The Tipping Point
Blood diamonds, child soldiers, and the ravages of a decade-old civil war still shape international perceptions of Sierra Leone, and the country’s third post-war election could be a tipping point into established democracy or renewed violence.
The violent chapter in Sierra Leone’s past was again brought to the forefront of international attention in May 2012, when the Special Court for Sierra Leone sentenced former Liberian president, Charles Taylor, to 50 years in prison for instigating war crimes.
Scars from the civil war have yet to fully heal, and dependence on foreign aid remains high. The health-care sector, for instance, still receives 60 per cent of its budget from international donations. And with the upcoming elections only a few weeks away, there is an understandable fear of returning to conflict.
Sierra Leone currently has two leading political parties: the All People’s Congress (APC), and the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP). These parties began to vie for power soon after independence from Britain in 1961, and have continued to do so ever since. Insurance-executive-turned-politician Ernest Bai Koroma has been president since 2007, and his closest contestant is Julius Maada Bio, who was a junta leader during the wartime coup.
It is too early to predict either the success of the election process or the results. The political parties are holding rallies daily, according to a rotating schedule of dates and locations that specifies where they are permitted to campaign. The idea is to keep distance between political rivals in order to avoid clashes on the streets. This tactic has been largely successful so far, although one small clash broke out in the contested diamond-rich district of Kono weeks before the vote.
The focus of national politics is shifting to international investment, predominantly in Sierra Leone’s burgeoning mining sector. This is a logical development: One of the fastest-growing economies in the world, Sierra Leone’s success is largely due to the recent resumption of exporting iron ore. Diamond mining – an industry over which groups fought violently during the civil war – has expanded in peacetime, with investment from companies such as Canadian-owned Calone Mining. Increased international investment has not meant that life for average Sierra Leoneans has dramatically improved, but the population has been steadily climbing up from the bottom of the Human Development Index over the past decade.
Perhaps ironically, if anything is threatening the peacefulness of these elections, it is the ruthless determination of both the APC and SLPP to govern a nation that is finally becoming viewed as a stable place to do business.
Today, local journalists must walk a fine line between moving beyond an increasingly distant civil war and exercising caution to avoid reporting that could incite violence during the sensitive election period.
With high unemployment and low wages, many local journalists find it difficult to disseminate objective information to the voting public and navigate the clear biases imposed by media houses. Sierra Leone now enjoys a relatively high level of press freedom, but has few mechanisms to address libel, slander, or inflammatory reporting. Some publications are beginning to lash out against any media or public figure that doesn’t share their views.
On the front lines, the safety of journalists can be unpredictable. Over the past year, there have been several violent clashes between party supporters and police, and tensions are rising as the vote draws nearer.