November 12, 2012, 10:15 am
By Nick Jahr
Nick Jahr is among eight long-term observers deployed to Sierra Leone as part of the Center’s observation of the Nov. 17, 2012, presidential and parliamentary elections.
Sierra Leone’s last election was a historic one: the first time the country’s opposition took power more or less peacefully. This also will be a landmark of another sort: the first election conducted solely by the country’s National Election Commission, without any international assistance.
Young supporters rally in Koidu in support of the United Democratic Movement (UDM), a small opposition party. Koidu is a major commercial and diamond trade center in the Eastern Province about 275 miles from the capital, Freetown.
My partner and I — long-term observers work in pairs — are stationed in the east of the country, long considered the stronghold of the Sierra Leone People’s Party. This time, the ruling All People’s Congress is campaigning hard to reach voters in the region, and Sierra Leoneans are getting a taste of a genuinely competitive election.
Some days find us trailing rallies through the streets of Kenema, or digging our car out of the mud, or admiring the “traditional” devils accompanying political party supporters to nominate their candidates, or sitting down with an influential businessman or party official to discuss campaign finance, or watching the president address the crowd in the sputtering rain in Kailahun, or driving several hours up a cratered dirt road to attend a community meeting where an official extols the virtues of multiparty democracy by comparing it to polygamy. “After all, life is better when you have more than one wife,” he says. Some of the women in the audience nod their heads in agreement.
In early October, The Carter Center deployed eight long-term observers to travel throughout Sierra Leone to assess voter registration, campaigning, voter education, and other critical parts of the electoral process leading to election day Nov. 17. Observers log thousands of miles on sometimes challenging roads.
Then there are days like one recently when we observed poll workers being trained. Most of the training materials and the funds for the day’s meal were stuck in the mud somewhere along the road, but everyone persevered. When they finally stopped for lunch at 3 p.m., we asked their supervisor how late the training would run. “We will be here as long as we are able to read,” he said, gesturing at the ceiling, “until there is no light.”
The challenges are daunting, but the people are determined to meet them. As observers, we hope to illuminate the process.
The Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), a social democratic party, is one of the two major political parties in Sierra Leone, along with the APC. Here, SLPP supporters rally in Tonga Field, a football field in Kenema.