Western Countries: The Need for Caution Against Weaponizing Development Assistance in Sierra Leone
My home country, Sierra Leone, in West Africa, recently held its sixth general multiparty elections since 1996, a year that marked our transition from military rule amid a civil war. This bold commitment to democracy was then supported mainly by Western aid. Twenty-seven (27) years later, in a testament to the country’s progress, albeit fragile, Sierra Leone completely self-funded and managed its most recent elections. Western entities, such as the European Union (EU), the Carter Center, and various Western embassies, assumed the role of mere observers. The EU and the United States also directed their election-related resources to fund a credible civil society election watchdog, the National Elections Watch (NEW).
Following an anxious wait, the Chief Electoral Commissioner recently announced the anticipated results. As expected, the incumbent President Maada Bio and his Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) retained the presidency and widened their parliamentary majority. The primary opposition, the All People’s Congress (APC) Party, retained its strongholds in the North West, becoming the sole other party to enter parliament under the recently reinstated Proportional Representation System. This system, in place once before in 1996, was reintroduced after a contentious debate preceding the elections.
A race that attracted national and international attention was the mayoral contest — between incumbent Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr of the APC, and challenger, businessman Mohamed Gento Kamara. Aki-Sawyerr, a British Sierra Leonean technocrat, triumphed in this stiff competition and is set to continue her tenure in City Hall. Furthermore, the threshold set by last year’s progressive gender legislation is set to be met, with women constituting 30% of the new parliament and cabinet.
The African Union Elections Observer Mission concluded that “overall, AUEOM observed that elections were conducted in a generally peaceful, transparent, and credible manner, up to the counting on polling day, despite reported incidents of violence, particularly during the pre-election period.” They advised all electoral disputes to be settled through the “legally instituted mechanisms under the law.” Contrastingly, Western partners’ reactions are reminiscent of a bygone colonial era. They reportedly declined invitations to the swearing-in of the new government, issued perplexing alarmist press releases, and refused to acknowledge the newly elected government. This stark difference in their posture compared to their African counterparts begs the question: are some Western partners still viewing Sierra Leone through a colonial lens?
An example is a recent press release, which quoted an anonymous source suggesting a ‘loss of faith in the democratic process,’ an alarmist and unsubstantiated claim. The European Union Mission issued a statement alleging “statistical inconsistencies” in the results and claiming that “ the lack of publication of disaggregated results data at the polling station level has compromised the transparency of the results management process.”
The concerns raised predominantly stem from an alleged opacity of the final results’ tabulation, as the opposition advocated for the projection of results on screens for enhanced transparency instead of through a glass window. Furthermore, the Western-funded NEW claimed that their data projected no candidate in the presidential elections should have achieved the 55% threshold necessary to avoid a run-off. Yet, the Electoral Commission announced incumbent Bio as the winner with 56% of the vote in the first round.
While these allegations aren’t trivial, their substance appears to rest more on conjecture and speculation than on substantial evidence. This situation calls for a critical examination: are these apprehensions genuinely centered around safeguarding democracy, or could there be hidden agendas at play?
It is notable that even NEW’s own funded observers placed the incumbent president at over 52% of the total votes cast, a clear mandate by any measure. Yet, while the Western partners call for the Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone (ECSL) to publish all polling station data for transparent verification, they haven’t asked the same of NEW. Despite this, in release after release, Western observers cite NEW’s conclusion as a basis to question the election’s legitimacy.
To clarify, Western partners are challenging an election’s legitimacy because a local coalition they fund, alleges that their model — not the actual results — should have resulted in a run-off, a run-off that current numbers suggest the ruling party would have won easily. This kind of allegation in a nascent democracy would typically urge dialogue and due process to address grievances, not prompt threats to democratic stability.
The West’s posture and threats seem to have encouraged extreme voices in local opposition, threatening to significantly destabilize this fragile country. The All People’s Congress has adopted a recalcitrant stance, refusing to either seek redress in court or participate in the government entirely until their demands are met. This precarious position seems bolstered by the West’s posture and tacit endorsement, delegitimizing Sierra Leone’s political institutions and fueling division.
Leading up to the elections, observers even echoed the opposition’s demands to consider postponing the elections, set by statute over a year ago. They issued warning after warning of potential violence and chaos, echoing the threats of the most extreme voices. The EU’s preliminary statement reads like a pedantic list of every possible minor infraction, raising the question of how their own elections would stand up to similar scrutiny.
Herein lies the distinction; Sierra Leone remains heavily reliant on the vast sums of development assistance provided by these partners. Their numerous press releases and overall stance reveal an underlying threat: that this development aid is contingent upon the government’s compliance with all their electoral demands. Such a strategy of weaponizing development aid against an imperfect but growing democracy in a small West African nation is not only unfortunate and unethical but also rings echoes of a colonial past. These actions are more than just a show of power; they yield tangible and damaging consequences, fostering an environment of dependency and undermining local capacities. More than just undermining Sierra Leone’s burgeoning democracy, their wide-ranging statements have also risked endangering the safety of its citizens. This sort of diplomatic behavior is inappropriate and stands in stark contrast to the ideals of dialogue, understanding, and cooperation that diplomacy should entail.
The repercussions of this weaponization of aid are far-reaching, underscoring the urgency to rethink the traditional aid paradigm to protect the autonomy of African nations and foster genuine, sustainable development. As ‘moral guarantors,’ their role should be to strengthen our local institutions, promote the use of legitimate channels, and support Sierra Leone’s unwavering commitment to development, not destabilize its progress with threats.
It is my fervent hope that better judgment prevails soon.
Chernor Bah is a leading voice calling for decolonizing aid and a long-time international public policy activist. He also runs a Sierra Leone based, global non-profit — We Are Purposeful- focused on building girls’ power around the world.