Every general election since Sierra Leone became independent of Britain in April 1961 has either been preceded by or held in the aftermath of a major political controversy or some other crisis that significantly altered the nation's political landscape. The promise of free and fair elections at independence dissipated within a few short years, beginning in 1967 when the military intervened to stop the transfer of political power from Prime Minister Albert M. Margai of the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) to the leader of the opposition All People's Congress (APC), Siaka P. Stevens. Pre-civil war general elections (1967-86) ended Sierra Leone's fragile parliamentary system of government and was replaced by one-party rule with an imperial presidency. Sharp economic declines, political violence, electoral fraud, and corruption distorted the electoral process. This state of affairs culminated in a brutal civil war (1991-2002), precipitated by Foday Sankoh's Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in an attempt to overthrow President Joseph S. Momoh's APC government. The multiparty Constitution of 1991 ended one-party rule but remained in abeyance as the civil war ground on.
The general elections of 1996, held in the midst of the civil war, resulted in the transfer of power from the military junta that overthrew Momoh's government in April 1992, the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC), to a civilian government led by Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. The 2002 presidential and parliamentary elections consolidated the shaky peace process and ramped up the political gains Kabbah and the SLPP had made in 1996. The August/September 2007 general elections were the first to be held since the departure of UN peacekeepers (in 2005), deployed to the country at the height of the civil war in 1998. These relatively peaceful and transparent elections resulted in the defeat of the incumbent vice president and the return to power of the APC after a fifteen-year hiatus. The elections also formed pan of the continuum of post-conflict reconstruction, stabilization, and nation-building that began in 1996. One election observer group hailed them as "landmark elections" not only because they effected a civilian-to-civilian transfer of power in contrast to the aborted transfer of power in 1967, but also because they "provided an opportunity to test the ability of Sierra Leone to live peacefully within a system of electoral politics premised on respect for human rights. peace, stability and competitive party politics." (1)
Nevertheless, competitive party politics have not yet produced the hoped-for economic recovery that is often the basis of domestic tranquility. The government continues to depend on external funding to overcome mounting poverty, unemployment, and a lack of basic services. (2) In the 2009 Human Development Report, published by the UN Development Program, Sierra Leone ranked 180th among 182 countries (ahead of Afghanistan and Niger) in the human development index. (3) its "weak state" status has led the U.S. Department of State to classify it as a "rebuilding country," meaning one currently emerging from and rebuilding after an internal conflict. (4) Washington's perception that weak states often pose a national security threat became more pronounced after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks; it responded to the challenge by supporting electoral reforms in Sierra Leone and other countries experiencing internal conflicts. (5)
This paper critically examines the 2007 parliamentary and presidential elections in Sierra Leone as a model of competitive multiparty politics in a post-conflict state. Governmental legitimacy that gives rulers the right to act on behalf of their citizens derives in part from elections which are the preferred means of electing political leaders. But as the post-independence period has shown, elections became exercises in political futility as more states adopted single-party systems that outlawed opposition parties. …