Sierra Leone in New Crisis as Legislators Threw Punches over Electoral Law

President Maada Bio has ordered the Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone (ECSL) to change the voting system as he struggles to shake off the effects of a popular uprising and seek re-election in June 2023. Under the proposed system, voters will no longer elect their representatives directly. Instead, they will use a proportional representation system that was improvised during the country’s civil war when there were no established constituencies. This change continues a sequence of events that have stoked political tension in the country and dampened the risk outlook for a peaceful government transition.  


On 20 October, President Bio told the ECSL to organise the 2023 general elections using proportional representation. This voting system was used in 1996 when civil war made parts of the country inaccessible and in 2002 when the war had newly ended. In both cases, voters were only able to vote for their preferred parties. Each party was then allocated seats in the national parliament according to its share of total votes.

Sierra Leone has since held three relatively peaceful electoral cycles using a single-member system where every eligible Sierra Leonean directly votes for an MP to represent their own constituency in the national parliament. However, the current cycle has been particularly turbulent owing to developments in the timeline below.

  • April 2018 – The All People’s Congress (APC) lost the presidency but retained a majority in parliament. The Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) became the new ruling party with Julius Maada Bio at the helm.
  • May 2019 – A court removed 10 APC MPs-elect and ruled they were unqualified to run for office under the electoral law. SLPP candidates then took the vacant seats and the party claimed a majority. Opposition leaders were arrested for protesting against the development. This marked the onset of the current political unrest.
  • July 2020 – President Bio ordered Statistics Sierra Leone to conduct a new census to ‘correct the anomaly’ of the last census held in 2015 when he and his SLPP were in the opposition. That 2015 census had reportedly been rigged by the then-ruling APC to gain an electoral advantage.
  • December 2021 – A new census was held even though the World Bank, a major partner, withdrew technical and financial support citing inadequate preparation. The results this time showed an extraordinary rise in population in SLPP strongholds. The ECSL then announced that it would redraw constituencies using the new figures, alarming the opposition and civil society. See: Sierra Leone’s new census figures favour ruling party.
  • June 2022 – Parliament began debating a Public Elections Bill by which the Bio administration tried to strengthen the legal backing for introducing proportional representation as the new voting system. The main opposition APC rejected the proposal.
  • August 2022 – Deadly protests broke out in the capital Freetown and opposition districts over the rising cost of living and a recent crackdown on civil liberties. The Bio administration labeled the demonstrations as a plot to overthrow the president. There was a further crackdown. See: Uprising in Sierra Leone ahead of 2023 elections.
  • October 2022 – The ECSL chair Mohamed Konneh said the commission halted the process for redrawing constituencies due to the uprising in August. He said the disruption left the commission with little time for the delimitation, and that the constituencies have now ‘expired’ per his interpretation of Section 38 of the constitution.

The ECSL is presently considering an acceptable way to apply the new system, but the opposition APC has already rejected it on grounds that constituencies exist and are accessible – unlike in the wartime era. There is now increased uncertainty about the electoral process. One MP from the ruling SLPP told us the situation is a ‘dilemma’, indicating that even ruling party MPs are concerned about how the change would affect their own political prospects and the credibility of the electoral process.


We have revised our risk rating on the transfer of power from moderate to high due to the sequence of events described above. Political tensions continue to simmer and the electoral framework has been made more unclear by the change in voting system eight months to elections. They occur against the backdrop of strained economic performance. From 4.1% year-on-year in 2021, growth is projected to almost halve in 2022, while headline inflation including food prices is almost the highest in West Africa[1]. We also note the absence of transition reform after Bio was hurriedly sworn in at a hotel in 2018. The Supreme Court’s capacity to resolve disputes independently is also weakened by 2018 changes to its composition – including the forced resignation of the chief justice.

• Source- Songhai Advisory

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