By Amin Kef-Ranger
In a Press Statement by the National Election Watch (NEW) dated 27th June, 2022 it was stated how the Electoral Commission for Sierra Leone (ECSL) on Saturday 25th June 2022 conducted six bye- elections in Constituency 056 Tonkolili District; Ward 031, Kenema district; Ward 138, Falaba district; Ward 252, Port Loko District; and Wards 212 and 216 in Karene District.
Further highlighted was that the National Election Watch (NEW) observed all six bye-elections noting that there was no major violence but a very high rate of invalid votes across all election localities disclosing that the six bye-elections registered a total of 1,259 invalid votes.
According to NEW, the bye-elections were as a result of vacancies due to various reasons in the constituency and five wards revealing how in Constituency 056, the Member of Parliament representing the constituency contested a Paramount Chieftaincy Election in one of the chiefdoms (Sambaia Bendugu chiefdom) in the constituency and won thereby losing his seat in Parliament.
It continued by also disclosing that in Ward 216 in Karene District, long absence of the substantive Councillor accounted for the vacancy were as in Wards 031 in Kenema, 138 in Falaba, 212 in Karene and 252 in Port Loko districts, were all as a result of deaths of the substantive Councillors.
The elections watch entity stated its observation of the six bye-elections was in conformity with provisions in the 1991 Constitution of Sierra Leone, the Public Elections Act 2012 and International, Regional and Sub Regional instruments guiding election observation to contribute to the conduct of credible free and fair elections.
It furthered how it recruited, trained and deployed stationed observers in all polling stations in Constituency 056 in Tonkolili district and in all polling centres in the five Wards where bye-elections were conducted.
NEW added how it also deployed teams of supervisors and roving observers in all election locations to support the stationed observers as part of their problem-solving mechanism by promptly moving information about incidents from the polling stations to the relevant authorities for timely intervention to avoid such incidents adversely affecting the outcome of the electoral process.
The Elections Monitoring and Observer body stated that it observed the entire activities in the conduct of the six bye-elections including a pre-election assessment of the elections environment and the entire Election Day processes of opening of polls, closing, reconciliation and counting, and the following day the tallying and announcement of the provisional results.
It continued by pointing out that it noted the professional and efficient manner in which the ECSL conducted all six bye-elections and the presence of very senior members of the Commission including the Chief Electoral Commissioner who doubles as the Chairman of the Commission, Commissioner for Eastern Region and the newly appointed Commissioner for Northern Region.
NEW also underscored how it equally noted the visible presence of both the Sierra Leone Police and personnel of the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF) and their professional conduct in maintaining peace and order but yet not obstructing or interfering in the elections process.
The entity said it further observed an impressive and well- coordinated observation strategy of international partners, Embassies with the visible presence of Heads of Missions maintaining how that effort added value to the credence of the election process in the Constituency and some wards.
It also noted the presence of other democratic institutions, civil society groups and the media.
Among NEW’s findings were that: Polling Stations opened on time, ECSL staff was mainly youth with more males deployed in Constituency 056 and more females in the Ward elections, there were tactile ballot guides in some polling stations but did not observe it being used, all the political parties deployed party agents in all Polling Stations except in Ward 252, Port Loko district where the NDA party did not deploy party agents.
Also, in Constituency 056, Tonkolili district, Wards 252 and 216 in Port Loko and Karene districts respectively, NEW observed that it was only the APC party agents that had the Final Voter Register in polling stations which they used to cross check registered voters.
That in Constituency 056, APC deployed senior party officials as party agents, Voter turn-out in Constituency 056 was 50.6%, in Ward 031 Kenema district 38.7%, in Ward 138 Falaba district 48.0%, in Ward 252 Port Loko district 33.6%, ward 212 in Karene district 30.5% and in ward 216 Karene district also, 50.9%.
It discovered that Police and military presence was highly visible in all polling centres in Constituency 056, Tonkolili district and in Ward 138 in Falaba District, that in Ward 138, Falaba District, both APC and SLPP party agents displayed peaceful and cordial relationship and jointly resolved minor issues that occurred on polling day.
NEW found out that tallying of bye-election results was conducted without interruption for all the wards but such was not the case for the tallying of results for Constituency 056 in Tonkolili district.
It discovered that some way in the tallying process, the two SLPP agents in the Tallying Centre handed over a letter to the tallying officers and left the Tallying Centre.
Later on, it observed that another set of SLPP party agents different from the initial two came into the Tallying Centre.
And just before the announcement of the provisional results, another four SLPP supporters entered the Tallying Centre, requested that the announcement be put on hold as they had a complaint to make.
NEW said they then brandished Results Reconciliation Forms (RRFs) which they claimed recorded over voting and some not signed by the Presiding Officer and their party agents.
However, NEW stated that it was unable to verify the claim because they could not examine the said RRFs and the Regional Returning Officer informed that he will perform his duty of announcing the Provisional results but that they will look into the complaint afterwards.
The institution raised certain concerns, among which were, at Polling centre 7230 RC Primary School Kanigban with 3 polling stations, the former National Women’s Leader of the SLPP, Madam Fatmata Sawaneh, entered the centre and ordered the Polling Center Manager (PCM) of ECSL, to ask out all NEW observers from the polling stations claiming the NEW observers to be members of the APC party.
It was mentioned that the PCM consulted one of his Line Mangers who instructed him to allow all accredited NEW Observers to stay in the polling stations and continue the observation of the elections.
That the 2023 elections will be held in June, and they are concerned about the difficult terrain that will be a hindrance to the easy deployment of ECSL personnel, election materials, voters, observers and the supervisory component of the election exercises.
NEW said it is also concerned about the poor internet connectivity and limited or no mobile phone coverage in some parts of the country as is the case in several locations where the bye- elections were conducted.
That the incidence of invalid votes was alarming in the six bye-elections as the number of invalid votes can change the outcome of an election.
In terms of incidents observed NEW said there were few but not significant.
NEW recommended that the ECSL must continue to exhibit neutrality and professionalism in the conduct of elections and to be proactive in managing incidences to ensure credible, free and fair elections, that the ECSL and political parties should endeavor to step up voter education to reduce the incidence of invalid votes, ECSL should enforce the equal representation of political party agents at results Tallying Centres.
That the PPRC should continue their robust engagements with the election processes especially the conduct of the float parade that has contributed to peaceful Election Day environment, the ONS, SLP and RSLAF continue to maintain professionalism in providing security for subsequent elections among other recommendations.