I owe you profound apologies that in the last fortnight I have been unable to bring to you my thoughts on issues through this column in the fortnight gone by. The reason has been very circumstantial. This will be compensated for by a daily dose throughout this week. If my apology is accepted, then we can look at the latest in our democratic journey.
With no diffidence of indifference I have to admit that of the not too many national institutions I profoundly respect is the National Electoral Commission. This is as much for the reasonable efficiency they have exhibited as it is for the high esteem I hold some of their staff at, not least at the top echelons. Their handling of the last general elections, in my view, was a classic show of patriotism. And I dare say that even without the word “independent” they exhibited sanctimonious neutrality.
When one considers what happened in Kenya following the December elections, and what is currently underway in Zimbabwe, we can hold our heads up high, thanks in part to the ordinary Sierra Leonean who allowed peace to reign, and to the country’s leadership at the time; but also to the electoral commission for being stern and forthright.
It is with awe therefore that in spite of that feat, NEC is entangling one of its feet. There is a bit of arrogance displayed by the commission in relation to and relating with the people, most times putting up a whether-you-like-it-or-not attitude. During the August and September presidential and legislative elections last year, we grudgingly accepted NEC’s explanation, however warped at times at the time, for keeping us for weeks to announce the results. But the gross disregard to reasoning they exhibited in the recent by-elections is galling to say the least.
The commission said it needed a whole week to announce results for elections held in Freetown, Port Loko, Makeni and Mambolo and its environs. Perhaps besides the last one, the other constituencies are in urban areas. So the excuse that permeated the announcement of results in the general elections – bad roads and the attendant logistical nightmare – did not hold water this time. In such urban areas collating results should be as easy as eating ripe banana.
The commission gave as reason for the delay that they were busy with municipal and local council elections scheduled for July. Bullocks! Even in Zimbabwe, whose infrastructure is problematic, people were impatient that results were not announced just ONE day after the polls. When Mali voted last year, all the results were in, in no time. The same in Benin and Senegal and even in Liberia where the infrastructure was almost non-existent.
Put this to the electoral commission, they’d start explaining like an adulterous man caught by his wife in a guest house – trying to put up a defence that can only be more offending. Statements by NEC officials saying “we are doing our job well”, “we are not answerable to so and so” are as common as potholes on Signal Hill Road.
Also contentious is the boundary delimitation for the forthcoming local council elections. Agreed that there is, generally, problem in drawing the borders for constituencies or wards. And it is not limited to our neck of the wood. During a recent videoconference organised by the US embassy in Freetown, an American political science professor, Stephen Farnsworth admitted that it is a problem even in the world’s leading democracy, the United States. Complaints therefore by one political party or another should be treated with respect and not just shrugged off. For some reason, the ruling APC party, which had some of its MPs opposed to some of the boundaries, now has an apparently united front versus the opposition SLPP. That is probably not dramatic. But the merits of the grievances should be treated with dignity.
And NEC officials defending their commission’s position must not whinge that they are being challenged. It may be irreversible now but it has to be pointed out that we all claim to be serving the country’s interest in whatever we do; never mind who does so sincerely. But it should be reflected by way of showing and not only saying it.
By the way what happened to the NEC commissioner, Western Area, Daphne Olu-Williams? She was appointed to the National Insurance Corporation which she turned down. I hear that even before she could state her job priority, she had been replaced at the commission. Many of us stood by the APC when appointments into the electoral commission looked suspect in the run up to the 2002 elections. We did that in the interest of democratic furtherance. And if we see things that bear the hallmark of a compromised commission, we owe it to strike a note of warning, especially with unchecked demotions and sackings of NEC officials immediately following the September elections. Curiously, the sacked officials included someone whose performance had been given a clean bill of health, just weeks before.
Back to the local council elections: I drove through Port Loko on that fateful day. For the first time in decades we were organising by-elections. A great achievement that our democracy can be seen to be working so smoothly. One begins to ask why NEC did not organise by-elections at the local council levels after several changes/dismissals/resignations there.
But in Port Loko on 29 March in what looked like the aftermath of a military takeover, I saw at least two pick-up vans with people clad in black with bandannas tied around their head cruising and raising dust in the town. On finding out later on, I was told by some senior police officers based in the town that they were members of a Task Force allied to the APC. This is abhorrent and raises questions about the political morals, if any, of our political class. That supporters of a party that shouted its uvula out crying intimidation against it in 2002, much of which was true, can seek to sink so low, is shocking.
In all this, which some officials of the Political Parties Registration Commission (PPRC) have attested to seeing themselves, the commission has not named and shamed those shaming our democracy. If politicians could condescend so low in a by-election in areas not in much contest anyway, what can they not do in an election where the stakes are much higher? And the foolish youth who have not learned from what has befallen those who were in their shoes just a few months ago for the SLPP party, are still naively carrying out dirty jobs for people who do not genuinely care for them at all.
The PPRC did a spectacular job in naming and somehow shaming those parties and candidates that did not make their balance sheets available following the general elections, which is not something you see happen often in Africa. But their apparent reticence over what had the potential to breach the peace by a political party almost amounts to condoning it.
The politicians, rather than voter-educate and mobilise chose to embark on gimmicks threatening to our peace and quiet. Have our politicians, across the board, bothered to ask themselves why the low turnout when just six months earlier people were sacrificing everything else but their voting right? We must strive to shake off the shackles of the dark past for a clear present and a bright future. By Umaru Fofana