By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Just after polls closed in Sierra Leone’s 7 March elections, heavily armed security operatives surrounded the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) headquarters in Freetown. With the benefit of hindsight, the powers that be likely got wind of former army general and SLPP presidential flagbearer Julius Maada Bio’s lead in the polls and imminent victory. Mr Bio won alright. But he did not secure enough votes to be declared the next president. He garnered 43.3 percent of votes cast, while the other leading contender, foreign minister Samura Kamara of the ruling All People’s Congress (APC) party secured 42.7 percent. Technocratic candidate and former United Nations’ under-secretary general Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella of the National Grand Coalition (NGC) had a surprisingly poor showing. It was a little astonishing that he was not able to secure up to 10 percent of the votes. Incidentally, while most of the other opposition parties have told their supporters to pitch their tents with Mr Bio, Mr Yumkella’s NGC decided it would allow its supporters choose for themselves. It is not unlikely that NGC supporters might still decide to vote for Mr Bio. Should that be the case, and assuming he is able to retain the 43 percent that voted for him in the first round, Mr Bio could easily coast to victory. It may not be that easy, though. There has been much drama since the first round election results were released. Sporadic violence since have barely been contained. Hopefully, the peace-building efforts of the international community and those of former African presidents from Nigeria, South Africa, and Ghana would bear fruit. But without a doubt, the atmosphere is reportedly tense.
There have been legal fireworks as well. After setting a date for the run-off vote for this Tuesday past, a High Court ruled that the National Electoral Commission (NEC) stop preparations, until an application by an APC member asking that the 27 March runoff poll be suspended due to irregularities in the one three weeks earlier, was dealt with. Before the order, the NEC had decided to proceed with preparations just in case. Afterwards, it had no choice but to put everything on hold. Not a tad think the ruling party desired that in the event it was not able to suspend the runoff vote, it could at least delay it. It succeeded. Because even as the High Court eventually ruled on 26 March that the polls could go ahead as planned the next day, it was the NEC that now had to crave the Supreme Court’s indulgence to be allowed a few more days to prepare. (The vote is now scheduled for 31 March.) Thus, it is not unlikely that the additional time might prove beneficial for the party in government. Understandably, the SLPP is antsy. There is no guarantee that Mr Bio would be able to secure as much votes as the last time, for instance. Besides, with the additional time and data on turnout and voting patterns, there is a lot the ruling APC could do via the authorities to weigh on turnout and indeed voting choices in opposition strongholds.
Incidentally, neighbouring Liberia had to conduct a runoff presidential poll in elections held some months ago as well. The ruling Unity Party (UP) candidate, Joseph Boakai, who was vice-president at the time, tried to similarly cause delays via the courts; albeit the legal move did not originally emanate from him. Unfortunately for him, he did not have the support of then President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Thus, there was no way state might could plausibly be brought to bear to influence the outcome in his favour. Not only did Ms Sirleaf not hide her aversion to Mr Boakai’s candidacy, she also did not hide her support for George Weah of the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) and winner of the first round poll. This is not the situation in the Sierra Leonean case. Mr Kamara is President Ernest Bai Koroma’s hand-picked successor. That is even as it is widely believed he did not choose to leave office of his own volition. In other words, if it is possible for Mr Koroma to influence the polls in favour of Mr Kamara, it is not improbable that he might attempt to do so. There is clearly widespread disillusionement with the Koroma administration, however; in the capital Freetown, at least. But considering the small margin by which Mr Bio won the first round, and the almost 10 percent of the voting population still open to persuasion, a potential Bio victory would likely be hard-won.