Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts In Sierra Leone’s Elections, the Economy Is the Key Issue
In Sierra Leone’s Elections, the Economy Is the Key Issue

In Sierra Leone’s Elections, the Economy Is the Key Issue

Bottom Line

  • Sierra Leone’s general elections are set for June 24. The main candidates are the incumbent, President Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party, and Samura Kamara of the All People’s Congress.
  • People under thirty-five, who represent about 60 percent of the voting-age population, could be a key factor in the electoral outcome.
  • While election violence in Sierra Leone is less prominent than in other African countries, violence by disaffected youth remains a problem.
  • The dismal state of the economy is the key issue in this election, but other issues—such as the exclusion of many political parties from legislative processes—could rise to the forefront.
  • Charges of corruption against the main opposition candidate could complicate the election.


The Youth Factor

Sierra Leone, a West African nation of approximately 8 million people, is scheduled to hold general elections on June 24. Over 3.4 million people have registered to vote. People under 35 comprise nearly 60 percent of the voting-age population. In a country where the median age is 18.5 years, with massive unemployment and underemployment of young people, young voters could very well be a decisive factor in the upcoming elections.

Sierra Leone gained its independence in 1961. Except for military coups in 1967, 1992, and 1997, power has changed hands primarily through elections, with two parties, the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) and the All People’s Congress (APC) dominating the political landscape. While political power has been transferred through the ballot since the end of the war with the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in 2002, it has not been without violence in all cases. Unlike many other African states where ethnic differences tend to be the leading cause of election violence, in Sierra Leone, the epicenter of election-related violence tends to be young people who feel alienated and left out of political decision-making, disadvantaged by endemic corruption and ill-served by the economy.

Despite their numerical advantage, though, Sierra Leone’s youth are often viewed as troublemakers rather than kingmakers in the country’s elections. A 2018 SLPP manifesto, for example, referred to the “youthquake of unskilled, underemployed and unemployed youth roaming the streets.” In response to this attitude, a 2018 study conducted by young people and supported by UNICEF said that the “young people will be decisive in crowning the victor in the 2018 election.” The report argued that Sierra Leone’s youth want improvement in the quality of education, an improved economy, food self-sufficiency, and affordable healthcare.

While there was some violence in the final days of campaigning in the 2018 election, and some complaints of irregularities, which were never substantiated, the Carter Center concluded that the 2018 presidential elections, which had to go into a second runoff when no candidate received the required 55 percent of votes, were conducted under “a legal framework generally consistent with international standards.” Despite the reports of violence, it was generally accepted that the 2018 elections were less violent than had been the case in the past. Actions were taken in advance of the election to encourage young people to be peacefully engaged in the process.

What’s Expected in 2023?

While Sierra Leone is regarded as one of Africa’s most successful post-conflict states, its democracy and stability are still fragile. Ranked 179 out of 188 on the Human Development Index, two-thirds of the populations subsist on less than $1.25 per day, and almost 50 percent of the populations is malnourished. With an average life expectancy of forty-eight years and the country’s maternal and infant mortality rates among the highest in the world, political stability remains a prominent challenge. The two main political parties, the SLPP (now in power) and the APC (now in opposition) have swapped power peacefully since 1996. However, divides between them have developed that could foment violence. The SLPP gets most of its support from the east and south of the country while the APC stronghold is in the northwest. There are sixteen identified ethnic groups in the country, but the two dominant groups are the Temne, with 35 percent of the population, and the Mende, with 31 percent. The Temne are dominant in the north and in areas around Freetown, the capital, and the Mende live mostly in the southeast of the country.

Ethnic tension has bedeviled the country in the past, but it is not as pronounced in Sierra Leone as in other countries. Most of the violence has been caused by economic inequality, incumbents unwilling to give up power, and the enlistment of former military and youth to intimidate opponents.

Social media is also playing an increasingly important role in shaping African political engagement, and Sierra Leone is no exception. On the one hand, social media has helped develop spaces for political participation. WhatsApp, for example, plays a key role in Sierra Leone as an avenue for smaller political parties and new voters. On the other hand, social media can also be a conduit for disinformation that can be used to incite election-related violence. While Sierra Leone has the fourth-lowest level of internet usage in the world, it has one of the fastest growth rates of internet usage in Africa. During the 2017–2018 election cycle, 16 percent of the population used social media, and it played a pivotal role. While many relied on it to provide information and promote peace and cohesion, others used it to promote misinformation and hate.

The Front Runners

Only candidates for the two major parties—the incumbent SLPP and the main opposition APC—have been officially announced. The Republican National Independence Party (ReNIP) named its chairman, Beresford Victor Williams, as the ReNIP candidate, but the electoral commission has yet to announce a full slate, and small, new parties like ReNIP are generally not thought to have a chance at the top jobs. 

In the 2018 elections, there were sixteen candidates but only two, SLPP’s Julius Maada Bio (the incumbent president) and Samura Kamara of the APC, received more than 10 percent of the votes. After a second round of voting, Bio won with 51.81 percent while Kamara received 48.19 percent. In the parliamentary elections, the APC won sixty-eight seats, a gain of one seat from the previous election, and SLPP took forty-nine seats, for a gain of seven. A total of twelve seats were shared by the Coalition for Change (with eight seats) and the National Grand Coalition (with four), two new parties. Independents won three seats and paramount chiefs held the remaining 14 seats.

The 2023 elections are likely to see similar participation and outcomes, with the main competition between Bio, running for a second five-year term, and Kamara who beat out seventeen rivals for the APC nomination.

Bio, a former army captain who became head of the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) when he ousted junta leader Captain Valentine Strasser in 1996, ran unsuccessfully against incumbent Ernest Bai Koroma in 2012. He was head of the NPRC for only two months in 1996, presiding over the junta until the election that saw Ahmed Tejan Kabbah of the SLPP installed as the country’s first truly democratically elected head of state.

Bio left the military in 1996 and was granted political asylum in the United States. He did not return to Sierra Leone until 2005, whereupon he became an official member of the SLPP. He sought leadership of the party during the SLPP national convention in September 2005, but came in third behind Solomon Berewa, then Sierra Leone’s vice president, and Charles Margai, a constitutional lawyer. In 2011, activists in the SLPP forced the choice of Bio as the party’s 2012 presidential candidate to face off against Koroma, a former insurance company executive. He only won 37 percent of the vote but established the SLPP as the only viable opposition party in the country.

After becoming president in 2018, Bio became the first Sierra Leonean president to introduce free education for primary and secondary students in public schools in Sierra Leone. He eliminated application fees for students in public universities, and cancelled a Chinese-funded $400 million loan agreement that had been negotiated by his predecessor to build a new international airport. Bio began a thorough review and audit of all government contracts, leading to corruption charges against several officials in the previous administration, including Koroma himself, who was accused of, among other things, stealing funds meant for victims of the country’s Ebola outbreak.

Kamara served as Sierra Leone’s central bank governor, finance minister, and foreign minister between 2008 and 2018, when he was nominated as the APC standard bearer to compete against Bio for the presidency. One of his first challenges as a candidate has been to make peace within his own party. After he won 85 percent of the nomination votes in a competition against seventeen other candidates he said, “The work has just begun …. one of our key objectives is to work together for peace within the party … nobody is an enemy.”

In 2021, serving as foreign minister, Kamara was indicted along with five other officials from the Koroma administration for misappropriation of over $2.5 million in public funds. On February 21, 2022, a  High Court judge dismissed an application by Kamara’s defense team seeking to quash the indictment. If convicted on the corruption charge, Kamara would not be eligible to compete in the presidential election. According to news reports, Kamara’s trial was slated to resume on March 17. On March 14, Kamara announced the selection of Chernor Bah as his running mate. Bah, a fifty-seven-year-old member of parliament, is also a noted activist for causes to amplify the voices of girls and young people in Sierra Leone. His selection is no doubt intended to appeal to the young voters of the country.

In an unprecedented move, the presiding judge ordered the court and the defendants to travel to New York City to get first-hand information and physical access to the Sierra Leonean UN mission’s chancery building, which is at the heart of the corruption allegations. Justice Adrian Fisher of the Sierra Leone High Court said that the court needed to be “locus in quo” (at the scene of the incident) in order to render a proper verdict.

Key Issues

The main issue of concern to Sierra Leoneans is the economy. The country’s inflation rate in 2018 was over 16 percent, but was brought down to 11 percent by 2021, which is still a staggering rate. The economy grew by 3.2 percent in 2021 after shrinking 2 percent in 2020. A doubling of the prices for goods and services by the end of 2022, however, eroded the 2021 gains, leading to an inflation rate of over 26 percent. The youth unemployment rate is 60 percent, one of the highest in West Africa. Regardless of other challenges facing Sierra Leone, if the candidates—and the eventual winner—fail to effectively address this issue there will be continuing problems.

A secondary, but potentially explosive issue, is the inclusivity—or possible lack thereof—of the electoral process. In the past, there have been a large number of contenders in the national elections, but there is a possibility that participation in the 2023 general elections could be limited. Abdullai M. Bangura, chair of the Political Parties Regulation Commission (PPRC), speaking at a seminar on the state of electoral justice in Sierra Leone in Freetown on March 23, 2023, said that, of the seventeen registered political parties, only three, SLPP, APC, and NGC, meet the functionality requirement of the PPRC Act of 2022. In order to be considered functional under the act, parties must hold delegate conferences and elections for national offices and have offices in all regions of the countries. As of the date of the meeting, Bangura said, only the three aforementioned parties satisfy this criteria. In a best-case scenario, the disqualified parties will accept the situation and work to prepare for the next elections. But there is also the possibility of prolonged legal battles or even localized violence in response to the PPRC decision.

The APC has also raised concerns about potential vote rigging based on the Electoral Commission’s decision to tally votes of the presidential election only at the regional level rather than at polling places. This is a change from the way votes were previously counted. The APC offered no specific evidence that this procedure would lead to vote rigging. It does, however, set up the potential for objecting to the election outcome.

While the elections in Sierra Leone will not have the regional impact of the recently held Nigerian elections, the effect on the lives of the people of Sierra Leone will be significant. The questions uppermost on people’s minds are will the election be free, fair, and nonviolent, and, will the winner pull the country out of its current economic slump?

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities. 

Image: State Department (Photo by Ben Solomon)