after the final results have been certified and announced by NEC Chairperson and Chief Electoral Commissioner Christiana Thorpe, who serves as the national returning officer.   

Almami, as a native of Sierra Leone, what does this election mean to you?

Sierra Leoneans yearn for peace, good governance and the opportunity to exercise their God-given rights to choose their leaders in free, fair, transparent elections in which they can be free from fear. Choosing leaders who share the aspirations of the people and represent them justly is quite a milestone given where the “Mama Salone” [Sierra Leone] found herself several years ago. I am glad that this day has come and has progressed peacefully. I hope the final results reflect the will and voice of the people. I am quite encouraged, proud and full of admiration for the determination of the people of Sierra Leone, who stood in long lines to elect a president, members of parliament and other local government leaders for their country.