Contributed by Ben Alsdurf.
For Sierra Leone’s upcoming November elections the incumbent president Ernest Bai Koroma of the All Peoples Congress (APC) looks to be the favorite. While the social impacts of recent growth in Sierra Leone have yet to be fully realized at the local level, the President remains popular. His government has performed well attracting investment while increasing basic services such as electricity. With that said, the country remains at 180 out of 187 countries according to the UNDP’s Human Development Index (HDI). In addition, the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) has managed to pursue several noteworthy corruption cases, including against the mayor of Freetown, Herbert Akieremi George-Williams; however, lenient penalties and assertions of corruption within the commission itself have sullied its reputation.
Despite the relatively positive standing of Koroma, this year has not been without incident. In the spring there was controversy as one of the world’s 10 poorest nations purchased $4.5 million in arms for its police force, including some heavy weaponry. Furthermore, while the iron-ore mining sector is one of the primary growth engines for the country, frustrated workers went on strike at African Minerals Bumbuna mine in April. The skirmishes that resulted left one dead and more injured. Yet, in spite of these hurdles Koroma remains well poised to continue his presidency into a second term.
Meanwhile, the main opposition Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) has been struggling. The SLPP has suffered a series of defections to the APC this summer (some of whom may have returned), and its foundering has made an APC victory look more likely in November. To compound the internal party struggles, Julius Maada Bio, the candidate that the SLPP is fielding appears to be more of a throwback war hero than capable governor. Bio was one of the soldiers that overthrew President Momoh’s government in 1992, and formed the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC), led by Valentine Strasser. This past is getting drudged up by current government’s decision to investigate the deaths of suspected coup plotters during the NPRC’s rule. The move appears to be more of an election smear tactic than an attempt to pursue real justice.
In spite of the SLPP’s campaign struggles one unexpected variable threatens to derail the smooth ride of Koroma back to the State House, namely the recent cholera outbreak. Looking at the WHO’s map of cholera cases by district, it appears to overlay quite closely to the districts where President Koroma, and the APC, enjoyed strong support in 2007. While the international community is stepping in to provide additional resources to fight the worst outbreak of cholera in Sierra Leone’s recent history, two more months of an outbreak may put a strain on the very communities that have been supportive of Koroma in the past. This could situate Bio well to exploit the frustrations of urban slum dwellers and other particularly affected groups.
Election watchers should note how well the international response is able to stem the increase in new cholera cases and how the government’s response is perceived by affected communities in the run up to the election. In an insightful piece by the Economist’s Baobab blog, the authors note the connection between the cholera epidemic and the lack of basic services that can be attributed to popular support for corrupt politicians. The sad irony of this outbreak is that the pervasion of cholera, a disease that thrives in contaminated environments, is possible due to government corruption. As citizens become fed up with illness and insufficient sanitation that are literally killing them, the question is how long until they demand accountability.
It can be extremely difficult to track voter attitudes in a country without reliable polling data and notoriously partisan journalism, but the strong performance of the National Electoral Commission in the 2007 elections in the face of irregularities, established it as one of the more reliable government institutions. While it may be difficult to gauge support for either candidate in the lead up to the election, there is some sense that the result will be fair.
Beyond the election
Those looking to what a second Koroma administration might hold, should take heed that the events of the spring may foreshadow things to come in his second term, particularly as the iron-ore mines are situated in regions dominated by the president’s Temne ethnic group. In Sierra Leone, party membership has historically correlated quite strongly with ethnic identity. Thus, Koroma’s real test will be to distribute the benefits of Sierra Leone’s growth across the country. In addition, if the APC pulls off a strong electoral showing in the parliamentary races, observers should be wary of further defections to the APC. Further consolidation of power by the APC may harken back to the one-party APC state that ruled Sierra Leone from the late ’60s to the early ’90s.
If the SLPP pulls off a surprise victory in November, observers should not overlook two key political risks. The first is the question of transition of power. The APC’s victory in 2007 resulted in the first peaceful transition of power between political parties in Sierra Leone’s history. External pressures to maintain a functioning multiparty state are strong, with foreign assistance still comprising a majority of government revenue. However, with a history of coups and recalcitrant transitions, the prospect of the ruling party trying to hold onto power in spite of electoral defeat is still present.
The second and more salient issue relates to comments made this summer by Julius Maada Bio that he would renegotiate the iron ore mining deals that Koroma’s government has signed. In an interview in London he hinted that the interests of Sierra Leoneans were not adequately represented in the existing agreements. Expect a fair amount of market uncertainty around the mining industry as observers sort out election rhetoric from real intentions to shift policy.
This cholera epidemic will either serve as another reminder of the state of under-development in Sierra Leone, or as an opportunity for the government to display increased effectiveness in responding to the needs of its people. In either case, with the shadow of the civil war just 10 years ago, a well-run election and smooth transition of power in November will be important beyond just market stability.