Sierra Leone : The Election Opportunity, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines the strains emerging prior to presidential and legislative elections and the impact they will have on the country’s delicate peace-building. Sierra Leone is still a fragile state in which peace will not be consolidated unless the new authorities tackle sources of popular discontent such as corruption, chiefs’ abuse of power and youth unemployment.
“The 2007 elections are a crucial opportunity for Sierra Leone to definitively turn its back on conflict,” says Carolyn Norris, Crisis Group’s West Africa Project Director. “But if the new administration does not start with a strong reform program, the population’s tolerance of bad governance and uneven economic development is unlikely to last much longer, and a return to conflict would be a real possibility.”
The ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) has split over the attempt of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, who won a landslide victory in 2002, to anoint his successor. This has heightened tensions in the party’s strongholds. Recent house burnings attributed to the division have not resulted in convictions, undermining confidence in the re-establishment of the rule of law.
While Sierra Leone is no longer a failed state, youth unemployment and disillusionment are serious threats, and core institutions remain untested. A customary law system in parallel to statutory law and the details of the electoral system leave traditional “Paramount Chiefs” with powers that are frequently abused in the countryside. Corruption in public service s is extensive, and the security and justice sectors still require several years of external oversight in order to become self-sustaining.
The new National Electoral Commission has started well and broadly inspires confidence, but allegations of fraud or malpractice must be adjudicated promptly and fairly. Coordination with the national police is needed to allow prompt reaction to security incidents. All political parties should instruct their officials that violence, and calls to violence, will be investigated and appropriately punished, and they should commit to a comprehensive post-election reform program. International partners, including the UK and the UN Peacebuilding Commission, will have to engage immediately with the new administration to make clear that tackling corruption is a prerequisite to long-term support.
“There are healthy signs of generational change within political parties,” says François Grignon, Crisis Group’s Director of Africa Program. “But whoever wins must commit to substantial government reforms to win back the population’s trust in the future of the country.”