Watermelon Politics

Christina Stevens on the green-versus-red politics of the Sierra Leone election.
By: /
November 16, 2012
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You can hear them coming before you see them. They are blowing as hard as they can into whistles and yelling at the top of their lungs. The sound is piercing. Finally, around the corner comes a group of two-dozen motorbikes. The riders and passengers are wearing red, some head to toe. A red cape, like Superman’s, streams out behind one rider.

In Sierra Leone’s capital city, Freetown, thousands are converging on the All People’s Congress (APC) headquarters. It is a sea of red. A car has been parked across the road, its windows and doors open and its stereo blasting. Everyone is dancing, yelling. The ruling party’s leader, Ernest Bai Koroma, has been officially nominated for the presidential election, and for his supporters, it is a major cause for celebration.

Traffic grinds to a halt in the city, as does much of business.

Election season has taken hold of the country. When Sierra Leoneans take to the polls on Nov. 17, it will be the country’s third democratic election since the end of the devastating civil war in 2002. You see articles about little else in the newspapers, almost every radio show is talking politics, and the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation has added new TV shows dedicated to election coverage.

There are all kinds of public service announcements calling for calm during the campaign. Many people are saying much of the responsibility lies with the politicians and the kind of message they give to their supporters.

Political celebrations are going on all across Freetown and throughout the country. Another traffic-stopping street party played out a few days before the APC rally, but that time, everyone involved was wearing the bright green of Julius Maada Bio’s opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP). There have also been several smaller rallies for the 10 smaller parties vying for leadership.

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A group of youth with the organization Artists United for Children and Youth Development has created a popular music video to promote peaceful elections. Played constantly on television, the video follows a young girl through all different areas, carrying a box that simply says, “vote.”

The video’s singer/songwriter, Mohamed Samba Kamara (known as “Luxsonjay”), says he feels it is really making a difference, and that more and more people have registered to vote. “This video is there to make [young adults] understand that politics [is] not about fighting – it’s about dialogue,” he explains. “It is about putting issues on the floor, making sure that people vote on issues – not on tribes, not on region, not on religion, not on political colours, but political ideologies you believe in. It’s not about fighting, it’s not about bloodshed – it’s about issues that affect the ordinary lives of Sierra Leoneans.”

Kamara speaks, here, to the concern that much of the voting is done based on tribe, religion, and loyalty, rather than issues. This is a major challenge, and one that the media can take part in addressing. It is part of the media’s job to focus on issues rather than partisan points. The difficulty is in providing fair and balanced coverage.

Many (but not all) of the newspapers do nothing to hide their political biases, and are pretty much outright about who they support. In such papers, “news” articles – which should be neutral – are more like extremely slanted commentary or opinion pieces. However, among some media, there is an obvious effort to provide unbiased reporting, and the sheer quantity of coverage the election is receiving is heartening.

While optimistic, Sierra Leoneans are also somewhat cynical. The term “watermelon politics” comes up time and again – with two slightly different interpretations. A watermelon is green on the outside and red on the inside, and the two main parties’ colours are green and red. Some are using the term to talk about those supporters who come out to the rallies, saying they will rally for one of the parties one day but then vote for the other the next day. Others mean that politics, whether represented by green or red, is all the same in the end.

Also in the series

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The Tipping Point

Damon van der Linde on whether the election will be a tipping point into established democracy or renewed violence.
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Interesting but Risky

Martha Kargbo on what it's like to be a journalist covering the election.
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Keeping Elections Free and Fair

JHR's Executive Director Rachel Pulfer on how her organization has helped promote balanced coverage of the election in Sierra Leone.
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Sparkle and Splinters

Rosalind Raddatz on why Sierra Leone’s resource wealth has yet to change its people’s fortunes.
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Brave Reporting

Bob Press on the key role journalists play in defending democracy and human rights in Africa.
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One Eye on the Ballot

Ato Kwamena Dadzie reflects on experiences working on radio in Ghana.

Business as Usual?

Edward Akuffo on whether or not the upcoming elections in Ghana and Sierra Leone will mean fundamental change.