Blow Salone, Blow!

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The BBC, the Associated Press, Reuters, and other news outlets are reporting that Sierra Leone’s National Elections Commission (NEC) has declared Ernest Bai Koroma, a former insurance company executive and leader of the opposition All People’s Congress (APC), the winner of last week’s runoff election. Mr. Koroma took 54.6% of the vote while the ruling party’s candidate and incumbent Vice President, Solomon Berewa, got 45.4% of the more than 1.5 million votes cast. Despite clashes between party loyalists and accounts of fraud and other “irregularities” at some polling stations, the elections were declared free, fair, and credible by the NEC and international observers. The runoff election was held after August’s prelimary election yielded an inconclusive result. Despite legal and rhetorical challenges mounted by the incumbent Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah conceded defeat and congratulated Ernest Koroma on winning the presidency. Sierra Leoneans can relax—or blow, as we say in Krio—now that this election season has come to an end.

Traditionally, election time in Sierra Leone is a period of violence, curfews, and general unease. Growing up in the capital, Freetown, I remember the palpable feeling of dread that would descend on the city whenever elections were held. It was not uncommon for supporters of the various candidates to openly clash in the streets; looking back, though, I have no idea what the clashes were about. After all, the APC was the only legitimate party. But as a kid, there was no space in my mind for contemplating the intricacies of Sierra Leonean politics; there was plenty of space for fear, however. Back then, it was not uncommon for people to be beaten or killed, simply for supporting  the wrong candidate in the wrong part of town. In the provinces, elections were an even more gruesome business. Supporters of one candidate would attack villages—and often kill the inhabitants—for committing no greater crime than pledging their support to a rival candidate or for living in the wrong candidate’s stronghold. In those days, Sierra Leonean politicians preferred to kill their rivals’ supporters rather than try to win them over.

As if the open violence weren’t bad enough, we children were warned to be indoors before nightfall as there were constant reports of children going missing and of bodies being discovered sans genitalia or other organs. Apparently, human parts were essential components of the juju rituals performed by political partisans to ensure their candidate’s victory in elections. None of us kids wanted to end up emasculated or eviscerated so, for the duration of the election period, we made sure to be home (or at the very least indoors) before dark.

For its part, the government of then-President Siaka Stevens did nothing to alleviate our fear and paranoia. On the contrary, government curfews, roadblocks, and checkpoints greatly contributed to the general sense of unease in Freetown. Rather ironically, election season was the worst time for political activity and demonstrations were brutally put down by the police and the army. In case anyone had trouble remembering who was in charge, Siaka Stevens made sure that his entire arsenal—the basis of his power—was constantly and prominently displayed throughout the country. In those days, I felt that anyone who got involved in politics was insane, but many people did anyway. No doubt some hoped to bring about a change for the better. Others, I am certain, merely hoped to carve a larger piece of the pie for themselves.

Thankfully, the 2007 elections went off without much of the anticipated violence but with perhaps more than a little of the expected irregularities. Ballot boxes were stuffed and swapped, ballot forms were forged, and ghost voters did cast many a vote—in some areas, ballot tallies exceeded 100% of registered voters. Nonetheless, in the final analysis, the 2007 elections may provide the faintest glimmer of light at the end of a long, dark tunnel of oppression, corruption, and violence. Even if the new APC government turns out to be as rotten and ineffectual as its predecessor, the relative peacefulness of the recent elections raises the possibility that, after years of war, Sierra Leoneans might have finally realized that violence has no place in the political process. That realization is, by itself, a major victory for the Sierra Leonean people.

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