Last week, Africa’s largest democracy – Nigeria, went to the polls to elect its leaders. As votes were cast in Africa’s most populous state, other neighbouring countries were paying attention. Nigeria is among the six countries on the continent scheduled to hold presidential elections this year. Others are Sierra Leone, Liberia, Madagascar, Gabon, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Sudan, South Sudan and Libya may also hold elections this year, but there are a lot of uncertainties surrounding it.
After the elections in Nigeria, Sierra Leone would be up next. So, what lessons can Sierra Leone learn from “Big Brother” Nigeria?
Sierra Leone and Nigeria share much in common, from pre-colonial to modern political history. Sierra Leone’s relationship with Nigeria grew even closer following the Nigerian army’s vast role in ending the country’s brutal civil war two decades ago.
There is a thriving community of Nigerians living in Sierra Leone, some of whom were part of the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) soldiers who fought in the country’s civil war alongside the Sierra Leonean Army.
ECOMOG were battalions of soldiers to help stabilise Sierra Leone in the 90s following a spate of coups and a brutal civil war.
On a political front, Sierra Leone has a strong relationship with the Nigerian government. Successive governments have leveraged that for different opportunities and collaborations.
Politically as well, both countries are practising democracy. However, there is a huge difference in how the political systems in the two countries are structured.
Nigeria is a federal republic with a presidential system. It has 37 states running their governments with some form of autonomy and the central government playing a larger role, similar to the United States.
Presidential elections are held every four years, and the president has a two-term similar to Sierra Leone.
Sierra Leone runs a Presidential system, with all 16 districts running directly by the central government, despite the presence of Mayors and Local Council Chairmen in the districts.
Elections for the Presidency and Members of Parliament are scheduled to be held after every five years. Also, unlike the bicameral national assembly that Nigeria has, Sierra Leone runs a unicameral parliament.
Since democratic multiparty elections started in both countries (1996 in Sierra Leone and 1999 in Nigeria), this is the second time the general elections in both countries have coincided in the same year, 2007 and 2023.
With Sierra Leone set to hold its election in June, there is an opportunity to learn from Nigeria’s experience. Chief Electoral Commissioner of the Electoral Commission for Sierra Leone, Mohamed K. Konneh, led a team of his peers to the Nigeria election last week to understudy the exercise.
So, what are the issues Mr Konneh should pay attention to?
Technology and Elections
More and more African countries are trying to introduce technology in their electioneering processes to make the process efficient and transparent.
Kenya and Nigeria are the latest examples of countries investing in technology to improve elections. In the case of Nigeria, the electoral body, INEC, introduced two crucial technologies – Bi Modal Voter Accreditation Information System (BIVAS) and INEC’s Result Viewing Portal (IReV).
While BIVAS was used to verify and accredit voters, IReV was used to view results in real-time. However, despite INEC’s intentions to improve the efficiency and credibility of the elections, there are still widespread claims about how the systems did not work correctly, allegedly tampered with, and more complaints about several other irregularities.
In their preliminary election observation report, the European Union Observer Mission noted widespread confusion on how the systems would work.
“INEC collaborated on voter education with civil society, state agencies, media outlets and influencers to spread its messages, for example, regarding the functioning of the BVAS and IReV, electoral offences, and voting procedures. Despite such efforts, there was widespread public confusion and misinformation about the differences between manual collation of results and real-time transmission of the results forms for public scrutiny,” page 6 of the EU report stated.
Sierra Leone has already seen its share of an election technology malfunction. During the voter registration process in September last year, there were widespread complaints about the software and even hardware issues which delayed registration in many places across the country.
The challenges ranged from technical glitches with the Voter Verification Kits to the unavailability of electricity to charge laptops. The voter registration process was extended for two more days by the ECSL to compensate for those delays.
While ECSL could extend and respond to fix glitches during voter registration, the result management situation would differ. Sierra Leone has a clear set of guidelines for general vote tallying, counting and result management.
The Sierra Leone election result announcement procedure is relatively straightforward. For the Presidential election, the Chief Electoral Commissioner is the Returning Officer according to section 45 (1) of the 1991 constitution of Sierra Leone. Results are gathered from all the districts and are sent to the ECSL headquarters, and he announces them.
In the 2018 election, results from each district were released on social media and uploaded to the ECSL website following confirmation of all necessary procedures. While results are counted manually, the figures are digitally transmitted to the electoral commission.
This has sparked controversy in the past. In 2018, shortly after polling, the home of the opposition candidate at the time, Julius Maada Bio, was raided by police following allegations that he had an Information System set up in his home to hack the results that were being transmitted to the NEC (National Electoral Commission now ECSL) server.
Nothing was found to corroborate the allegations, and he later went on to win the election days later. A ruling party politician at the time, Sylvia Blyden, filed a case to the Supreme Court asking for the results to be annulled, claiming fraud in tallying and counting the votes.
INEC’s experience with election technology in Nigeria should signal an alarm for ECSL in Sierra Leone. Considering that ECSL has already encountered technology challenges during voter registration, it is important to do a test run and ensure all the necessary tools are ready for deployment and use. An early test run could prepare them to deal with any hitch on election day.
Like Nigeria, Sierra Leone is also heading into this election with a new electoral law. The Public Elections Act of 2012 was reviewed, and the new Public Elections Act of 2022 gave the ECSL a host of new powers. This law will be enforced for the general election this June.
In addition to this, Sierra Leone will also be conducting the Parliamentary and Local Council elections using Proportional Representation for the first time since 2002. All these changes could be difficult to understand by some, despite ongoing public education by ECSL across the country.
Frequent Election Management Body meetings have also been used to highlight challenges and discuss ways forward.
Electoral reforms coming so close to the election are always bound to be controversial because the time for public education on the new law is extremely short. However, the ECSL still has a few months to sustain an engagement. Electoral law is not an end; complex legal texts should be simplified for public understanding.
Currently, much of the education is on Proportional Representation. Still, there are critical points in the new law that needs education, like what happens if you have cases of over-voting, ballot stuffing, box tampering and several other electoral crimes.
The window is closing fast on the opportunity to educate the public on the new electoral law in Sierra Leone.
Ballot box snatching and election disruption are rare in elections in Sierra Leone, compared to cases in Nigeria. But every election has had sporadic incidents of violence in some places.
Delays in delivering ballot materials to remote communities could flare tensions, as it happened in some parts of Nigeria.
The demand for security will increase with new polling centres and stations in the country. The country has 3,630 polling centres and 11,832 polling stations for the 2023 general elections.
This is an increase in polling centres from the 2018 election, given that over 3.3 million people registered to vote in this year’s general election. To meet the security demand, the police force just recruited 1000 new officers last month.
Given the widespread violence reported in the Nigeria elections, Sierra Leone has an opportunity to do a proper security assessment and deployment operation. Polling stations could be volatile for the outbreak of violence; swing districts can also be flash points if adequate security arrangements are not made.
In the past, police have issued stay-at-home orders after voting, even banning vehicles from plying the streets in the 2018 election, except with accreditation. These are done in a bid to minimise violence during an election.
The researcher produced this explainer per the DUBAWA 2023 Kwame KariKari Fellowship partnership with Epic Radio in Sierra Leone to facilitate the ethos of “truth” in journalism and enhance media literacy in Sierra Leone.