Clean Elections Dialogue in Sierra Leone
18 April 2007

As part of its Clean Election Campaign in Sierra Leone, Hope Sierra Leone – a non-governmental organization affiliated to IofC-International – ran a Clean Elections Dialogue in Freetown, 3–5 April 2007 in partnership with the National Electoral Commission.

The dialogue brought together representatives of the various political parties and other stakeholders in Sierra Leone's electoral process, to frankly discuss and share ideas on promoting free, fair and peaceful elections. Amongst the thirty-one participants,(nine women and 22 men), were 16 leaders and other representatives of seven political parties, (only the UNPP - United National People’s Party - was missing, for reasons as yet unknown). Electoral stakeholders came from the National Council of Paramount Chiefs, West African Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP), the Sierra Leone Market Women’s Association, the SL Teachers’ Union, SL Police, Forum of Women’s Organizations, UNESCO and the Methodist Church – together with student and youth leaders. The faculty came from Sierra Leone, Ghana, Denmark and the Netherlands.

'You guys don’t know what you have been doing to us. You have put the mouse, the cat and the dog in the same place for three days and nobody has chewed each other.' This comment by one of the participants summarizes what happened during the Dialogue. At first people came wearing the rosettes of their political parties and asking for folders and pens matching their party colours. But then it was explained that the Dialogue would be non party-political and would deal with issues of human understanding, respect, tolerance, justice and peace - matters that the large majority of the electorate would value highly. From then on they participated actively, and focussed enthusiastically on the Dialogue proceedings.

The topics covered included: Who am I- (what do I bring with me into politics?-motives, feelings, etc.); The nature of change- (how to bring change in a country like SL); Search for values-(in politics and during elections); Standing against corruption; Trust building and teamwork. Morning times of silent reflection were a highlight for many. Participants were invited to reflect on questions like, 'What caused me pain and bitterness in the past? Am I ready to take a first step of forgiveness?' and 'Are there any stones, dry leaves or dirty rags inside me?' This led to deep sharing.

The Dialogue also had some challenges, including time-keeping and organizational hiccups. The most serious problem surfaced at the beginning of the second day. One politician, acting as spokesman for the whole group, approached the organizers with a request that the participants should receive a small stipend for taking part in the dialogue. (This is common practice in Sierra Leone, introduced by some of the international NGOs, who use inducements to attract participants to their courses and training). The spokesman said that they had been under the impression that they would receive this money and were disappointed to find out it was not the case. Had they known this they would probably not have participated at all.

The faculty replied that their reward would be to return home with a full heart. At first this did not come across as a satisfactory answer. When all the arguments had been exchanged and the discussion became repetitive, one of the faculty suggested a time of quiet for everyone to listen to their inner voice. If that voice said 'Leave', one should feel free to leave. If that voice said 'Stay', everyone, including the Faculty, would rejoice and the Dialogue would continue. Before starting this time of reflection the spokesman for the group said loudly, 'I will stay.' After five minutes the question of leaving was quietly dropped.

What then came as an inspired intervention was the arrival of three British postgraduate students from King’s College, University of London, who came in while all this was happening. One of them had recently heard of IofC's work in Sierra Leone at a public lecture in London. She and her two friends had just begun four weeks' field work for their dissertation on conflict-resolution and security in Sierra Leone, and had been informed that this Dialogue was happening. After the time of silence the three students were asked to introduce themselves. They spoke with great conviction, saying that during the forthcoming elections Sierra Leone would attract the attention of many people worldwide, and that the country could be seen as a beacon of hope for the entire world.

Everybody was impressed and silent. Their contribution brought a miraculous and completely unexpected end to the discussion and the Dialogue resumed with a session on the nature of change. Afterwards, several participants said that they felt deeply ashamed by what had happened. It was possibly the best learning moment of the Dialogue, in that it brought home to everyone that a conflict like this can be transformed in a peaceful and positive way. In the week after the Dialogue one of the key players apologized publicly – in the presence of high representatives of her party – for her negative role in the issue.

In the days following the Dialogue, some of the international faculty stayed on to help train office staff of Hope-Sierra Leone, where they heard of several occasions where Dialogue participants had spoken on the radio, (e.g. UNIOSIL, the United Nations radio,) or in the political arena, about what they had learned. They gave statements, similar to ones made below, during the closing ceremony, which was attended by some members of the media:
  • Alhaji Amadou Jalloh, (NDA – National Democratic Alliance):
    'We are very impressed. We have learned to do dialogues, values and respect. I hope we will continue to create understanding amongst our parties and that we will stop and avoid all corruption and hate.'

  • Ibrahim K Kamara, (PDP – People’s Democratic Party):
    'I will promise to take all that we have learned into our party. All that we have learned will serve us to build our nation and to do more. I wish there would be more workshops of this nature to help us overcome our problems for the benefit of the people.'

  • Jeneh Kandeh, (APC – All People’s Congress):
    'This Clean Election Dialogue has been three hectic days. The moral value infuses us to the good of this nation. APC acts as a vehicle to transport our people from the corruption tree, (a teaching tool used during sessions on “Standing against corruption.”) Let us bring this to the grassroots of our parties to save Mama Salone-(Sierra Leone.')

  • Jonathan Kposowa, (RUFP - Revolutionary United Front Party): After thanking for a perfect job done by the Hope-SL he continued: 'As politicians we must put all our grievances away. We appreciate the media-dialogues and all that we have learned we must take to the schools to avoid corruption in the future.'

  • Hon Dr AA Fofana, (SLPP – Sierra Leone People’s Party):
    'Thank you to everybody for attending the Clean Election Dialogue. The leadership in my party will be like water for the tulips. (All parties were presented with a wooden tulip from The Netherlands). The values are now within our party. We will work for a free non-violent election.'

  • William Que, (PMDC – People’s Movement for Democratic Change):
    'This workshop is important for all of us. It is now the time to develop people and structures. PMDC will implement the four standards like Honesty, Purity, Unselfishness and Pure Love.'

  • Hon Dr Baba Conteh, (PLP – People’s Liberation Party):
    We have made a promise to the pledge (for free and fair elections). This country will never go back. Politics is not about winning and we must accept not winning. We will put everything behind our backs. Sierra Leone will never go back to the past.

  • Alex J Bhonapha, (National Union of Sierra Leone Students):
    'The rules of the students: We are strong and we will work for a free and fair election and we will stick to the rules. We all must accept defeat and create a win-win situation. Encourage the winning party to accept the losing parties.'

  • Paramount Chief Izza B Kamara:
    I am proud of Hope-SL being able to bring us all together as one union. We have learned tips of how to do it so we can do it as one community. We as leaders will support this. Let us be ambassadors and pass on what we have learned, so that we can have free and fair elections. Let us stay together as a family. Let us stay in contact with each other.

Kees and Marina Scheijgrond