Is Multipartyism the Answer for Sierra Leone?

Some Sierra Leonean political analysts question the merits of multipartyism in a country that is ethnically divided when it comes to politics. Multi-party elections are considered a vital component to a true democracy for many in the West, but the politization of ethnic identities in Sierra Leone and elsewhere in Africa leave some wondering if multipartyism is really the correct answer for their political woes.

Ibrahim B. Kai-Samba argues that the division among ethnic groups when it comes to politics is ironic given the “flexibility” or plasticity of ethnic identities, which are largely considered social constructs by many scholars. It is especially odd to have ethnicity and religion play such a large role in Sierra Leonean politics given that the country has a large amount of people inter-marry between tribes and religions.1 Kargbo goes on to argue that if multipartyism has only “succeeded in dividing” Sierra Leoneans along ethnic lines, then “why practice it?”.2 Others have argued that the politization of ethnicity has turned them away from certain political parties, like the former SLPP youth leader who claimed that Julius Maada Bio was trying “…to dominate other tribes in Sierra Leone, particularly the Temnes, [Krios], Lokos, [and] Limbas”.3 Although the factuality and impartiality of this young man’s argument might be debatable, it does remind one that there is the potential for progressive change if enough voters realize how ethnicity has been co-opted by politics.

I would argue that Kargbo’s interpretation of the politization of ethnic identities is a bit harsh and that scrapping the multiparty model is not the answer to Sierra Leone’s political troubles. However, Kargbo does raise a valid point in that if the nation wishes to emerge from its violent past and continue to forge a truly democratic government, then politics needs to be less about ethnicity and more about supporting candidates who will make decisions that will benefit all Sierra Leoneans regardless of tribe.

1 One unique aspect of Sierra Leone that sets it apart from many of its other religiously divided African counterparts is its religious tolerance. Sierra Leone is mostly Muslim with a large population of Christians, yet even so, inter-marrying between the two religions is very popular and widely accepted. During last 6 week trip to Sierra Leone, I was able to view a wedding between a Muslim groom and a Christian wife. The wedding ceremony took place in a mosque first and then a church right afterward, with the wedding reception held at a religiously neutral location off-site. However, despite this religious tolerance, many politicians are trying to win over the 'Christian vote' in the country by trying to convince prominent Christians throughout the country to enter into politics. This, I would argue, is not good and might have the potential to divide rather than further unify the two religious populations.
2 Ibrahim B. Kai-Samba, “Multipartyism in Sierra Leone,” Sierra Express Media, February 12, 2012 .
3 “Raw Violence & Tribalism Turning People off SLPP’ - Blamoh Roberts", Awareness Times, September 15, 2011.


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