ElectionsMedia LiteracySierra Leone

Sierra Leone Elections: Key Battlegrounds and swing districts

Sierra Leone is gearing up for its fifth election in its postwar era; like every other election, the run-up has been tense. The country is just a few more days away from the polls. Still,  political strategists have been busy drawing up analyses on how to get most of the 3.3 million votes available.

The political geography of Sierra Leone

There are 16 electoral districts in Sierra Leone; 14 are in the provinces and the Western Area where the capital, Freetown, is located. The Western Area is divided into Western Area Urban (Freetown) and Western Area Rural. 

There are five regions; Northern Region, where you have districts like Bombali, Falaba, Tonkolili, and Koinadugu. In the North-West, there are Kambia, Port Loko and Karene. The Eastern Region has districts like Kono, Kenema, and Kailahun. Down South, Bo, Bonthe, Moyamba, and Pujehun are there. Western Area is a region divided into Rural and Urban.

According to section 42 (2) of the Sierra Leone Constitution, a Presidential candidate must have 55% of the total votes to win the presidency. If none of the parties reach this margin, there will be a runoff between the top two parties in the first round. A simple majority will decide the runoff.

Like so many other African countries, the voting pattern in Sierra Leone has largely been predictable – citizens vote largely based on regional, tribal, and party lines. Two major political parties are contesting in this election; governing Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) and the All Peoples Congress (APC).

SLPP is popular in the country’s South and Eastern regions, largely dominated by the Mende tribe.

APC is popular in the North and Western regions because the Temne and Limba tribes dominate it. 

A map of Sierra Leone showing the location of ethnic groups. Credit: ACCORD

There are other tribes scattered across the country in all the regions. All these tribes are scattered so strategically across the country that neither SLPP nor APC can rely independently on just Mende, Temene and Limba, respectively, to win the general election.

In total, 13 political parties are contesting in this election, but apart from SLPP and APC, none have a remote chance of winning, based on historical voting patterns. 

Swing Districts

It is easy to predict how some districts will vote during this election; one must look back at the history of their voting patterns. But for a few districts, things will be tight, and the race between the two major parties will go down to the wire.

In some other districts, they may still vote largely based on their old voting patterns, but what could be crucial is the margin of victory or loss for SLPP or APC in those districts. 

Who will win Kono?

Kono is in the Eastern region of the country. In the South, it shares a border with two strong SLPP districts; Kenema and Kailahun and in the North, it shares a border with APC strongholds like Tonkolili and Falaba. 

Kono’s ethnic population is unique. It is the only district in the South East (SLPP stronghold) not dominated by the Mende ethnic group. The district is dominated predominantly by the Kono ethnic group. This is one of the reasons why it has been difficult for both major parties to establish and sustain their hold on the district.

Kono is a diamond-rich district, and for decades, residents feel successive governments have not done enough to ensure they get a significant share of the wealth they are producing. 

Kono has been a swing district. Since 2012, any party that has won Kono has won the general elections. In 2012, APC got 67,238 votes, which is 30,000 more than what SLPP got. That was enough to see President Ernest Bai Koroma win a comfortable second term. 

In 2018, Kono narrowly backed SLPP with 30,018 votes, 2,000 more in the first round than APC’s 28,006. However, the 2018 election had a major caveat. SLPP and APC were playing catchup with a new party.

The former Vice President, Sam Sumana, sacked by President Koroma and expelled by the APC, formed his party, Coalition for Change (C4C) and ran against his former party, APC. Sumana’s party was the wildcard, backed by huge sympathy in Kono. No one was sure how much impact they could have in the election.

Following the end of the first round of elections in 2018, C4C got 70,565 votes, which is 51% of the total votes in Kono, more than both APC and SLPP combined. They won 8 of the 9 Parliamentary seats and swept local council seats across the district. 

The battle in the second round for APC and SLPP was about 70,565 C4C votes; around 61,000 of those votes went to the opposition SLPP, which tilted election victory to the Bio-led SLPP.  

The Kono dilemma and result permutations

Kono has a choice to make. Since 2018, C4C has imploded. Power struggles within the party have left them stuck in court, and they will not be running in this year’s general elections. Key members in the party have crossed over to the ruling SLPP; the Mayor of Kono City Council, the Leader of the party in parliament alongside two other MPs and a lot of councillors all won under the banner of the party. 

Weeks before the general election, C4C announced an alliance with the Peoples Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC). This new alliance is now in crisis after the PMDC Presidential candidate openly declared his support for APC’s Samura Kamara. 

This year, there are 174,205 registered voters in Kono, an estimated 40,000 more votes than in the last election. Without the C4C factor, there is no telling who could get more of these votes. Going by the last election’s votes, the opposition has more to do to convince Kono to side with them. If APC gets the 34,000 votes they had in the second round of 2018, they will need at least 60,000 more votes to tip the scale in their favour. If SLPP keeps their 91,000 plus votes of the last term, it can still win against Kono, even with a tight margin.

The race is on, and there is no margin for error. 

Kambia: Red, Yellow or Green?

KKY and President Bio at a function at State House                           Credit: State House 

Like Kono, Kambia had the KKY factor (Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella). KKY was a former SLPP politician; he left the party bitterly alongside other officials and later formed the National Grand Coalition (NGC) in 2017. 

NGC was supposed to affect SLPP’s chances of winning the 2018 elections, but it later turned out to be the biggest help they could get to victory. KKY hails from Kambia, an APC stronghold; his connection with the district saw him get 43% of the votes in the first round. Nationally he got 6.9% of the total vote cast.

In the second round, many of the NGC votes went back to the APC, and APC won the district by over 39,000 vote difference against the SLPP.

KKY’s NGC is now in alliance with SLPP. He is not running in the general elections this year, which is good news for the APC. So, does KKY have enough political capital to deliver his home district to the SLPP? 

There are 152,549 registered voters in Kambia. Anything short of an SLPP victory in Kambia could be bad for KKY’s political future, but the ruling party has their work cut out for them up north. 

Falaba: A new swing district emerges

Falaba should not be a swing district, but surprisingly it is and might continue to be. Falaba shares a border with Kono and is in the country’s Northern region, the APC stronghold. 

Falaba was part of Koinadugu until the 2016 boundary delimitation that created it separately as a district after the 2015 census. 

Falaba is partly a swing district because of its unique composition of tribes;  it is home to Koronaku, Yalunka and Fula. Before Falaba was established, Koinadugu was largely a red district, voting for APC, but it has not always been a smooth ride. 

In 2007, APC won the district with 63% when it was in opposition. President Koroma cemented the party’s support in the district and got 86% of the votes five years later in his reelection bid. 

In 2018, two years after the creation of Falaba, APC won the district by just a 5,700 vote difference. SLPP closed the gap so much that it won local council and parliamentary seats. Since 2019, SLPP has improved their margin at every by-election in the district, so much so that by the end of Parliament’s term, SLPP and APC had two MP seats each in the district. 

Doing so well in Falaba five years ago also has a downside for SLPP. It could be a tactical blunder to depend on that 2018 success. Falaba is still an APC stronghold and could swing back massively to APC. If there are any doubts, one must just look back at how APC bolstered its dominance in Koinadugu (which Falaba was part of) from 63% of the votes in 2007 to 86% in 2012, a 23% improvement.

In 2023, the contestant could earn at least 28,000 more votes. There are 69,128 registered voters in Falaba, and both parties know getting the majority is within their grip. However, for APC to win the general elections, they must win Falaba and make sure the margin is huge. 

The tussle for the West

The Western Area, which includes Freetown, is predominantly an APC stronghold. It is evident in the 2007, 2012 and 2018 elections. Western Area is far more a safe zone for the opposition than Falaba.

That notwithstanding,  the Western Area is still a melting pot for everyone because of the unique composition of the different ethnic groups and so many other demography. 

But the capital and its environs have the potential to be a battleground. For SLPP, the aim might not necessarily be to win the Western Area, given how difficult it could be. But they know they just need to stay above 40%, which could be enough.

In the last three elections, the APC dominance in the Western Area has slowly been shrinking. In 2012, APC recorded a huge victory in the Western Area. The party had around 263,000 more votes than the SLPP. This was an improvement from 2007, when the vote difference was 165,775. 

However, that huge gain in 2012 has since shrunk. In 2018, SLPP got 108,979 of those 263,000 excess APC votes that APC secured five years earlier. So even when APC still won Western Area, the margin was much closer than expected by many. 

APC must win Freetown by 70 to 80% to win this year’s general election. This will ensure that it blows SLPP out of the water. This could significantly boost their chances. However, it is not an easy fit for anyone, given the multi-ethnic makeup of the Western Area.  

There are 939,786 voters registered in the Western Area (Urban and Rural combined). This accounts for 27.9% of voters in this year’s election, highest number of voters in any region across the country. A huge win for any of the two parties could mean they might be close to the State House.

Conclusion

In the strongholds of both APC and SLPP, the aim is to keep everyone in line. Campaign messages have urged voters in these areas to vote on all four ballots for their parties; presidency, councillor, MP, Mayor/chairperson. 

SLPP or APC can win the election if they win swing districts. But that win could be in serious jeopardy if the margin of vote difference is not big enough in their respective strongholds.

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