Peace Imperiled In Sierra Leone As Opposition Party Disputes Election, Calls Boycott

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By Jacey Fortin | November 29, 2012 12:04 PM EST

A political boycott is threatening the peace in Sierra Leone, a West African nation where memories of a devastating 11-year civil war keep the citizenry on edge.

The Sierra Leone People’s Party, or SLPP, lost a general election this month and has blamed the outcome on fraud. SLPP is now calling for its members to boycott parliament in order to force an independent review of the election results.

“We demand the unconditional release of all SLPP members and supporters who are currently in police custody,” said the SLPP in a statement Tuesday.

“In the spirit of reconciliation, we also call on government to [discontinue] all pending political matters in our local courts. We demand an independent international assessment of the electoral process, results and the democratic institutions involved in the process.”

A general election on Nov. 17 resulted in a second term for President Ernest Bai Koroma. He won 58.7 percent of the popular vote, it was announced on Nov. 23 – enough to avoid a run-off. His party, the All People’s Congress, also won a majority of seats in the parliament: 67 out of 112. The SLPP lost three seats and now holds 42.

The losing SLPP presidential candidate Julius Maada Bio is among those who said the results were fraudulent. His vehement allegations have only heightened political rivalries, and many domestic and international observers are urging caution lest the controversy erupt into violence. The election was deemed fair by outside observers, though some European monitors criticized the ACP for using state resources to fund its campaign.

War is the backdrop to this political drama, though you wouldn’t know it at first glance. Sierra Leone is rich in natural resources. It has miles of tourist-friendly beaches, lush vegetation, and an abundance of gold and diamonds.

This wealth was mismanaged by a series of rulers after the country gained independence in 1961, and in 1991, the abuse of assets erupted into a violent conflict whose repercussions still cast a shadow over the country.

During the war, the ease of access to valuable resources – especially diamonds – helped to fund weapons and mercenary fighters. The violent clashes lasted until 2002, killing about 50,000 people.

Sierra Leone has enjoyed a relative peace over the past decade. This month’s vote marked the fourth successful general election in Sierra Leone since the war ended. Economic growth is apparent, and in 2010, the U.N. Security Council lifted all economic sanctions against the Sierra Leonean government. With the help of international donors, investments are being made into agriculture and infrastructure.

On the other hand, poverty remains a major problem, unemployment is stubbornly high, and corruption plagues the government at all levels. Although elections have been fair, violence ahead of major polls is not unheard of.

Supporters of SLPP, which controlled the government until the APC won a general election in 2007, argue that Koroma has not proven himself an adept leader and does not deserve another chance to solve the many problems he promises to address. But APC supporters disagree.

Immediately upon his re-election, Koroma addressed the serious challenges that still face Sierra Leone after years of peace.

"We will focus on creating jobs for the youths, and on training our youths to seize the immense employment opportunities we are creating in the construction, mining, agriculture and other sectors," he said during his acceptance speech, according to Agence France-Presse.

"We will continue with our infrastructural development programs; we will continue to attract investment; we will continue to fight corruption."

At this point, the effects of an SLPP boycott remain to be seen. The APC has responded coolly to the news; spokesman Unisa Sesay told Reuters that the opposition party was fully within its rights to abstain from the political process should it decide to do so.

“This is a democratic country,” he said. “It is their right not to go.”

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