Could curing Ebola also cure backsliding in Sierra Leone? by Wallace Anne Cloud @ Skidmore College
Sierra Leone has made a dramatic leap of progress towards democracy with peaceful transitions of power over the past couple of decades since the end of the civil war. Freedom House had even awarded the country with a ranking of free after their third successful elections. After gaining independence in 1961, Sierra Leone was led by President Momoh for the next 23 years. Between 1991 and the peaceful elections of May 2002, there were numerous military coups and authoritarian leaders. In those 11 years of civil war, approximately 50,000 Sierra Leoneans were killed in the conflict and over 2 million people were displaced. Since 2002, the country has continued to hold regular elections and has been generally praised by the international community for a commitment to peace. However, around 2013 Sierra Leone began to show signs of gradual democratic backslide. It should be noted, however, that backslide has coincided with the Ebola Virus outbreak that also devastated neighbouring countries, Liberia and Guinea.
After President Koroma’s re-election in 2012, there appeared to be an increase in transparency of the electoral commission and levels of freedom and participation in civil society. However, Sierra Leone’s democratic backslide was marked by Freedom House as beginning in 2014, when it was downgraded to partly-free once again. Corruption in all levels of government were found to be increasing, and the judiciary was proving to be unreliable. With the outbreak of the Ebola virus in 2014, there was a decline in civil liberties due to travel restrictions, quarantines, and curfews. Additionally, the Koroma administration had begun to increase restrictions on the media, using the public health crisis of the Ebola outbreak to justify the expansion of executive power.
The Ebola virus was key in the decline of civil liberties in Sierra Leone beginning in 2013/14. The virus was a clear example of a disaster that the president was able to capitalise on through what appears to be executive aggrandizement. Bermeo describes this process as the dismantling of the current political structure to enhance executive power through legal means, often through a majority or corruption in the legislative or judiciary branches. In 2014, President Koroma announced a state of emergency, in which he used public safety as a guise to expand executive power, reduce civil freedoms through quarantines, closed borders and restricted movement, introduce curfews, and ban public gatherings.
In what has been perceived to be a response by the government to control the perception of the Ebola outbreak reaction, the freedom of the press and media outlets of Sierra Leone have been rolled back in recent years. Sierra Leon’s Independent Media Commission (IMC) is made up of members who are appointed by the president and then approved by the parliament. Over the course of a few months in 2015, the IMC issued 19 fines to various media and newspaper outlets for alleged defamation or falsehood, primarily for any reporting that proved critical of the Sierra Leonean government. Access to information during the Ebola crisis was essential, however in reality, was mostly absent. Foreign media outlets have to register with the government within the country, which make them subject to the governments regulations. Although the internet is a free outlet, most ordinary citizens do not have access to this type of media, and low literacy rates prevent the entirety of the population from reading print news. This means there is a high reliance on radio and television – a less of a diverse source of news outlets for citizens. The effects of the disease were exacerbated due to a gap in public knowledge that came from an absence of information as well as mistrust in the government itself. Sierra Leone has proven to be sensitive to international criticism of their response to the Ebola crisis which has led to decreased journalistic freedom.
The nation’s fourth election since the end of the civil war was held in March. It was the first election where there was a viable candidate that was not a member of the two leading political parties, which signalled promise for Sierra Leone. However, the elections went to a second round after results were too close to call and Julius Maada Bio, who is a member of the opposing party of the incumbent President Koroma, won by a slim margin. The elections began in a promising manner but quickly fell apart a strong military presence that lead to voter intimidation. Additionally, there were reports of at least three journalists beaten and having their cameras destroyed by members of the opposition party. As recently as this week, a legal challenge has been filed against President Bio, who was sworn in on the 4th of April, citing ‘irregularities’ in the results and calling for a new vote. The challenge claims that the register contained irregularities and strong voter intimidation. If this proves true, it would be a strong marker of democratic backslide after almost two decades of process. Prior to this year’s election, democratic backslide coincided strongly with the Ebola crisis, suggesting that the end of the Ebola crisis would lead to a rise in the freedom ratings of the country. The past month, however, has shown that Sierra Leone has far to go in order to protect their democracy and it is important to continue monitoring the situation in the coming months.