The results of the first round of elections in Sierra Leone have set off a spate of political violence amid accusations of tribalism made against both main parties.
Police have sent an extra 4,000 officers on to the streets and diplomats have called for an end to “tribal rhetoric” after at least five violent incidents involving beatings, stone-throwing and arson, and after politicians had criticised voters for “regionalism” – seen as a euphemism for tribalism – in deciding how to vote.
The main opposition, the Sierra Leone People’s party (SLPP), won slightly more votes than the ruling All People’s Congress (APC) in the first round of a historically peaceful election on 7 March and the two parties have been trying to win over voters ahead of the runoff next week, causing growing tension in the west African country.
After the presidential spokesman Abdulai Baratay suggested on state radio last week that more SLPP supporters than APC ones had voted along tribal lines – language he later denied using – there was an increase in the number of violent incidents.
The APC candidate, Samura Kamara, said that supporters of the SLPP candidate, Julius Maada Bio, had thrown stones at him and that when he stopped at a bar en route to a rally last week they burned it down shortly after he had left.
Police confirmed that there had been street brawls between supporters of the APC and the SLPP in the capital, Freetown, and that candidates from both sides had had their houses and cars set on fire by “youths”.
Ibrahim Tawa Conteh, who won an SLPP seat in west Freetown, said that he had been attacked twice while campaigning but the police had stood by and done nothing, even after he had taken a suspect to the police station.
“The police made no arrests and I was smuggled out of the station in police uniform so no one would recognise me,” he said. “As I’m talking to you now I can’t come out, I’m in hiding. I’m struggling to get my family out because I’ve heard rumours they’re going to make an attempt on my home today.
“I’m so scared for myself and my family and I don’t know what is going to happen next. I fear that they’re just going to keep coming until I’m dead.”
Pa Alhaji, an APC politician in east Freetown, said that opposition youths had stormed his compound on Sunday and attempted to burn down his house. Black streaks from the fire stretched up the side of the building and his car was a burnt-out shell.
“They poured fuel on my front door and lit it on fire, and completely demolished my car,” he said. “I believe they did this because my building has been a centre for party operations during the election. We’ve done trainings, campaign organising, distributed election supplies.
“This is a political issue. We’ve definitely been targeted for our party support.”
Many of Sierra Leone’s ruling party supporters come from northern districts, while the largest percentage of opposition supporters live in the south. Some members of the two largest ethnic groups, the Temnes and the Mendes, have quietly claimed regional discrimination during their respective turns as the opposition, but serious regional divides have been outwardly dormant since the country’s 11-year civil war ended in 2002.
“The battle lines have now been drawn and you’re either red or green, north or south,” said Derrik Gbla, an APC supporter in east Freetown. “You’re either with us or against us. You don’t have a fence to stand on now.”
Ethnicity was not a widely discussed issue in the six months leading up to the first round of voting.
“Party members feed their fellow supporters with information, and they are bound to take what they hear to heart, but there has been little [tribalistic] talk out in the open,” said MB Kamara, head of Sierra Leone’s criminal investigations department. “When people are desperate to make a point they’re going to use whatever channels are available to them, including intimidation.”
But the presidential spokesman accused of triggering the incidents by criticising southerners for how they voted said that he “would never talk about tribe” and that the issue he had raised was very different.
“I have studied the Rwandan genocide and know the trouble with that,” said Baratay. “What I was talking about was regionalism, which people often get confused with tribe here.”
This story was originally published in theguardian Entry posted by Sierra Leone