By Yusuf Bangura
The March 31st presidential run-off election was an amazingly close race. Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) emerged victorious with 51.8 percent of the votes, while his rival, Samura Kamara of the All People’s Congress (APC), scored 48.2 percent. Only 92,235 votes separated them. A switch of 46,118 votes in the other direction would have produced a different result. No other election in Sierra Leone’s history has been this close, except perhaps the 1967 election, which was conducted under a parliamentary system of government.
However, if one compares the vote shares of the two parties between 2012 and 2018 (57.8:37.4; and 51.8:48.2 respectively), this was a massive swing of 10.5 percentage points — close to the other big swing of 12.3 percentage points (70:45.4) against the SLPP in 2007. In most mature democracies, 10.5 percentage point swings would require at least two election cycles to overcome. The result is, therefore, a huge defeat for the APC and a great win for the SLPP.
How did the APC squander its 21 percentage point margin with the SLPP? And why did such a massive swing occur? The second question can be rephrased as, “Why did the APC lose the 2018 election?” This piece addresses these two questions.
A Four-Region Swing
A bipolar ethno-regional cleavage underpins Sierra Leone’s electoral politics. This bipolarity is based on the numerical dominance of the two largest ethnic groups, the Themneh and Mende, which are roughly equal in size, and constitute slightly more than 60 percent of the population. The Themne are located in the North and have a large presence in the Western Area, and the Mende are largely found in the South and East. The Mende are more hegemonic in the South-East, where they dominate six electoral districts, than the Themneh are in the North, which is more heteregeneous. Because of the North’s ethnic heterogeneity, Northern block voting, not ethnic group voting, historically informs voting behaviour in the region; whereas in the South and East, apart from Kono, Mende ethnic block voting seems to be the rule.
In the 1967 election, the population ratio between the North-Western Area and South-East was almost 50:50. However, by 2007, this ratio had changed to 55:45 in favour of the North-Western Area, and in 2015 to 56.5:43.5. However, the ratio of registered voters has been more lopsided since 2012 — it was 59.35:40.65 in 2012 and 60.5:39.5 in 2018. The vote shares of the APC and SLPP in the last three elections reflected this ethno-regional divide. In 2012, for instance, the APC received 80 percent of its votes from the North and Western Area, and the SLPP 76 percent of its votes from the South and East.
In an ethnically bifurcated electorate in which voting is largely ethnic, elections are often won by maximising votes in one’s ethno-regional stronghold and making slight inroads in the ethno-regional stronghold of the opposing party. In the case of the APC, for instance, prior to 2018, the strategy was to maximise its votes in the North and Western Area and penetrate Kono, which is the only non-Mende-speaking district in the East. For the SLPP, the strategy has been to maximise its votes in the South-East and make inroads in Kambia and Koinadugu, Northern districts with substantial minority group presence.
Ernest Koroma needed a four-region strategy to avoid a run-off in 2012. He could not have won on the first ballot by relying only on the North, Western Area and Kono. He needed the votes of all four regions to get to the 55 percent victory score. However, because of the lopsided nature of the electorate in ethno-regional terms in 2012, Koroma could have won a second round ballot (which requires only 50 percent+1 votes) with only the 51.6 percent of the votes he received from the North, Western Area and Kono. This is a three-region strategy.
The 2018 results indicate that because of the lopsided distribution of registered voters in favour of the North-Western Area, Bio needed a four-region strategy to win the election in the second round of voting. Relying on the South and East would have given him only 34.85 percent of the votes; and including the Western Area would have raised his vote share to 46.32 percent. It is only when his votes in the North are added that he is able to get to the 50 percent+1 mark. The interesting point about Bio’s Northern votes is that reliance on only his votes in the districts with strong minority presence (Kambia, Koinadugu, Falaba and Karene) would have given him only 2.92 extra percentage points, which would have raised his overall vote share to 49.24 percent. He needed his votes in the predominantly Themneh-speaking districts of Port Loko, Tonkolili and Bombali (which gave him 2.57 extra percentage points) to get him across the victory line.
The SLPP’s four-region strategy trumps the APC’s two-region strategy in this election, and it vividly explains how the APC lost the election. The APC may have been lured into a false sense of security by assuming that the ethnically lopsided nature of the electorate in favour of its regional strongholds gives it the option to ignore the South and East and focus largely on the North and Western Area. How else can one explain the sacking of Sam Sumana, an elected vice president from Kono, and the alienation of the Kono electorate? Or the failure to choose a standard bearer or running mate from the South-East, even though a Southerner, Victor Foh, was vice president?
The choice of Samura Kamara, a Northerner, and Chernor Maju Bah, from the Western Area, as standard bearer and running mate respectively, may have sent a strong message to South-Eastern voters that they did not matter in the calculations of the APC. The focus on the North and Western Area may explain why the APC opportunistically tried to change the constitutional rule that requires 55 percent of the votes to avoid a run-off, to a simple majority of 50 percent+1 in the last days of the last parliament without public debate. No party has ever won an election with a two-region strategy. The results do, indeed, indicate that even though both parties still draw most of their votes from their traditional ethno-regional strongholds, the APC has become much more regional than the SLPP. 89.2 percent of the APC’s votes are from the North and Western Area, whereas the South and East account for 67.3 percent of the SLPP’s votes.
The SLPP increased its vote share in every district, whereas the APC lost ground in all districts, including in Bombali where it obtained 90.7 percent of the votes, which is incredibly high, but lower than the 93.2 percent it received in 2012. The key to the SLPP’s victory was the maximisation of its votes in the Mende-speaking districts of Kailahun, Kenema, Bo, Pujehun, Bonthe, and to some extent Moyamba, to stratospheric levels; tapping into the anti-APC grievances in Kono, where it raised its vote share from 38 percent in 2012 to 72.6 percent in 2018; raising its votes from 25 percent to 39.5 percent in the Western Area; and making reasonable inroads in the North, where it increased its vote share from 6 percent in 2012 to 17.8 percent in 2018. The SLPP’s votes in the Mende-speaking districts were, indeed, stratospheric — the party obtained 89 percent of the votes in those districts, with Bonthe, Pujehun and Kailahun each giving the party 90 percent or more of their votes.
The APC lost much ground in its traditional strongholds. For instance, whereas in 2012, it obtained 88 percent of the votes in the North, it could only get 82 percent of the votes in 2018. The slide in the North is related to the challenge faced by the APC from the National Grand Coalition and other small parties, which took 19.5 percent of the votes in the first round. The APC was only able to claw back 67 percent of those votes in the run-off, but this was not enough to prevent the SLPP from winning. The SLPP was competitive in Kambia (it received 30 percent of the votes), Falaba (42.7 percent of the votes), and Koinadugu (32 percent of the votes). Kambia had the lowest voter participation rate in the run-off, suggesting a lack of interest after the NGC, the party of a plurality of the voters, failed to make it to the run-off (only 65 percent voted as opposed to a national average of 81 percent). The APC’s harassment of the NGC and smaller parties in the region would have made it difficult for the APC to win a higher percentage of these small party voters in the second round. Similarly, even though the APC obtained 72 percent of the votes in the Western Area in 2012, it received only 60.5 percent of the votes in 2018. It was heavily trounced in Kono, where its vote share dropped from 58 percent in 2012 to 27.4 percent in 2018; and it failed to defend the gains it made in the Mende-speaking districts in 2012: its vote share declined from about 18 percent in 2012 to only 11 percent in 2018.
Debates on Sierra Leone’s electoral politics have often focused on the phenomena of ethno-regional strongholds and swing districts to determine the winning chances of parties. The swing districts are assumed to be the Western Area districts and Kono district, with the idea that these districts have changed winning parties a few times in our last five party competitive elections. The notion of swing districts gave rise to the view that no party can win an election without winning the Western Area or Freetown. The historical record thus, indeed, indicates that when the APC won the elections in 1967, 2007 and 2012, it also won the Western Area districts; and when the SLPP won the elections in 1996 and 2002, it was also victorious in the Western Area. The SLPP’s victory in 2018, without winning Freetown or the Western Area, indicates that the idea of swing districts is unhelpful in understanding electoral politics in Sierra Leone.
Yusuf Bangura writes from Nyon, Switzerland, and can be reached through Bangura.email@example.com.