Sierra Leone
Between 1990 and 1999, the United Nations listed forty-nine conflicts, many of them in Africa. Of these, forty-six were fueled with weapons that the United States and Russia⁠1 had donated to their proxies during the cold war. The proliferation of small arms expanded as former Soviet States sold weapons to generate revenue.
In Africa, many of the combatants were children.
The seeds to Sierra Leone’s civil war stem from the patronage and corruption that became the focal point of the country’s disillusioned people in the first decades after independence. For almost two decades, the All People’s Congress (APC) repressed its opponents, conducted fraudulent elections, and fostered a culture of corruption and impunity.
⁠2 In Mauro’s seminal work on corruption, he measured the cost in terms of economic growth⁠3. In Sierra Leone, it cost much more.
Student disaffection over this state of affairs and over repressive government actions gave rise to the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Radical college student leaders helped recruit Foday Sankoh and other Sierra Leoneans for military training in Benghazi, Libya, for an armed revolution against the APC regime in 1987. By 1989, the students had completely abandoned their revolutionary project, but they had laid the foundation for a brutal civil war that would bleed Sierra Leone for a decade. Sankoh and two other Libyan trainees, Abu Kanu and Rashid Mansaray, would eventually link up with Charles Taylor, head of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), whom they had met in Libya in 1988. Taylor had started his own revolution against Samuel Doe’s regime in Liberia in 1989. That war-ravaged nation gave Sankoh and his comrades a fertile recruiting ground and a launching pad for their war in Sierra Leone.
Taylor viewed the RUF as part of a greater panWest African “revolutionary” enterprise to replace repressive dictatorial governments.
Sierra Leone’s resource curse exacerbated the problems. Taylor and the RUF pillaged natural resources, particularly diamonds (
blood diamonds), transforming the RUF into a transnational criminal enterprise.
In Sierra Leone, an estimated 5,000 under-age combatants were forced or volunteered into various armed factions. Many were provided with drugs such as marijuana and cocaine and forced or encouraged to take part in atrocities.
⁠6 Amputation was a favored terrorism technique particularly during elections. Stable government was an existential threat to the RUF, and voters’ inked fingers marked them as RUF targets.
''Then I was amputated and the man told me to go to Tejan Kabbah,'' a voter recalled, mentioning the name of the President who was elected to office in 1996. ''These hands I used to vote for Tejan Kabbah. So I will never vote for him, no more again.''
Neither Kabbah’s government nor the RUF gave any real commitment to the Abidjan Peace Agreement, signed in November 1996.
The public had developed a deep distrust of the army because of its “sobel” (s
oldier by day, rebel by night) activities, colluding with the RUF, and the army’s undisguised opposition to democratic elections and civilian rule.
The mistrust was not unwarranted. On May 25, 1997, a group of disgruntled soldiers freed Major Johnny Paul Koroma, who been imprisoned for treasonable offenses, and staged a military coup, forcing the Kabbah government and thousands of Sierra Leoneans into exile in neighboring Guinea.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the United Nations condemned the coup. Ultimately, it was ECOWAS troops (ECOMOG), and loyal RSLMF soldiers that dislodged the renegade soldiers, and restored the Kabbah’s government in February 1998. The RUF “vowed to make the country ungovernable.” The Armed Forces Redemption Council (AFRC) that was the coup junta set its sights on retaking Freetown and reinstalling themselves in power.
The AFRC engaged in mass recruitment and the abduction of civilians. Eventually, it had 2,000 fighters armed with AK-47s, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and heavy mortars. The AFRC blazed a trail of destruction and atrocities, forcing ECOMOG troops to pull back from major towns in the northern region. The RUF, with arms reportedly provided by Charles Taylor in Liberia and Blaise Campaoré in Burkina Faso, raced through Kono and Makeni and on to Freetown. The RUF then joined the AFRC, using thousands of civilians as human shields, in reentering Freetown on January 6, 1999.
The government and ECOMOG misjudged the scale and intensity of the attack, with horrendous consequences for the city.
⁠8 According to the Commission, it “. . . quickly evolved into one of the most concentrated spates of human rights abuse and atrocities against civilians perpetrated by any group or groups during the entire history of the conflict.” ECOMOG, replenished by fresh battalions from Nigeria and supported by the Kamajors, succeeded in pushing AFRC and RUF combatants out of the city, but the retreating combatants left a horrific trail of mutilation, death, and destruction of government and private property.
By May 1999, the financial and human cost of counterinsurgency operations had also become burdensome for Guinea, Ghana, and Nigeria, the main contributors to ECOMOG. Over 800 ECOMOG troops (mostly Nigerian) had been killed, and the operation was costing Nigeria $1 million a day.
⁠9 Since it had become painfully obvious that the conflict could not be resolved by military force, international pressure mounted on the Kabbah government to recognize the RUF and negotiate with Sankoh.
By then it had become painfully obvious that the conflict could not be resolved by military force, international pressure mounted on the Kabbah government to recognize the RUF and negotiate with Sankoh. This resulted in the the Lomé Peace Accord.
The accord called for deployment of a peace keeping force comprising ECOMOG and UNAMSIL (the United Nations peacekeeping mission) to oversee the peace process. Having failed to learn the lessons from the genocide in Bosnia, the United Nations placed an Indian general in charge of the African UNAMSIL troops. Not able to win the loyalty of his troops or his officers, the general struggled.
⁠10 The general and his deputy were in open conflict. The civilian SRSG was intervening in military decisions. On May 6, 2000, the RUF exploited the confusion, by kidnapping and disarming 498 UN peace- keepers. The next day, the RUF shot down a UN helicopter.
The British government ordered a non-combatant evacuation operation (NEO) to rescue British citizens and officials trapped in Sierra Leone. What started as a NEO developed into something that had all the characteristics of a small to medium-scale war-fighting operation. When the British troop came under fire they found themselves de facto closely involved with the direction of a campaign at the operational level. These developments were not directed by London. Orders had been to do a NEO and ‘get out’. It was individuals on the ground that transformed the rules of engagement and gained support of political leaders back in London, “cutting out all the layers in between”.
Support came from the highest level of Government, including Number 10, the Foreign Office, and the newly-established Department for International Development (DfID). The at first ad hoc twin-track operation (support to the UN on the one hand and assistance to the Government of Sierra Leone and its loyal armed groupings on the other) rapidly supplanted the evacuation exercise and soon became official UK strategy.
This marked a turning point.
Shortly after the UK’s decisive military action, the AFRC declared an end to its war against the government, announced its commitment to the peace accord, and begged the people’s forgiveness for the wrongs committed by the AFRC and its members.
DfID funded a program to restructure and train Sierra Leone’s army, intelligence services, and police with a £30 million grant.
Transfer of control over the diamond fields to the government marked a significant milestone in the strategic campaign plan drawn by the Sierra Leone government and UK military advisers.
In neighboring Liberia, the international tide turned sharply against Charles Taylor, weakening his influence and ability to destabilize Sierra Leone.
⁠13 This opened the door for a transition to stability and democracy.
The 2002 election
The electoral process got underway with voter registration for an estimated 2.7 million eligible Sierra Leone citizens from Jan. 24 to Feb. 10, 2002⁠14. Despite difficulties including high illiteracy rates, limited media and voter education outreach, inadequate materials and staff at some registration sites, and changes in the voter registration system over 2.3 million citizens registered.
In organizing the Sierra Leone elections, the National Electoral Commission (NEC) faced enormous logistical challenges. One of the most significant issues was the need to facilitate voting for as many as 450,000 people displaced during the war, who were allowed to register in one location and vote in another with “transfer vote” documents. The weakness in the voter registration lists and the complexity of the transfer vote system led to widespread reports early on May 14 of voters being turned away from the polls. In response, the NEC announced a policy change midmorning on election day that was interpreted differently around the country, causing disenfranchisement of some voters and a lack of uniformity in the voting process.
Nevertheless, a total of 1.9 million registered voters cast ballots on May 10 and 14, 2002, in a process that was largely considered credible.
Kabbah was reelected in a landslide
⁠15 with over 70% of the vote.⁠16 The RUF Party (RUFP), a political party formed out of the remnants of the RUF leadership, received less than two percent of the vote.
Through its International Military Assistance Training Team (IMATT), the UK continued to assist the government to integrate former RUF and AFRC insurgents into the army, building a command structure to mitigate against future coups or the establishment of a military-backed authoritarian regime.
The 2007 election
With a constitutional limit of two terms and Kabbah at the end of his second term, the 2007 election heralded a new president. Whilst the process generally ran smoothly, it became evident during the second round of the presidential election that there were a high number of irregularities in the result forms delivered to the NEC. This suggested that there had been ballot stuffing and other malpractices in a number of polling stations mainly in the south and eastern parts of the country, with polling officials either complicit in or directly involved. When faced with the major challenge of these irregularities, the NEC demonstrated that it remained firmly committed to the principles of independence and impartiality and acted to annul the 477 polling stations where voter turnout was recorded above 100 per cent.⁠17
None of the candidates obtained votes in excess the 55% threshold in the first round of the Presidential election. In the second round, Ernest Bai Koroma of the APC became president with 54.6% of the vote.
The 2012 election
The National Electoral Commission took steps to implement recommendations from the 2007 elections.
The biometric registration of voters in 2012 is considered a notable achievement
⁠19, resulting in 2,692,635⁠20 enrolled voters.
The field registration of voters took place from Jan. 23 to March 26, 2012.
⁠21 Not having learned from the difficulties it had experienced in Afghanistan’s failed registration in 2009, the UNDP, as advisor to the NEC, had not made arrangements for matching the biometric fingerprints, and deduplicating multiple registrants. This exacerbated the ⁠22difficulty and cost⁠23 of the task. Having become urgent, the project was outsourced for $2 million. The contract with the service provider was signed on 14 May 2012⁠24. The voter lists and registration cards were delivered on 22 June 2012, just in time to meet the deadlines set out in the recently published Public Elections Act.⁠25 While solving the immediate crises, the prohibitive cost of outsourcing created an unsustainable voter register.
President Ernest Bai Koroma of the All People’s Congress was re-elected with 58.7 percent
⁠26of the valid votes, ahead of his main challenger, Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), who garnered 37.4 percent of the valid ballots cast. Over 87 percent of registered voters participated in the election.⁠27
The 2018 election
In 2015, the World Bank commissioned a report⁠28 into the development of a national identity register. The basis for the report was an ambitious plan⁠29 of the Government of Sierra Leone (GOSL), under guidance from the UNDP, to create a national civil register, integrating the various national registers, including the voter register. It is notable that the National Electoral Commission is not included in the list of stakeholders⁠30 consulted in compiling the report.
The integration of national identity databases has numerous benefits. It establishes citizens as the government’s clients, creates efficiencies, and simplifies detection of identity fraud. However, the body responsible needs to protect the Electoral Commission’s autonomy from government interference. It must also be able to meet the strict electoral deadlines. The report failed to identify these key requirements. The events that followed reflected that deficiency.
The National Civil Registration Act of 2016
⁠31 contradicts the NEC’s constitutional mandate to register voters for elections. The Constitution mandates the registration of voters under the direction and supervision of the NEC and requires that the voter register be revised and reviewed at least once every three years⁠32. The National Civil Registration Act established the National Civil Registration Authority (NCRA), which was then tasked with preparing the voters data for the upcoming national elections⁠33.
This decision resulted in the scrapping the costly existing biometric voter register, and the creation of a complete new biometric register using new biometric equipment.
The nationwide civil registration exercise, scheduled for 2016, was delayed due to the late arrival of biometric machines and the lack of capacity and funding of the newly established NCRA. At the same time, opposition parties and some civil society organizations voiced mistrust in the NCRA to act impartially in fulfilling its mandate to ensure an accurate civil and voter register, citing a lack of genuine independence of the body from a politicized public service. The dates for the civil registration exercise were moved several times from October 2016 to December, then to February 2017, and finally to March 2017. Since the legal deadline for compiling the voter register was approaching, the NEC, with its extensive experience in conducting voter registration exercises, assumed the lead in the civil registration exercise so as to ensure that it had a voter register to extract in time for the 2018 elections.
While technically the process was one of civil registration, in effect the NEC conducted a voter registration exercise. The first stage took place March 20 - April 30, 2017, and the second stage occurred shortly thereafter.
The registration process was widely reported as chaotic, slow, and cumbersome. These factors were attributed to understaffing and a low capacity of registration staff. The data collected was broader than that needed for voter registration. Citizens waited in line for many hours or had to return the next day. As a result, and following a call from political parties, the NEC extended the legal deadline for the voter registration period from 15 to 42 days.
According to the NEC and other interlocutors
⁠35, the biometric equipment used for the 2018 exercise, procured by the government for the NCRA to conduct the civil registration, was not always reliable, with some machines breaking down and data for some registrants not fully captured, particularly photos. Transmission of the data from the equipment to the central server, which was under the NCRA’s permanent control, was slow due to low or no internet connectivity.
After a two-month period of adjudication and de-duplication conducted by the NCRA during which 53,000 duplicate entries were found, the NEC received the provisional voter register for exhibition between 22 and 28 August 2017, followed by a three-day period for challenges. On 6 September 2017, only just complying with the legal six-month deadline before elections, the NEC announced the number of registered voters to be 3,178,663.
⁠36 The increase of 18.1% over the previous tally of registered voters seems improbably high, given the low birth rates that prevailed during the conflict at the time that these new registrants would need to have been born.
Following finalization of the voter register, the NEC did an electronic comparison of all registered photos and determined that more than 1,500 duplicate registrations had taken place. Facial recognition is an inappropriate biometric to identify duplicates. While significant improvements have been achieved in reducing false acceptance rate, the reduction of the false rejection rate, crucial for deduplication, even under ideal conditions, is unacceptably high.
It is unclear how the NCRA’s deduplication was conducted, but the result of NEC’s deduplication exercise raises serious questions about technology that the NCRA has adopted.
In the first-round of the presidential election on 7 March, the SLPP candidate gained 43.3%, the then ruling APC received 42.7%, followed by the NGC and C4C securing 6.9% and 3.5% respectively. In the parliamentary election, the APC led with 68 seats to the SLPP’s 49 seats. The new parties entered parliament for the first time with 8 seats for the C4C and 4 seats for the NGC.
On 4 April the SLPP presidential candidate, Julius Maada Bio was declared winner of the run-off with 51.8%
⁠37 beating the APC rival Samura Kamara who received 48.2%.

2 Abdul Karim Koroma, Sierra Leone: The Agony of a Nation (Freetown, Sierra Leone: Andromeda, 1996), 242.
3 Paolo Mauro, Corruption and Growth, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 110, Issue 3, August 1995, Pages 681–712,
4 Impunity:
Countering Illicit Power in War and Transition: Chapter 8 Sierra Leone: The Revolutionary United Front, Ismail Rashid

5 Ibrahim Abdullah, “Bush Path to Destruction: The Origin and Character of the Revolutionary United Front / Sierra Leone,” Journal of Modern African Studies 36, no. 2 (1998): 203-35.
8 Jimmy Kandeh, “Subaltern Terror in Sierra Leone,” in Africa in Crisis: New Challenges and Possibilities,
ed. Tunde Zack-Williams, Diane Frost, and Alex Thompson (London: Pluto, 2002)

9 Ismail Rashid, “The Lomé Peace Negotiations,” Accord 9 (2000): 26-33
11 Security System Transformation in Sierra Leone, 1997-2007,%201997-2007.pdf 58

12 Adekeye Adebajo and David Keen, “Sierra Leone,” in United Nations Interventionism, 1991-2004, ed. Mats Berdal and Spyros Economides (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007), 246-73
13 207
14 8
15 208
17 4
19 7
21 19
27 43
29 iv
30 19
31 17
32 Sierra Leone's Constitution of 1991, Reinstated in 1996, with Amendments through 2008 38(8)
33 21
34 21
35 22
36 16
37 42