With Elections Fast Approaching, There Are Clear Signs That Sierra Leone’s Political Discourse Is Growing Up

March 7 2018 is D-day for Sierra Leone’s electorate. The country will go to the polls and vote for new representatives – MPs, mayors, councillors, district council chairs and of course, a president who will determine our future for the next five years.

Sierra Leone has had over a decade and a half of peace, nevertheless when we hold elections, the rest of the world still looks at us warily. To a certain extent they have a point – the stability, reputation and growth of our very fragile economy depends on us getting it right.

On the face of it, Sierra Leone’s political landscape is still dominated by a mixed bag of Machiavellian smear tactics, party switching politicians, vote buying and overblown rhetoric. Underneath however there is the sense that Sierra Leoneans expect more from these elections than the usual ethnic politics; and there have been notable efforts by civil society organisations, the media, the voting public and some candidates to reconfigure the discourse with genuine political information.

Here are some of our very best examples:

Launched in July 2017, the Citizens’ Manifesto for Sierra Leone is the first time that the voice of the electorate has been coordinated in this way. It is intended to allow the priorities and expectations of ordinary people to feed into political party manifestos and the electoral process. Over 700 organisations and thousands of ordinary Sierra Leoneans participated, and the final document is a compelling cry for a better quality of governance.
Among the tsunami of below average political journalism in Sierra Leone, AYV TV stands out for the quality of its offering. Its Sierra Leone Decides series which has regular interviews with our political aspirants, has become compulsory viewing for Sierra Leoneans in and out of the country. The cherry on the cake has to be the forthcoming Presidential Debate scheduled for 15 February, in which all the candidates are participating. It is not Sierra Leone’s first-ever such debate, but with AYV’s standard setting approach, it is sure to be a must-watch for anyone interested in the outcome of Sierra Leone’s Presidential elections.
Freetown is Sierra Leone’s capital city and the country’s economic, educational and manufacturing hub. It is home to over 14% of the country’s population, and comes with a complex set of challenges caused by rapid unplanned urbanisation. The recent mudslide and flooding in Freetown, which led to the loss of hundreds of lives has spotlighted the urgent need for a transformational mayor. This leads us to the Freetown Mayoral Candidates debate, which has the distinction of being the first of its kind. Organised by the local Sierra Eye magazine and the Institute for Governance Reform, it was intended to give Freetown’s residents the chance to make a more informed decision on polling day. All five candidates subjected themselves to the uncompromising moderating style of BBC journalist Umaru Fofana, and by all accounts it was a successful affair. Unfortunately, a live-streaming fail from their broadcast partners limited its reach, but it has prompted a serious media conversation about the candidates and their track records of delivery.
Social media, in particular WhatsApp, is an important news source for Sierra Leoneans home and abroad. The number of African governments that have blocked access to social media at politically sensitive times is growing and at one point, there were signs that our government’s love-hate relationship with Facebook, WhatsApp et al, would take us down the same path. Those fears have not been realised. Instead they continue to provide platforms for information, misinformation and very lively political debate.
An honourable mention has to be given to Radio Democracy 98.1 FM’s long running Good Morning Salone programme. Sierra Leone’s most popular news programme has a well-deserved reputation for making our politicians squirm. Its panel-style interviews and the generous time allocated to listener participation consistently show that those who govern our country can and should be publicly interrogated, challenged and held accountable. And any mention of Good Morning Salone wouldn’t be complete without recognising our politicians for giving the programme the respect it deserves.
Finally, on the subject of our politicians, the intensity of their interactions with the electorate is to be applauded. We’ve had well-considered manifestos, transparent community consultations, national tours, informative websites and mega media campaigns. One reason may be that Sierra Leone’s usual two-party stranglehold has been upset by the rise of Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella and the National Grand Coalition, but it is also true that some of our politicians believe that a more mature electoral dialogue will benefit the country’s development.
Our homegrown observers say the quality of political debate we’ve seen during these elections is unprecedented. Sierra Leone has had a troubled adolescence, but we can proudly say we already have three peaceful general elections behind us. These are indicative of the extent to which Sierra Leoneans want peaceful, democratic and informed development for our country, and now that we’ve started talking among ourselves, we can be proud of the quality of our conversation.