FROM FORMER BENIN PRESIDENT NICEPHORE SOGLO - On behalf of The Carter Center election observation delegation and my co-leader, Ambassador Gordon Streeb, I would like to offer the following preliminary remarks about the Sierra Leone Presidential and Parliamentary Elections on May 14, 2002:
Broader Democratic and Peace Processes
The May 14 elections represent a tremendous step forward for Sierra Leone. After ten years of devastating civil war, the Sierra Leonean people have made a courageous choice in favor of peace. They should be congratulated for this choice and every effort must be made to ensure that the peace will be a lasting one. Election day itself is only one part of this process. A long road still lies ahead for Sierra Leoneans as they seek to consolidate democratic institutions, reaffirm the rule of law, and build a framework for sustainable development.
It is incumbent upon the new government, all political parties, and the people of Sierra Leone to recognize the fragility of peace and work collectively to build a more tolerant, unified society. To achieve these goals, it will be necessary to reach out to opposition leaders and to find creative ways to address the concerns of those groups that believe they have been marginalized in the past. The new government will need to support the efforts of those trying to steer the youth of Sierra Leone towards a more constructive engagement with their country's future. This future will also require commitment to a genuine healing and appropriate judicial processes.
The elections in Sierra Leone also must be viewed within the context of the conflict among and within countries of the Mano River Union. Sierra Leone remains deeply connected to its neighbors and shares the sub-region's collective fate. A stronger, peaceful Sierra Leone is a major victory for regional peace. Carter Center delegation members from Liberia called on the international community to recognize that the escalating crisis in Liberia has the strong potential to threaten Sierra Leone and the international community's substantial investment here.
Several groups should be recognized for their contribution to the electoral process. Voters turned out in high numbers for the polls, often waiting in line for several hours to cast their ballots. An important role was also played by domestic observer groups that were present throughout the country. We are hopeful that these groups will continue to build on their positive experiences during the election period.
Political party agents were essential to the integrity of voting day. The presence of representatives from several parties in many polling stations encouraged transparency and helped to enhance voter confidence. The role of party agents would have been improved if certain materials had been available earlier, especially the list of registered voters. More generally, political parties showed their commitment to find constructive, peaceful ways to participate in the governance of Sierra Leone and to strengthen their own internal capacity to represent their constituencies.
Sierra Leone should be commended for holding the May 14 elections under extremely difficult circumstances. Carter Center observers encountered many young, energetic and competent election officials. In addition, these officials showed a great deal of commitment to making the process inclusive, especially for disabled, displaced, or other persons who needed special assistance. Security personnel from both the Sierra Leone Police and UNAMSIL played a critical role in maintaining order and did not interfere in the process.
While The Carter Center delegation observed only the immediate electoral period, our discussions with political parties and long-term observers included pre-electoral issues. Activities such as voter registration and campaigning, including the use of state resources and media coverage, typically help to determine whether the electoral environment is tilted toward one party or another. The registration process poses particular difficulties, not only in Sierra Leone, but throughout Africa and elsewhere. The imperfections of voter registration here and the absence of accurate census information had significant repercussions on polling day. For example, our observers noted a number of minors voting and found that many voters were confused about polling station locations.
The Carter Center has also received reports of intimidation of party agents during the campaign period and up to election day. Party representatives in Freetown as well as the districts have complained to our delegation that they lacked sufficient communication with or information from the National Electoral Commission. In particular, they should have received greater quantities of educational materials to train their polling agents, and copies of voter lists in a timely manner. NEC interaction with political parties appeared to favor well-structured parties with greater access to resources. Finally, our observers found voter education to be sorely deficient. In some instances where polling officials and domestic observers had to intervene, the secrecy of the ballot was compromised.
While we welcome the intention of the NEC to ensure security on voting day by providing for a Special Election Day for members of the military, police, and specific election officials, and we noted high levels of participation and order, this format created some specific problems. Despite assurances given by the NEC that it would not be possible to identify the votes cast by specific units, ballots were counted separately and the information released. This compromised the secrecy of the ballot.
By and large, Carter Center observers found that election day proceeded smoothly throughout the country, with no substantiated reports of violence. This is an extremely important achievement. Materials also appeared to be in ample supply and polling officials and party agents worked together at many polling stations to assist the voting process.
However, at many stations voters and polling officials alike had too little information about the process, especially concerning the provisions for absentee and transfer voters. Lists were incomplete or lacking in many cases, causing confusion and some frustration. The mid-morning decision by the NEC to allow voters to cast their ballots at any polling station upon presentation of their voter ID cards was responsive to a tense situation and improved the atmosphere and the flow of voters. However, NEC announcements were inconsistently interpreted by polling officials and opened the door to potential abuses.
In meetings with political parties after election day, the leaders of our delegation heard other specific complaints. There were concerns that party agents were denied entry to polling stations and prevented from monitoring the process in several districts. There are also accusations that some ballot boxes were not secured during their transfer from polling stations to collation centers. Better communication between the NEC and UNAMSIL would have reduced these concerns.
Preliminary reports from Carter Center observers suggest problems in some districts, including multiple voting, underage voting, and direct interference with the marking of ballots. Whether witnessed by our observers or reported by others, these problems must be taken seriously in the interest of a transparent and credible process capable of winning the endorsement of all stakeholders.
Carter Center Delegation
The Carter Center's 22-person observation delegation consists of election experts, regional specialists, human rights activists, and civic leaders from eight countries, including seven civil society representatives from the Mano River Union sub-region. Representatives of The Carter Center traveled to Sierra Leone twice during the past year for pre-election assessments, and a small staff team arrived in Freetown on May 1, 2002. The majority of our delegation arrived on May 10 and held meetings with candidates from several political parties, the National Electoral Commission (NEC), Sierra Leonean civil society leaders, and representatives of diplomatic missions and the United Nations. Observation teams were deployed from May 12-16 to ten districts in each of the four provinces of Sierra Leone. The Center will issue a final statement about the elections once all delegates have reported their findings and the electoral process has been completed.
The role of our delegation in Sierra Leone has been to observe in an impartial manner and to convey our findings to the people of Sierra Leone and the international community. Our presence is intended to demonstrate the international community's support for peace and democracy through elections that reflect the will of the electorate of Sierra Leone and that meet minimum international standards. In addition, the mission's specific composition sought to reinforce the efforts of regional civil society organizations as they work to enhance cooperation between the peoples of the Mano River Union.
The Carter Center is a non-profit, non-governmental organization (NGO) founded in 1982 by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter, and based in Atlanta, GA, USA. Since 1989, the Center has observed more than 30 elections in 20 countries around the world. As observers, we remain partial to the democratic process, but strictly impartial to the results. Our goals are to play a supportive role in strengthening public confidence in the elections, deterring potential abuses, focusing international and domestic attention on the process, and reinforcing the work of domestic observers.
The Center has extensive experience working for peace, democracy, and human rights in West Africa. President Carter co-led a 40-person delegation to monitor the special elections in Liberia, and he visited the country on several other occasions. The Center's field office in Monrovia worked with human rights and other civil society groups from 1991 to 2000. The Center also worked with the National Democratic Institute (NDI) to observe the multi-stage election process in Nigeria, culminating in a 66-person delegation co-led by President Carter to observe the February 1999 presidential elections. A Carter Center team is also currently in Mali observing the presidential election process.
The Carter Center would like to express our appreciation to the delegations from the European Union, the Commonwealth, ECOWAS and the Organization for African Unity (OAU) in Sierra Leone, who have worked in cooperation with us during the last two weeks. In addition, we are grateful for the efforts of the United Nations Electoral Unit, which has facilitated coordination and information-sharing among all observation groups, particularly with regard to logistics and security. Our thanks also go to representatives of Sierra Leonean and international civil society groups who contributed to the briefings for our delegation on the politics, law, and electoral process of Sierra Leone prior to the election.