Notes from the Field: Democracy for Africa: A Fabulous Dream or an Attainable Reality?

Notes from the Field / November 2007

Yene AsseagidIn September 2007, something amazing took place in Sierra Leone. What was this amazing thing? The elections! It was amazing to witness communities throughout the nation express their wishes through the democratic process. People chose to act on their future through votes as opposed to acting with the usual chaos which African nations have been so much stereotyped with. What is amazing is the chance to witness this subtle yet real shift from societal Red vMeme to Blue/Amber center of gravity. These elections will always be remembered as the election where changes took place one at a time. In this article, I hope to share with you the incredible moments I experienced in Freetown during the elections of September 2007.

Just seven years after the brutal ten-year civil war that ended in 2000 with the Lome Peace Accord, between the Rebels and the Government, the people of this small West African nation, lined up at the voting polls in August 2007, to democratically elect their new President. Although the war is not necessarily up front in conversations any more, its impact remains very much present. The last elections were held in 2002, right after the civil war ended, under the mandate of the UN and the presence of 17,000 UN Peace Troops. Before then, the political situation in Sierra Leone was chaotic. Between 1996-1997, heavy fighting broke out throughout the country, as power changed from MPRC (Military Government) and SLPP (Civil Government). Subsequently, Rebels came into the capital in 1998 to chase out SLPP President Kabbah (then in office, and the outgoing President at the 2007 Elections). It is at this time that Rebel groups ran a terror campaign to intimidate the population (Documentary available at They chopped off the limbs of their victims: hands, arms, feet, etc, telling them to go ask the President to replace these body parts for them (the victims). As you may have seen in the movie, “Blood Diamonds”, rebels would ask their victims if they preferred short sleeve or long sleeve, meaning whether the victims would prefer to have their arms chopped off from somewhere around the wrist or above the elbow. But sometimes these rebels would on their own chop off all of the victims’ fingers except the thumb. This was referred to as the “one love”.

In contrast to such a dark and tragic past, this 2007 election emerged as an example for all of Africa to follow. There was order and peace in most places. Of course, there were a few incidents of violence or fraud, but overall, the systematic unfolding of the process was very pronounced. Many local and international organizations deployed election observers throughout the country. The entire process was led by the outstanding performance of the National Election Committee Chairman, Dr. Christiana Thorpe who worked with poise, wisdom and compassion. If we think of developmental levels, this lady must be up in the third tier. It is her leadership acumen that was key in conducting the fair and just elections against all odds.

The first round of the elections took place on 11th of August 2007, right in the middle of the rainy season, which was very torrential. The rains did not stop the population from lining up to cast their votes. The second round took place on September 8 2007. The people now committed to the process and the voting polls queued up on the ready. They were aware that this was going to be the decisive day when Sierra Leone would access their future. With over 75% of the population voting this year, men and women of Sierra Leone demanded better systems, better opportunities and better infrastructures to support their lives.

Life in Sierra Leone is hard. Healthcare, education, employment (national unemployment rates revolve around 70%), justice, and food security stand at a chronic subnormal level. Since September 2006, my home has been here. In my entire stay so far, we had electric power maybe 7-8 times, and only for a few hours at a time. All other times we live on electric power generator, which operates on diesel. Although we have been lucky with water supply, many households do not have a regular supply. Life is expensive. The diesel for the generator is so expensive that we only run ours for about 6-7 hours a day, mainly in the evening and a bit in the morning (Electric power demand is about 40 Megawatts, less than 3 Megawatts is produced). A liter of fuel costs a little more than USD 1.00, with an average daily income ranging between USD 2.00 to 3.00. When I ask people how they manage, they reply it is only by the Grace of God. In spite of the poverty and the critical living conditions, all the people I have met have been kind, compassionate and caring, always ready to be of service.

Sierra Leone is a beautiful country. It is gorgeous. We are right on the Atlantic Ocean with endless white sand beaches flanked by tropical rain forest. On weekends one can drive about 1 hour away and end up on pristine stretches of white sand beaches with the ocean as clear as the sky. But there is no infrastructure. It’s the local fishermen who supply food: grilled fish like Barracuda and shrimps, and lobster. In a country where one carrot can cost almost USD 0.60, the market offers fresh oysters, right out of the ocean, for a dozen at less than 2 USD.

Life here is like a strange film. Each day, one can be in several world views and lifestyles, all at the same time. It is like living in a real life hologram where the colors of each developmental stage intertwine to make a peculiar Mandala. It is not unusual to see brand new SUVs such as Lexus, latest Hummer Jeep or BMW cruising. I have even seen the latest Porsche SUV model. It is also normal to see amputees go on with their lives – working, selling food or playing soccer on the beach. It is also familiar to find hallucinogens and drugs, and locally distilled alcohol packed in plastic tubes. Every morning, school children go to school with the cleanest, most colorful, freshly ironed uniforms. I don’t know how they manage to be so properly dressed each day. It is also common to see children working hard, carrying water, food or other items on their head and going up and down the hills. There is also great spiritual and religious harmony here. People of all faiths live together in peace. I once talked with Jaminatu, the lady that helps me at home, about religion. She told me she is a “Chrismu” – both Christian and Muslim, and that there are many in Sierra Leone who share this same view on religion. There is a sense of togetherness even in the oddest way. For example large mansions exist with only two persons living in each, along side small wood cabins with as many as ten people sleeping in each. It is puzzling trying to make sense of the reality. The best approach seems to be to allow Big Mind and Big Heart co-pilot – this prevents relentless questions and thoughts from taking us hostage.

There are many secret societies, the epitome of Magenta or Purple vMeme, that govern the lives of people here. It seems these secret societies dictate the tunes of the order of existence. At the same time, it is easy to witness the coming of a market-led society, which is about earning “enough”, although we may have different definitions of what is “enough”, and the means to acquire this. That is the time when Red vMeme emerges again through acute corruptions. There are no reliable structures for the common man, and this is also violence on the lives of the more modest or lower income bracket families. What is missing is the whole lower left quadrant. This creates an unbearable reality for those who try to secure a predictable future.

There is very little infrastructure. The systems in place fail to address the needs of the people. The caretaker of our house is called Moussa. He inherited land from his grandfather, but for as long as I have known him, he has been struggling to secure the title for his land. He tells me: “Missiis, justice is for the rich man. The poor man has no access to it”. He tells me that people are taking chips of his land here and there…and he has nowhere to turn to put his name on the land of his ancestors. It is painful to see how hard he has to work to keep his land. This plot that he is fighting for, holds a future for him. It holds his dream of being able to procure a living for his family; otherwise, he will have to continue being employed in people’s homes, with no guarantee for sustained income. It is survival of the fittest, although one might argue that there are worse places in the world where climatic conditions add to the living hardship. This situation may not be considered a reality of the Red vMeme, but it is. Few hold the power and they dictate the tunes of life. The poor man is kicked out of the system, which does not run with rules and regulations. It is all about who you know and how much you can afford to pay to get what you want.

Moussa is aware of the importance of rules and regulations for stability and for a productive life. He is aware of his own vulnerability and does what he can to avoid passing on this vulnerability to his son. He says that although he is not educated because his parents did not send him to school therefore he suffers the consequences of not being educated; he wants something different for his son. Moussa values learning. He wants to see systems emerge. He sends his only son, Mohammed, to a private school and pays a tutor to come daily to teach the boy. When he talks about his son, he refers to him as the “man”. His son, “this man”, is on his way to be a great man. This “man” is the future. The school fees costs Moussa one fifth of his annual salary, but he still chooses to pay for the boy to be educated. This is his investment in the future of his descendants and the future of the nation.

Although there are all these lower left quadrant challenges confronting the nation, Sierra Leone is full of potentials. The country’s undergrounds rank among the richest in natural resources, compared with many other countries in the world. There is everything here from diamonds, to cacao, to timber. What is missing is the system to tap from the resources and avail their benefits to the population. What are missing are the rules and regulations to allow communities to take the lead on their respective lives and not be subjected to what the day brings.

Traveling in and out of the country is difficult, even from the capital. The airport is located on the other side of a wide estuary. By road it can take up to 4 hours to drive the whole way around that estuary (assuming you have a good car), so one must take the Ferry that crosses once or twice a day (assuming it is in working condition). From the time one leaves the house to the time of reaching the airport can take up to 6 hours. This, however, is not the time for the actual crossing, but includes all the steps to take in getting to the Ferry, getting on the Ferry and getting out of the Ferry. For those who can afford it, there are speedboats or over-crafts crossing at USD 50-75, or better still, helicopters for the same price range (assuming they run— On June 3rd the helicopter I usually take crashed mainly due to lack of maintenance. The crash took the lives of 22 people, almost the entire Ministry of Sport delegation from Togo who had come for a friendly soccer game with the Sierra Leonean team. This happened on Sunday June 3. I traveled that weekend, but had decided to take the speedboat instead. In Sierra Leone life is vivid, we are reminded daily not to take life for granted.). The lack of proper access to international gateways, while at the same time being a coastal country, carry a great opportunity cost for trade and economic growth.

Today, the country is hopeful about building out the necessary infrastructure to support development. On the street, people are hopeful about the new government. They say that they know things will not change overnight, but they believe this new government will do what it can to address all infrastructure needs. The new President, Mr. Earnest Koroma (, is a leading private sector man. The population believes that he will address the development of the country from a private sector perspective. They believe he will get to the bottom line results faster. One of his priorities is supplying electric power to the nation, and making sure that water supply to households becomes consistent. Doing only this would increase trade activities and increase employment. In his Presidential swearing-in ceremony, he said that he knew the high expectations of this country and stated that in his government, failure was not an option. He talks about making change together with the support of the people, and with God’s guidance. He says that this is not a victory for one political party or another, but rather a victory for a nation in overcoming past and present challenges and suffering, and in moving forward towards building the foundation for a healthy and prosperous country.

It is a new day in Sierra Leone. It is the beginning of a new era moving away from corruption, violence and chaos towards order and stability. I believe it will happen. I believe that this country will be very different in some years, because of the level of consciousness of not only the President but also of those supporting him in his work. It also holds true because he has the support of the population, a population tired of poverty and confusion, that demands results, that demands change and that has become committed to working for this change. It is important to keep in mind that there is risk that the population will be disappointed if the changes they expect do not come in a timely fashion. People tend to forget that they have to do their part by putting in more effort for the change. I am hopeful for the change. People on the street, in bars and offices tell me that this is a new page in the history of the country.

The only change that lasts is the one that people “want”. The only transformation that takes root is the one that people demand. Sometimes it takes life reaching unbearably tight levels; sometimes it takes the reality of being so uncomfortable and painful, to trigger off the next transformational tide, and to make it start rolling in. It is not possible to “make” change happen – in a sense we can only be there to support it as it emerges, and to position ourselves to best flow with the momentum of the transformational wave.

On the 17th of September, we collectively experienced the exhilarating culmination of months of election preparation. It was a moment of overwhelming tear-jerking emotions. People did not jump or sob because this or that party won. It was beyond that. I did not jump and sob because I am a Sierra Leonean. It was beyond that. It was about tasting the texture of hope, the texture of persistence and determination for the welfare of the people, and the sounds of victory. I feel so privileged to have been right here. I feel so blessed that they managed because through Sierra Leone’s success, we have experienced success as people of Africa. “We” managed as Africans. Personally I had given up on democracy for Africa. I had resigned to not seeing the day, when we can “also” reap the benefits of a democratic process.

It is true that one can argue that it is far too early to say that democracy was successful only weeks after the elections. I am conscious of that. It is also true that unrealistic expectations of the people and undelivered promises of the leaders are fertile grounds for unrest and conflict. However, it is also true that given the reality of this free and fair electoral process, given the background of the individuals involved in the new government and given the commitment of both the government and the people of this nation, it is not unrealistic to expect that the new President and his people will continue leading the country in the same integrity, consciousness and excellence that has characterized the entire election.

When Dr. Christiana Thorpe read out the results of the second round election, her address was broadcast nationwide on radio. In an era when CNN and BBC rule world news on TV, it was particular to be glued to the radio listening to one of the most important addresses in the history of this nation. I have never listened to the radio with such rapt attention. I could literally see through the radio waves and witness the scene unfolding.

With a very stable and predictable cadence, Dr. Thorpe announced all of the district results. She also informed that some ballot boxes had not been taken into account due to violation of the electoral process and suspected fraud. (Some ballot boxes have not been taken into account, as there were more ballot papers in the box than the number of registered voters. In other areas, some ballot boxes were not taken into account because of interference with the movement of some voters trying to reach the polls.) Finally, came the moment when she announced the National Results. If I say that even the birds stopped singing, it would not be an exaggeration. Everything went in slow motion. If you could hear the heart beat of people, then it was in tune with a collective drum roll. At the end of what seemed endless, she read out: Koroma – APC – 905,407 votes then followed with Berewa – SLPP. In reading the number of votes for SLPP (vote number 789,651) she hardly finished saying “sev..,” of seven hundred eighty nine thousand …when the country roared in unison. The nation literally rose in a roar. If you can imagine a stadium roaring at the end of the World Cup final – you can multiply that a thousand times and maybe you get a sense of the kind of uproar.

This September, something amazing happened in the world. Something amazing happened in Africa. Something amazing happened in this small country we call Sierra Leone: Democracy was born!

In all the excitement, I must give due credit to a dear friend of mine who made the following comment after reading the draft of this article.

“…even if 900,000 roar in joy then we should not forget about the nearly 800,000 that have been sitting there silent. Luckily they kept silent and only that is why ‘democracy is born’, as they accepted the result silently” Bernd Eckhardt

Yene Assegid, MBA, is a development practitioner focusing her work and energy on the advancement of Africa, with a special emphasis on human and organizational development. She brings more than 15 years of professional experience in a diversity of thematic fields within Africa, Europe and the U.S. Yene joined Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) as one of the pioneers to address the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Ethiopia by designing and managing the first series of communication programs aimed at reaching women surviving from commercial sex in the urban areas. In the new Millennium, Yene joined the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) as a consultant to formulate, design, monitor and evaluate regional programs in Central and Eastern Africa. Yene has a B.A. in Investment Analysis and Financial Management from American University in Washington D.C. She also holds an M.B.A. from University of Maryland, College Park. Yene is currently pursuing her Ph.D. from the California Institute of Integral Studies. or