Critical Perspectives of Governance (volume VIII)
By Institute for Governance Reform
Sierra Leone: Managing Elections in an Economic Austerity
Sierra Leone is preparing for a notable date, the 7th March 2018 General Elections.
President Koroma's second and final term will end at the close of 2017;
Parliament dissolves on 7 December 2017, providing the country with a three month period for nomination, campaigning and voting for presidential, parliamentary and local council candidates. The constitution emphasizes having genuine elections as a basis of authority for government and for peaceful transfer of power. However, despite three successful elections in the post-war period, managing democratic transitions remains a challenge. The upcoming election is therefore seen as a significant milestone for peace consolidation in
Sierra Leone and more so, a test of the ruling All People’s Congress (APC) party’s democratic credentials1. The governing party has repeatedly stated its commitment to holding elections on March 7th.
This briefing paper goes beyond the verbal proclamations to examine government’s financial and policy support to timely elections and the operational independence of the National Electoral Commission (NEC). We conclude that Sierra Leone’s current economic austerity is having a toll on the country’s preparation for election.
Exactly 17 Months to the March 2018 election, GOSL announced austerity measures resulting from the economic challenges facing the country. The extent of the austerity and its effect on the running of government is only vaguely known to the public. In the
August/September 2017 budget discussions with civil society, at least 50 percent of
Ministries, Departments and Agencies reported that they only received their first allocation for 2017 in June, with quite a number, such as the Law Reform Commission, disclosing that they have not received monies from government since the beginning of the year. GoSL’s monthly fiscal statement on the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development’s (MOFED) website shows that Government’s current spending is primarily on salaries and some infrastructure projects.
Elections also appear to be only a tangential priority for the administration in an imminent election year. NEC has received only 25 percent of the budget allocated to it by government as we we go to press today 14th September 2017.
In a recent national survey of citizens’ knowledge, attitudes and practices (STDC March 2017), 68 percent of voters expressed belief that the NEC will count their votes fairly. However, the recent wave of media attacks and parliamentary questioning of NEC by ruling party officials threatens to undermine this support. The ruling party has raised concerns over 39,000 registered voters (1.3% registered voters) that are supposedly misplaced and not reflected in the final voter registration figures released on the 6th September. There has been missing data cases in previous elections and NEC has a mechanism for addressing such cases. The alarm raised by the governing party therefore reveals underlying tensions between NEC and the governing party that finances elections.
In some instances missing data figures are even exaggerated. For example, even without seeing the voter register, a leading ruling party Parliamentarian stated on BBC (Sept 2nd, 2017) that “an alarming 300,000 (almost 10% of registered voters) voters are missing from the register.” This was followed by a written protest on Tuesday 13th September to NEC by the Secretary General of the ruling party about procedural breaches in the elections process. The civil society National Elections Watch (NEW) has also been accused by the ruling APC Secretary General in a radio interview (Radio Democracy Good Morning Salone 13th Sept) of siding with the opposition.
It is useful to highlight some of the key issues surrounding Sierra Leone’s upcoming elections and proffer solutions for the way forward.
2. KEY ISSUES FACING THE 2018 ELECTION
a. Economic Austerity Affects NEC
Out of the total budget of SLL320billion (approximately $43 million) prepared by NEC for the 2018 election, Government committed to fund SLL209billion ($28million) (see 2017 budget speech). According to the Ministry of Finance, 204 billion was available to
NEC for boundary delimitation, voter registration, and education, candidate nomination and to conduct all elections including any presidential runoff. MOFED approved five
Billion for office administration and rent for the entire period.
Government of Sierra Leone was aware that meeting its financial commitment to NEC is a challenge. The Ministry of Finance and Economic Development (MOFED) therefore approved SLL72.9billion to cover election preparation activities covering January to
June 2017; these activities include voter registration, boundary delimitations, training, voter education and bye-elections. However, as at September 2017, NEC had only received SLL51 Billion of its first six-months allocation (which is 25% of the total elections budget). According to NEC’s spokesman “If not for the good relationships NEC has cultivated with suppliers over the years, the shortfall faced could have affected the voter education, data processing and exhibition process.” Some of NEC suppliers (fuel, boat hire, rental of vehicle, porters, motors bikes, training and media) interviewed for this brief reported that they have all not been paid for services provided for the last 90 days.
b. The Decision to Merger of the Civil and Voter Registration
For the very first time Sierra Leone experimented a merger of voter and civil registration.
Both the managers of the Sierra Leone’s voter register, the National Civil Registration
Authority (NCRA) and NEC agree on the point that some data has been
misplaced2. However, they also agree that this does not mean that the biodata of registrants is lost or cannot be retrieved as data was recorded in no less than three places.
So what then is the (perceived) challenge with the registration data? We note several areas of concern below.
First, combining voter and civil registration for the very first time was bound to raise challenges for the 2018 elections. Making voter registration a job for both the NCRA and NEC has meant that voter registration is not the exclusive domain of NEC.
Consequently, NEC does not have total control over the exercise as in previous elections. For example, the Venezuelan service provider hired for voter registration was 2017 is contractually accountable to NCRA who largely determined the type of information collected, such as ten thumbprints and the origins of parents of registrants. As such the data collected was way beyond the information needed for elections.
Another major issue was the logistical challenges that managing such a huge data posed. The transmission of data from field kits to the central server using low/no speed internet was challenging. NCRA used internet service to transmit data from over 3,300 kits deployed nationwide. Some machines could not transmit in areas with low connectivity.
Kits were also moved from area to area leading to some slippages in transmission.
One would expect that NEC’s past experience in voter registration would have led to a quick turnaround in the production of the 2018 voter register, particularly as 95 percent of the current staff at NEC also conducted the 2012 election. However, in this instance,
NEC and NCRA data management systems were housed separately. NCRA’s central server is at its office in Freetown while NEC’s server is at Wellington in the East end.
They both had to rely on a slow internet connectivity for transmission of information from NCRA to NEC which took a lot of time. In 2012, NEC used 800 machines to capture information from voters. Unlike in 2017 where data from the field were transmitted via internet, NEC used USB sticks to collect data at registration points and transported to Freetown. The speed of delivery of NEC was consequently faster in 2012 than 2017.
Clearly, the merger of the two registration processes presents lessons that elections management arrangements need to note and build on instead of politicizing the lapses.
c. Misconception that Missing Data cannot be Retrieved
One of the narratives in the past few weeks is that data for 39,000 voters is missing.
The view shared by some interest groups is that the act deliberate and that the misplaced data cannot be retrieved. Through explaining how missing data was handled in previous elections, this brief shows why cannot be a big problem for the 2018 elections.
Retrieving missing biodata of registrants is not new to Sierra Leone. There were similar issues in 2007 and 2012. There were cases where the Sierra Leone police had to certify people to vote in bye-elections. However retrieval of missing data was easier in 2012 because registration kits were exclusively controlled by NEC at its Wellington warehouse. It was easier to trace and recapture missing information as the kits were not housed in two separate locations. For missing data cases, a particular form (Form
1B) was given to petitioners to fill for re-registration in the case of data loss. The then
NEC Commissioner Madam Thorpe used the information collected on Form 1B and continued to update the voter register in consultation with election stakeholders.
d. The Operational Independence of NEC
Another challenge NEC has faced is the lack of operational independence, which if government is not careful, can lead to some concerns about NECs credibility in the 2018 polls. This brief highlights three ways NEC’s operational independence is compromised:
a) The uncertainty of state financing of elections and its impact on the timeliness and quality of work as discussed earlier;
b) Overcrowding of the electoral calendar with activities such as redistricting and creation of new chiefdoms that are not crucial to the success of the 2018 polls which stretched staff time. The NEC does not seem to have absolute control over the electoral calendar. For example delineation of constituency and ward boundaries had to be done twice because new districts were created after the first boundary delineation was completed.
c) There has been on-going uncertainty of the job security of the NEC boss. A ruling party MP and supporters have called for his resignation, accusing him of incompetence while sections of the media have called for restructuring of the institution to purge some staff in its middle and senior management cadre. Furthermore, the governing party has issued a statement of concern over NECs work without any admission of the extra burden placed on the organization. For the first time redistricting and civil registration are part of an electoral process.
1. Government should as a matter of urgency prioritize spending of all election activities.
2. There is a need for a multi stakeholder dialogue and confidence building on elections.
During this dialogue, all parties must be made to understand the challenges inherent in the current context and agree on the way forward. The current NEC stakeholder forum should be used for such discussions.
3. NEC public relations need to be forth-coming on information sharing on challenges facing the 2018 elections.
4. PPRC’s programme on tracking hate messages should go beyond personality attacks by aspirants and their supporters and include misinformation and tabloid sensationalism that could derail the electoral calendar. Unsubstantiated statements such as “loss of data for 300,000 voters” coming from a political leader could undermine the authority of an EMB.
5. The ruling party in particular should embark on confidence building activities in the electoral process, address mistrust and recognize its role as a major stakeholder in maintaining the peace in Sierra Leone.
6. All political parties and the PPRC should educate party supporters and the general public about the current transition to a new administration and the role of political parties in respecting the wishes of the electorate.