Every five years, Sierra Leoneans go to the poll to elect new representatives and leaders across the political spectrum. That periodic exercise of their franchise is a fundamental part of democracy.
But it has not always been smooth. Election cycles bring perpetual tension and sometimes outright violence in parts of the country, and this year’s election has not been different.
In the quest to rally support or promote a candidate, political actors and supporters go out of their way to degrade, belittle and offend the opposing support base. The rhetoric becomes increasingly hostile, derogatory and sometimes outrightly abusive. For a country that has gone through a brutal civil war, all this could come at a severe cost to its peace.
Globally, Sierra Leone is 50th on the Global Peace Index, but there are days when this peace is threatened. But why is this happening, and how did Sierra Leone get to this point?
Why is this happening?
To understand why this is happening, one has to look at the political history and culture of Sierra Leone to set things into context properly. Hate and bigotry against tribes have been among the most common techniques politicians use to pit the people against each other as the 2012 and 2018 election cycles hit a new height with tribal rhetoric.
Sierra Leone politics is deeply divided along ethnic-regional lines, with the All Peoples Congress (APC) controlling the North and West while the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) controls the South and the East of the country. The pattern of voting over the last 50 years has established this.
Sierra Leone has two dominant tribes; Mende, which largely covers the South and Eastern regions of the country, which are the heartlands of the ruling SLPP and Temne, who are covering the North and the West, the base of the opposition APC.
Dr Jimmy Kandeh, a Sierra Leonean political scientist, wrote that ethnic division in Sierra Leone has evolved over the century and has been part of the state’s formation. In an article he wrote in 1992: “Politicization of Ethnic Identities in Sierra Leone,” Dr Kandeh noted that:
“Not only is Sierra Leone a culturally plural and intensely stratified society, but its post-colonial political history also attests to, and offers interesting insights about, the intimate connections between class, ethnicity and state formation…This polarisation persists even today, but its political significance has paled in comparison to both the rift between the Mendes of the South and the Temnes of the North and the contemporary dominance of Limba cultural entrepreneurs and politicians”
With every election cycle, these divisions between the two largest tribes have been amplified, and political actors have preyed on the outcomes. The easiest vehicle to drive through division is social media.
Abuse and incitement on social media
Social media makes hate speech and strong and obscene language easy to spread. This is the third election Sierra Leone will have in the era of social media, and the country is struggling to tame the impact of this technology.
Social media is the new frontier, hate; bigotry and incitement are on full display from politicians, supporters and unknown handles or pages. A report by the governance thinks tank in Sierra Leone, Institute for Governance Reform, showed that more than 58% of people say social media is the leading source of hate speech.
There is a cyber security law and a cybercrime directorate which was just set up by the government last year. It was established to regulate online behaviour and protect people in and from cyberspace, from tackling fraud and dealing with impersonation to protecting children from pornography, among several other issues.
Abuse, incitement and provocation have come from all sides in the lead-up to the June 24 general election. On the eve of the national delegate conference of the main opposition APC, a Facebook user got this video back in circulation where the Presidential aspirant of the APC, Dr Samura Kamara, was making “tribal” comments against the Mende tribe.
The video was first circulated last year after Dr Kamara appeared at a rally in some parts of the country.
Daily, there are more extreme comments circulating on social media.
In a Whatsapp group, a user known as “Fackie” labelled supporters of the APC candidate as “enemies of Sierra Leone”
But the APC Presidential candidate is not the only victim. Controversial opposition politician Femi Claudius Cole posted a criticism on Twitter about the proliferation of the President’s banner across the city.
Her tweet was met with molestation, and in one case, someone outrightly abused her mother using an extremely obscene colloquial expression. Sadly, the politician also participated in the tirade, as clearly seen in the conversation thread under her tweet.
But opposition figures are not just the only ones being targeted; opposition supporters are also fanning the flames by using invectives and frequently using inciteful language against the President and other government officials.
A Twitter user @Findlay4Bintha posted a video on Thursday, February 23, 2023, inciting supporters of the opposition All Peoples Congress to retaliate and beat up the Secretary General of the ruling Sierra Leone Peoples Party after Presidential guards reportedly beat their own Secretary-General on Wednesday evening.
Sierra Leone Current Issues is a prominent Twitter handle that uses extremely inciting language against the President and his government. In several tweets, they describe the current President, Julius Maada Bio as a “killer”.
The same page also promoted incarcerating the Deputy Internal Affairs Minister, Lahai Lawrence Leema. These are just written texts. Whatsapp audios from prominent opposition and government supporters have also flooded the social media space, loaded with serious invectives and hateful messages.
Last year, it got so bad that Paramount Chiefs from the two prominent tribes, Mende and Temne, had to unite, denounce tribalism, and even promise severe sanctions.
The page claimed in one tweet that “Hate Speech is not a crime.”
Mainstream media have also joined in, and several publications from news media are also publishing provocative or inciteful stories. Some are also justifying those who also do.
A news website, organiser.net, tried to justify using invectives to describe government officials by popular influencer “Adebayor”.
In an article that was written last November by someone known as Abu Shaw, it stated:
“Adebayor, real name Will Kamara, said he only trades insults against the mothers of bad politicians and corrupt Sierra Leoneans who continue to damage the country.”
This is just one of many cases. In Sierra Leone, there are more publications like these on the newsstands. In the week following the convention of the main opposition newspapers, pro-government and pro-opposition newspapers will head to head on who has the most crafty provocative headline.
A pro-government newspaper, Global Times led with this on Tuesday, 21st February: “APC is a Leopard!”
Pro-opposition paper, The Heroes Media, led with this on Friday, 24 February 2023: “ As H.E Cripples the Nation’s Economy…He will Kill if Re-Elected.”
What is the solution?
This problem has no one-size-fits-all solution, given that several factors lead to it. In an interview, human rights and peace campaigner Abdul Fatorma told DUBAWA that the high stakes attached to political power in Sierra Leone are one of the many problems fuelling hate speech.
“The concentration of political power and the winner-take-all mindset surrounding elections lead to the use of hate speech. This already difficult situation is exacerbated by the high unemployment and poverty in much of the country,” he said.
He further noted the role social media has played in all this and how much damage could be done by the end of the electoral process:
“Election seasons allow groups to air their grievances. Physical and online campaign advertisements both contribute to these differences and frustrations, but social media has played a larger role in the last two elections. Because of the increasing anonymity of social media messages and their capacity to reach vast audiences, they are potentially more harmful than traditional marketing. Derogatory phrases are used to mobilize people and encourage violence. In my opinion, hate speech during elections provides a long-term barrier to peacebuilding efforts, as reconciliation can be tough even after elections are finished.”
Fatorma, the Chief Executive of the Campaign for Human Rights and Development International, has been working on peace initiatives and conflict resolution mechanisms for the 2023 election.
He said one of the ultimate solutions could be to improve public awareness and push for legal reforms.
“Electoral stakeholders must improve public awareness, push for better legislation, and make room for open dialogue. The ultimate goal is to achieve societal consensus on hate speech by sharing knowledge,” Fatorma said.
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.