By Abdul Rashid Thomas
As Sierra Leone continues to slide towards anarchy, following the conclusion of presidential and general elections held on 23 June 2023, which election observers say were significantly marred by electoral malpractices, the US based Carter Centre has published its final report into the conduct of the elections and the results.
According to the report published yesterday, “the final results announced by the ECSL do not appear to reflect the will of the people as expressed at the ballot box.”
This conclusion by The Carter Centre supports the view held by the country’s main opposition APC party and millions of Sierra Leoneans, that president Bio should step down and allow fresh elections to be held.
President Bio cannot be seen nor recognised as the legitimate president of a country that is now deeply divided along tribal and regional lines, threatening the peace and stability of not only its people but the entire West African region because of stolen votes.
Since the conclusion of the June 23rd elections, President Bio has continued to commit serious human rights violations against the leaders and supporters of the main opposition APC party, including the extra-judicial killing and detention without trial, of hundreds of people, mainly of northern ethnic origin – the main opposition APC heartland, following what the government has described as an attempted coup on 26 November 2023.
The former President – Ernest Bai Koroma, is under house arrest without charge of any offence, though the government says it is in regard to the alleged attempted coup of November 26, 2023, which critics believe was stage managed by President Bio himself to frame opposition APC leaders and supporters.
The Carter Centre also says that “regardless of whether any future election reform takes place, it is important to ensure that those who have undermined democracy in Sierra Leone are held accountable,” including the wife of President Bio, who substantial video evidence shows, was calling on people in the South of the country to prevent the main opposition APC from campaigning in that region which is her ruling SLPP party stronghold, leading to the burning down of APC party offices and brutal violence against their supporters.
The Carter Centre concludes in its report that “While the years leading up to the 2023 elections were marked by positive changes to the electoral legal framework — including the introduction of affirmative action measures to promote women’s political participation and the revocation of a controversial libel law — the pre-election period was marked by disputes around the census and voter registration process, threats against civil society, and protests that resulted in deaths and the detention of political prisoners. Attempts by political parties to have complaints addressed neutrally and effectively in the pre-election period were unsuccessful.
“While voting was conducted largely according to procedure and in a peaceful manner, there were some isolated disturbances on election day. Most importantly, The Carter Center found that the tabulation of votes was conducted in an atmosphere that lacked transparency. Carter Center observers directly witnessed multiple instances of irregularities during this stage of the process.
“In addition, the NEW’s PRVT exercise showed with statistically relevant data that the SLPP’s Bio obtained the most votes, but not enough to avoid a runoff election. NEW’s data highlights other inconsistencies, including in turnout and invalid votes. When combined with the Carter Center’s observation of irregularities during tabulation, NEW’s statistical data suggests the final results announced by the ECSL do not appear to reflect the will of the people as expressed at the ballot box.
“To date (December 2023), the ECSL has not been responsive to calls to release results by polling station in accordance with international best practice. The Carter Center also notes that there are important variances in the presidential results compared to the parliamentary elections, particularly in turnout and invalid votes.
“Another serious concern reported by Carter Center observers was that the immediate post-election period was characterized by an atmosphere of intimidation and deliberate misinformation to discredit election observers.
“International and national observers were summoned and questioned by the Office of National Security (ONS), contributing to a decision by The Carter Center to leave the country. Many members of the public have raised questions regarding the independence of the judiciary, and parties that have electoral complaints do not trust the judiciary to give them a fair and impartial hearing.
“Overall, The Carter Center does not have confidence that the published results of the June 24, 2023, national elections reflect the will of the people of Sierra Leone. While discussion around electoral reform is always welcome in a democratic society in the period between elections, it is critical that any future reform effort in Sierra Leone be genuinely inclusive. The Carter Center also notes that regardless of whether any future election reform takes place, it is important to ensure that those who have undermined democracy in Sierra Leone are held accountable.”
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY OF THE REPORT
The Carter Center was honored to observe the June 24, 2023, elections in Sierra Leone, with voters casting ballots for president, members of parliament, city mayors, and local councilors. The elections – the fifth general elections in the country since the end of the decade-long civil war – were an important opportunity to further consolidate Sierra Leone’s democracy.
Unfortunately, the 2023 national elections proved to be a significant setback for Sierra Leone’s fragile democracy and an important warning to other democracies in the region. The years leading up to the elections were marked by some important democratic advancements. The government dispensed with both the death penalty and criminal libel provisions that had historically been used to intimidate the press and civil society.
Important legislation was passed establishing affirmative action measures to promote women’s political participation. However, a national census and subsequent voter registration process were questioned by opposition parties and some in civil society. Civic space in the period leading up to the elections was restrictive.
Protests in August 2022 over economic conditions took on an anti-government character, and clashes between protesters and security forces led to deaths and the detention of political prisoners. Sierra Leoneans nonetheless came out in substantial numbers on election day, waiting patiently despite delays and demonstrating their determination to exercise their franchise, ultimately casting votes in an atmosphere that was largely peaceful.
Voting was conducted according to procedure. While election day itself was generally well administered, there were important irregularities and a significant lack of transparency during the tabulation process that severely undermined the credibility of the results announced by the Electoral Commission for Sierra Leone (ECSL).
Barring the release of more information that can be assessed and verified, it is difficult to ascertain what the will of the people of Sierra Leone expressed on election day was. The Carter Center observed significant irregularities during the tabulation process at all five of the tabulation centers in the country. However, The Carter Center was not granted sufficient access to fully observe data entry operations at the tabulation centers.
In addition, Carter Center observers directly witnessed inappropriately open ballot boxes with cut seals in three tabulation centers. The National Election Watch (NEW), a domestic observation organization, conducted a process and results verification for transparency (PRVT) exercise that also raised serious questions about the presidential results’ credibility, particularly when weighed alongside the Carter Center’s direct observations in the five tabulation centers.
The Carter Center also notes that there were substantial variances between the presidential results and the parliamentary elections, particularly in turnout and invalid votes. Overall, therefore, The Carter Center does not have confidence that the results of the June 24, 2023, national elections reflect the will of the people of Sierra Leone.
The Carter Center called on the Electoral Commission for Sierra Leone (ECSL) to release election results at the polling station level to enable the cross-checking of results, consistent with widely recognized and well- established practice for good elections. However, at the time of this report (December 2023), six months after the elections, polling station level results still had not been released.
Given the variances in the results and the violations of the integrity of ballot boxes, The Carter Center is not confident that if the ECSL ever publishes polling station results it will be possible to credibly resolve any discrepancies with results recorded by party agents and other observers.
The APC, the largest opposition party in parliament and the primary opponent of the SLPP’s incumbent president, lacked faith in the independence of the judiciary and chose not to officially challenge the results announced by the ECSL.
Concerns about the judiciary’s independence are widely shared, and parties that have electoral complaints do not trust the judiciary to provide a fair and impartial hearing. The immediate post-election period was characterized by an atmosphere of intimidation and misinformation to discredit election observers.
International and national observers were threatened by the Office of National Security (ONS), which contributed to the Carter Center’s decision to quickly leave the country after the election. Election reform to strengthen Sierra Leone’s legal framework in advance of future elections is required to significantly enhance their credibility. It is especially important for reforms to include a legal provision that requires the ECSL to publish final results by polling station to facilitate their independent verification.
While election reform is important, equally important is the enforcement of current law and ensuring accountability for anyone who undermined Sierra Leone’s electoral process. Any persons who tampered with the tabulation process should be held accountable.
In many respects, Sierra Leone’s legal framework is conducive to the conduct of democratic elections. Important revisions were made to the legal framework in advance of the 2023 elections, including the introduction of a requirement that 30% of a party’s candidates should be women and the repeal of a portion of the Public Order Act that had criminalized libel and defamation, and sedition.
However, while a new Cyber Security and Crime Act introduced in 2021 was perceived as progressive by some, many interlocutors in the media and civil society noted the law introduced significant new restrictions on freedom of expression online.
While recent elections had been conducted via a first-past-the-post electoral system, in late 2022 President Kamara took a controversial decision that the 2023 national elections would be conducted under a proportional representation system. The decision to change key aspects of the electoral system was taken less than a year before the next election and without broad stakeholder input. Although the decision was challenged, it was upheld by Sierra Leone’s Supreme Court.
In addition, electoral constituency boundaries were delimited following a political compromise based on a mix of data from 2016 (compiled when the APC was in power) and a 2021 census (conducted by the SLPP government). Decisions taken regarding the electoral system and boundary delimitation were not widely understood by citizens and were largely made without public input.
The ECSL is composed of a chairperson and five commissioners representing Sierra Leone’s five regions, with five of the six current commissioners appointed by the SLPP government that was in power from 2018 to 2023. Administration of the elections was characterized by a lack of communication and transparency that undermined public confidence in the ECSL and its work.
While the SLPP expressed confidence in the ECSL, most opposition parties – including the APC, the largest opposition party in parliament going into the 2023 elections – expressed a lack of confidence in the ECSL’s independence and capacity. Importantly, the ECSL commissioners declined to meet with The Carter Center while its international election observation mission was deployed in Sierra Leone.
The 2023 elections were the second to be conducted in Sierra Leone following a legislative change that provided for the voter registry to be extracted from a civil registry through cooperation between the ECSL and the National Civil Registry Authority (NCRA).
A total of 3,374,258 persons appeared on the final voter registry for the 2023 elections. The Carter Center notes that the APC contested the validity of the voter registry in the courts, claiming there had been an unreasonable increase in the number of voters in SLPP strongholds and decreases in APC strongholds.
The Carter Center did not observe the voter registration process in advance of the 2023 elections and therefore cannot assess that process nor the integrity of the voter registry used for the elections. However, The Carter Center noted on election day that in 55% of polling stations observed, voters’ pictures on the registry were inadequate for identification purposes.
The Center also noted that voters at some polling stations reported that while they were registered at a polling station, their names could not be found on the copy of the Final Registration Roll that was provided to polling staff.
As in past elections in Sierra Leone, the Carter Center noted that both the requirement that candidates for election resign from civil servant positions 12 months prior to elections and the prohibition against independent candidates for the presidency served to undermine the right to participate in public affairs.
The Center also noted that political parties did not disclose their candidate lists for the public. While candidates did campaign and actively solicited voters’ support, the switch to proportional representation meant that, given the absence of the candidate list, the public could not know for sure where candidates appeared on the list. Final candidate lists for parliamentary elections were only gazetted four days prior to the elections, and the lists for local elections were not available until after the elections.
The campaign period was dominated by debates about the financial situation of the country and legal complaints filed regarding the elections and in particular the quality of the voter list. While there were reports of intimidation and election-related violence targeting both of the main parties, Carter Center observers reported a pattern of intimidation directed against the APC, particularly in the south and east, which undermined the party’s ability to exercise its right to freedom of assembly in some cases.
Despite serious limitations and violations of the right of assembly in the run-up to election day, and restrictions on campaigning by political parties, contestants were able to exercise fundamental freedoms and conduct their campaigns.
Participation of Women
After years of advocacy, Sierra Leone introduced a requirement, mandated under the historic 2022 Gender Empowerment and Women’s Equality Act (GEWE), that women must be at least 30% of the candidates on a given party’s list. Although the passage of this act was widely applauded, the late publication of candidate lists in the 2023 elections made it difficult to assess its application and impact. Women made up 37% of the total candidates in the 2023 elections for parliament and currently hold 19% of parliamentary seats.
However, The Carter Center was unable to verify allegations that political parties identified some male candidates as female on their lists during the candidate nomination period as a way to evade the new law and ensure the acceptance of their lists.
While the passage of the 2022 law was a historic step, more needs to be done to address social barriers and support the full realization of women’s right to equal political participation.
Transparency provided by election observation is an important component of electoral integrity. Election observation is a widely recognized form of citizen participation in public affairs and a crucial transparency measure to promote confidence in the electoral process. In Sierra Leone, the National Election Watch (NEW), a Sierra Leonean nonpartisan civil society organization, conducted a long-term, nonpartisan, nationwide observation of the entire electoral process, deploying 6,000 citizen observers on election day and covering all polling centers.
NEW conducted an important process and results verification for transparency (PRVT) exercise, also known as a parallel vote tabulation (PVT). The PRVT indicated that while SLPP’s Bio obtained the most votes, no candidate secured enough votes to avoid a runoff election. NEW’s data from polling station results collected on election night revealed other discrepancies with ECSL data regarding figures for turnout and invalid votes.
Overall, NEW’s PVT data suggested that the presidential election results announced by the ECSL were not consistent with the data gathered by NEW, nor the will of the people as expressed at the ballot box on election day. Following NEW’s release of its PRVT data highlighting discrepancies with ECSL’s presidential results, NEW and members of its leadership faced increased harassment and death threats, leading to the ultimate evacuation of several key members.
The Carter Center strongly condemns these threats and the harassment of nonpartisan citizen observers. Further, The Carter Center is confident that NEW’s observation work around the elections was conducted within the law and in accordance with international standards, and commends NEW for its contribution to Sierra Leone’s democracy.
The vote was conducted in 3,630 polling centers comprising 11,832 polling stations nationwide. Over the course of election day on June 24, 2023, The Carter Center observed polling in every district in the country.
Voting took place in a generally peaceful environment, although there were isolated disturbances in several areas. The morning of the election saw long lines at the polls, particularly in Freetown, as the ECSL worked to deal with shortages of polling materials.
Citizens demonstrated remarkable patience, and when voting got underway, on the whole the process went smoothly. The polling environment was assessed as very good or reasonable in 100% of polling stations observed by The Carter Center, and observers reported that they had full access to the polling stations and were allowed to observe all aspects of the process.
Key parts of the tabulation process were conducted in a manner that lacked transparency. The Carter Center directly observed irregularities during the tabulation process, including inappropriately open ballot boxes.
Calls for increased transparency during the tabulation process went unheeded. The tabulation process and immediate post-election period was marked by unfortunate incidents of violence and unrest, including the use of live ammunition and tear gas on June 25, 2023, at the APC political party headquarters in Freetown while senior party officials were inside.
The Carter Center does not have confidence that the results of the presidential election reflect the will of people due to the lack of transparency during tabulation. The lack of transparency was found in irregularities directly observed by The Carter Center during tabulation, as well as in data from the process and PRVT conducted by the National Election Watch, which showed irregular variances in results data across the presidential and parliamentary elections.
Results of the presidential elections contain mathematical inconsistencies when compared with the results of the parliamentary elections in particular. International and citizen observers have noted that there are substantial variances in turnout and invalid votes, which suggest results were tampered with during the opaque tabulation process.
As of the publication of this report, the ECSL has not implemented a key recommendation made by The Carter Center, NEW, and a wide range of other actors, to release election results at the polling station level, and in accordance with recognized good practice.
Electoral Dispute Resolution
In the pre-election period, a number of cases were handled in the court system, including challenges from the APC contesting the voter registration process and preparations for elections, as well as a case filed against the leading opposition candidate questioning his eligibility to stand for office.
The majority of stakeholders interviewed by The Carter Center expressed a lack of confidence in the judiciary — and in particular the Supreme Court and chief justice — to handle electoral matters with independence and neutrality.
In the post-election period, the APC declined to submit a post-election complaint despite questions from international and domestic observers regarding the results due to a lack of confidence in the neutrality of the courts. The lack of an adequate remedy for election-related disputes was an important deficit of these elections.