On November 17, 2012, the small West African Nation of Sierra Leone held its third general election, which was notable for the lack of violence and the consensus by election observers that it was conducted in a free, fair, and transparent manner.
This election was significant because it marked the first time since the beginning of the civil war in 1991 that the nation organized and executed general elections without assistance from the United Nations. Previous elections in 2002 and 2007—both UN-organized—were marked by accusations of “over-voting” and other types of fraud and were marred by violence leading up to and on the day of elections.
Beginning in 2009, the National Electoral Commission (NEC) scheduled meetings with parliamentarians, the police and military, and other key stakeholders to formulate lessons learned from the previous elections and to draft new legislation and best practices for the next election. The result was a parliamentary bill in April 2012 that instituted sweeping reforms of election laws, addressing issues ranging from campaigning to how votes are counted.
The new laws banned the wearing of party colors on election day, prohibited loitering near polling stations, and directed people to return home after voting.
The new laws enacted restrictions around polling places on the day of the elections designed to prevent harassment of voters and increase NEC control over voter movements. The law banned the wearing of distinctive party colors on election day, enacted a loitering law allowing police to ticket anyone who remained near a polling station without reason, and included language directing people to return to their homes after voting and remain there until the polls closed.
THE VEHICLE BAN
One of the most controversial laws, condemned by the international community, was a ban on the movement of non-official vehicles in urban areas before, during, and after polling hours. This law was designed to ensure that political parties could not move groups of voters between polling stations—a phenomenon that caused “over-voting” in the 2007 elections—and also to prevent politicians from organizing gangs of youth to move through wards to intimidate voters.
International election observers such as the Carter Center and the European Union protested that the vehicle ban was a draconian restriction on freedom of movement that was contrary to the tenets of free and fair elections. However, both sets of observers acknowledged that all the political parties agreed to this restriction and supported it as the only way to prevent the potential for violence and ballot-box stuffing in urban polling places.
In a Carter Center brief, this acknowledgment was qualified with a statement stating that the Center would encourage this ban to be lifted in the future, as no election could be completely free with voters so severely compromised in their mobility. The brief treated this particular restriction as an experiment, and conversations with observers from the Carter Center suggested that the Center would not support such a ban in future elections.
The vehicle ban applied only to private and commercial vehicles, which meant the NEC was free to designate “official” vehicles and give them free license to move. Church vans, school buses, and similar vehicles were given election-day passes to provide transport for disabled and elderly people, and each followed a specific route.
SMILES IN MAKENI
As I moved through the town of Makeni, the capital of the northern province, I overheard people commenting that the town looked like it did during the war, when there were no vehicles plying the roads. The difference was that people walked home from the polling stations with smiles on their faces. I witnessed several vehicles with official passes move along the major roads, with drivers offering careful assistance to passengers going home, the telltale stain of India ink on their left index fingers signifying that they had voted.
The vehicle ban enhanced personal freedom, especially freedom from intimidation, of voters heading to the polls.
With such careful planning and execution by the NEC to ensure that all registered voters had the opportunity to vote, the cooperation of the political parties to ensure that the vehicle ban enhanced personal freedom—especially freedom from intimidation—and the will of the people to have their voice heard, the elections in Sierra Leone were judged a complete success by the very same election observers who had argued against these restrictions.
To all those formulating election policies in areas that have historically experienced election violence, Sierra Leone provides an example of how voters and parties are willing to give up certain freedoms in order to be relieved of the fear and possible coercion that accompanies an unrestrained election environment.
Catherine Bolten is assistant professor of anthropology and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame. Her new book is I Did It to Save My Life: Love and Survival in Sierra Leone.