Authorities in Sierra Leone are accelerating measures to keep peace to ensure an orderly presidential runoff election on Saturday. The effort is being taken following outbreaks of violence in the capital, Freetown over the weekend and in eastern voter strongholds last week. Africa policy analyst Nii Akuetteh is a political organizer of African communities here in the United States. From Washington, DC, he says the stakes are high for the West African country’s ability to ensure a peaceful civilian transition of leadership that will strengthen democratic procedures and institutions.
“Many people will not agree with me. But I think the whole thing is huge. I think it’s the most important thing, because if you can establish a stable democracy, then all the economic issues that are of concern to people can be discussed. Different options can be debated. Different sets of people can be elected to try their solutions. If it doesn’t work, you bring in another set. Many people think that you should forget about democracy, especially in third world countries, to make their economies grow. What they don’t address is, ‘Who’s going to make the economy grow?’ I believe that democracy comes first,” he said.
Akuetteh sees Saturday’s runoff contest between current Vice President Solomon Berewa of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) and Ernest Bai Koroma of the All People’s Congress (APC) as a test of whether the West African country can accomplish a orderly transition of power and avoid a renewal of the civil strife in which more than 50-thousand citizens lost their lives between 1993 and 2002. Only six percentage points separated the two candidates in last month’s first round of presidential voting, with challenger Koroma holding a 44 to 38 percent lead over Berewa. Akuetteh says regional and ethnic factors may be tied to the violence rather than simply candidate rivalry.
“When you look at the history of Sierra Leone, one of the factors is what might be called regionalism and sometimes ethnic issues. The APC, for instance, has a strong base in the north. SLPP has a strong base in the south. So when a particular candidate gets attacked, you have to look at the regional factors that play a role. I don’t think it’s so much the results. I mean, the results matter because when you’re that close, and unfortunately, in underdeveloped countries, the elections are almost like a winner take all. So the stakes are very high and people throw everything into it,” he said.
By showing a serious commitment to eschew and abstain from violence, Akuetteh says, Sierra Leoneans can raise their prospects for economic development and raise their standard of living from an impoverished, war-wracked society. He suggests the remaining days of campaigning will see a minimized amount of flare-ups.
“Frankly, my strong belief is that it will be a minority of party hacks who will instigate the violence. And I hope that the vast majority of Sierra Leoneans will bring those renegades to their senses and that it doesn’t become a serious problem,” he said.