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Sierra Leone News: Elections official reflects on democracy in Sierra Leone

NEC Boss N'fah-Alie Conteh,

NEC Boss N’fah-Alie Conteh,

Mohamed N’fah-Alie Conteh, Chairman of the National Electoral Commission, has spent over 26 years working on elections in Sierra Leone. On Monday he announced the release of three new books about elections in the country, to address what he believes is a lack of written material on the subject. While discussing his books with Awoko reporters on Monday, Conteh shared some of his thoughts on elections and democracy in Sierra Leone.
According to Conteh, Sierra Leone’s democracy has gotten better over the years. Following the founding of the SLPP in 1951 and the beginnings of Sierra Leone’s modern democracy, the country went through periods of one-party rule, much like other developing countries. But things have improved since then.
“Now since 1996 honestly we’ve conducted democratic elections with the help of the international community. So that has really, really changed  it has improved,” Conteh said.
“Now people go in, they compete, those who lose, they have no alternative. It’s not a matter of, ‘when I lose I’ll go to the bush and fight.’”
Despite these gains, Conteh said Sierra Leone’s democracy is still fragile, and there are still areas to improve.
One area of improvement Conteh suggests is reforming the Paramount Chieftaincy elections to allow women to compete in them throughout the country (women are still banned from competing in some provinces).
“The tradition that worked over a century ago, that tradition can’t continue to work in the twenty-first century,” he said. “I think there is need to improve on that.”
Conteh also argues that Paramount Chief positions should not be held for life, saying “Other people need to be given the opportunity.” However, Conteh maintained that Paramount Chief elections should still be restricted to members of ruling houses.
When asked whether there was any conflict between this restriction and modern democracy, Conteh said it was an acceptable restriction.
“To some extent, yes there is some conflict, but democracies generally have some limitations,” he said, pointing to restrictions for candidates in other democracies, such as age, nationality or party affiliation.
Conteh spoke about the need to put a stop to conflicts of interest in voting, such as giving voters free rides or food with the expectation of a vote. Though he said it was not a widespread practice as far as he knew, he also condemned the buying of votes. This is something newly elected Member of Parliament Osman Karankay alleged that his opponent of the ADP party of engaging in during the bye-elections in Lunsar on July 9. Karankay’s opponent denied this allegation.
Conteh said a related issue is the need for more voter education, so that people understand their right to vote, how they should go about doing it, and why it’s important. However, he said, voter education can be challenging and costly in Sierra Leone.
“We are in a democracy wherein illiteracy is very, very high and also not many people even listen to the radio because the poverty level, to some extent, is high,” he said. “And then the priorities are also different. When you tell people to go and vote, some people say, ‘I’m going out to look for food.’”
By Chetanya Robinson
Wednesday July 27, 2016

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