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Sierra Leone News: CHETANYA’s View: Elections in Lunsar, Part 2

CHETANYAI got to see the complexities and struggles of democracy in Sierra Leone up close on Saturday, on a trip with Awoko reporters Betty Milton and Ophaniel Gooding to Lunsar in the north of the country. We were there to report on a Parliamentary bye-election held to replace a deceased member of Parliament. The plan was to interview the candidates, then find some polling stations and observe.
That morning, I went along with Ophaniel while he interviewed one of the candidates, Osman Karankay Conteh. Karankay is a tall man with a steady and certain demeanor, and is aligned with the ruling party in the country, the All People’s Congress (APC).
“I know I will win,” he told Ophaniel  but he said he wanted to do even better, and “make history” by beating his opponents in a landslide. We sat in the living room of his house during the interview. It was guarded by a gate topped with barbed wire and furnished with a several couches, a television and Arabic calligraphy on the wall. Karankay accused his rival candidate from the Alliance Democratic Party (ADP), of paying people up to 10,000 Leones (close to $2 US dollars) for votes, an allegation his rival denies.
Ophaniel and I followed Karankay to the polling station outside a community hospital near his house for a photo-op. A crowd of supporters gathered to walk with him, past the town’s chomping goats, across the road, and then past the yellow mosque with its many minarets. We snapped photos as he posed at the voting box and pushed his voting slip through the slot.
The three polling centers we visited that day were mostly quiet. At the largest of them, headquartered in a Catholic girl’s school, staff in blue vests sat at classroom desks. They vastly outnumbered any voters present. There were no long lines. Instead, the occasional voter stopped by to fill out their ballot, hidden from view by a makeshift cardboard voting booth. Staff at the stations we visited said turnout was encouraging.
There were contentious moments that day  at one polling station, a heated argument broke out between police officers and members of the public. According to my colleague’s translation, people were accusing the police of political bias, while the police insisted they were neutral and didn’t support any of the three political parties. Meanwhile, the ADP candidate had earlier accused the police of standing by passively while people threw rocks at his party headquarters.
The stories and rumors of intimidation, vote buying, state bias and even violence reminded me that I was observing the workings of a democracy that’s perhaps fragile, and still in the process of growing strong and robust.
American democracy is plagued with problems. In some US states, to take just one example, the law requires voters to have ID cards. This is something many people, especially poor African Americans, can’t easily get ahold of, and because these voters usually support the Democratic Party, many say these laws are engineered by members of the American Republican Party to suppress votes from their rival party.
For the most part, though, Americans like myself are lucky to live in a stable democracy where our ability to vote safely and fairly, if we choose, is rarely challenged.
In fact, where I’m from, too many people take their ability to vote for granted. Some people don’t vote at all. Sometimes they’re trying to take a moral stand, and sometimes they’re just lazy.
It was heartening to see people voting in Lunsar, despite the imperfections in the process. I wondered if even the arguments were encouraging, a sign that people cared about politics.
In what had to be another good sign, I saw a lot of people at the polling stations wearing shirts that read “National Elections Watch,” an organization whose members monitor and report any problems with elections in the country. One member told me that turnout was good during this election, but a constant problem preventing it from being even higher is a lack of voter education. People aren’t always aware there’s an election, or don’t know enough about the candidates and issues.
I have no doubt that voter education is an obstacle that prevents Sierra Leone’s democracy from flourishing as it should. But if people aren’t voting, not being aware is a far better reason than being aware but not caring, which is a problem I see among many American voters.
One polling station we visited was in front of some houses by the side of the highway. On the way, our car stopped to let some ducks waddle across. The station was small, and after Betty and I briefly talked to the people managing it, we sat outside a simple wooden house. Some kids stood and sat nearby. One held a stick in each hand, put the other ends inside a discarded car tire, and rolled the tire around on the ground. Betty asked the kids about their situation. A shy girl, who estimated her age as 15, said her parents couldn’t pay for her to go to school; for now she was selling some products. A young boy was studying Arabic in school, hoping to become an imam. A toddler hit me in the back, and when I turned around to face her, she started crying. She was probably used to seeing darker faces, Betty pointed out.
It had to be a good sign that a polling station was set up all the way out here, outside the houses of struggling families. Those kids were too young to vote and have a say in how their country is managed. But by the time they are, I hope it will be in fair, safe and accessible elections, joined by millions of their countrymen from communities where lack of voter education has become a thing of the past.
Wednesday July 13, 2016

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