Sunday, July 13, 2008
Police, military oversee peaceful Tongo election
By Mohamed Massaquoi and Kevin Hill
Voting in the local council election in Tongo Fields saw low turnout despite the fact that fears over intimidation and election-day violence were mitigated by the heavy presence of police and military personnel.
During the campaign period Tongo Fields had been a hotspot for confrontations between political rivals. There are many unemployed or underemployed youths who are frustrated with their situation and might be persuaded to undertake violence on behalf of politicians who promise to find them employment.
At the voting center at the Roman Catholic School in the heart of Tongo Fields voter Mohammed Kamara explained that some people are afraid to come out because of fear of violence. “I only manage to come out because after 7am when the poll started I saw no resemblance of violence. Some women, especially those of old age, are afraid. The presence of the military and the police has instilled fear in these youths who might become violent.”
Unit commander of the military personnel in Tongo Fields for the election, Sergeant Major Kamara said, “There is no tension. As far as we are concerned, that is the reason we have our men on the ground, so we can get in for any distress call.”
Candidate contesting for the position of councillorship in the Kenema district Balama Samba said, “I like the way the election has been conducted, in a peaceful manner. Whosoever emerges winner will represent the people. Tongo and Kono have been known for violence, (so) they sent the military to monitor the election. The best way for people to move freely is to have the police and the military.”
Dennis Mannah, presiding officer at Kpandabu Court Barry voting center, complained of low voter turnout. “There is a very low turnout since this morning, we have come to discover that there was not enough voter education in the area. Therefore, voters do not know exactly the center where they should vote.”
Many voters who visited the voting centers found that they their names were not on the voting list, and had to go from voting center to voting center throughout Tongo Fields to find out where they were to vote. According to the Local Unit Commander Aiah M., before the start of the election there were 50 voting centers, but because the increase in number of voters they have divided these centers into multiple units. In mixing up the final registration list of voters frustration and voter apathy arose at having to navigate such a confusing voting system.
At Sandiama voting center Mohammed Conteh and three others decided to go home because they had spent a very long time, since the start of polling, without being able to register their vote. “We came here before 7am, and up until this moment (11am) only one person has cast his vote. We have tried to inquire with the NEC officers but none of them spoke to us, which has been an additional frustration to us, because they are depriving us from our right to elect our representative.”
Abdulai Bangura, the polling center manager at Sandiama agreed that there had been problems with the NEC voters list. The list, when unsealed, was mixed up and not in normal alphabetical or numerical order. This has caused frustration among voters. “I have tried to call on the head of this section but I could not get him on his line, but we are looking out for a remedy so that people can cast their votes peacefully”, he said.
The Local Unit Commander for the SLP in Tongo Fields said that no international observer had reached his office by midday during the voting. There were National Elections Watch observers at less than half of the stations visited. Most of the NEW observers were responsible for two or three stations at one time.
Though some National Elections Watch observers refused to talk to journalists, Mohamed Gbao disclosed that he is roving between two centers, making sure that there are no irregularities. This system of monitoring means that up to half of all voting occurs without independent observation. There was political party representation found at all stations, including APC, SLPP and PMDC observers, meaning that they served as the only full time watch on the proceedings in Tongo Fields.
Sowu Jusu, a 60 year old woman, voted not on party lines, but rather for development. She said, “Tongo has always been behind in development and with the election of new councilors I hope to have good water, electricity, good road network and employment for the youths.”
By 2pm most of the issues with delays at the polling stations had been resolved, but the poor voter turnout meant that there were very few votes to be counted. The final four hours of the elect ion day were very slow for the polling staff,