Free-for-All in Freetown: Sierra Leone, Part I

Friday, August 24, 2007 | Freetown, Sierra Leone

During the rainy season, Freetown is about as lush as it gets.
The arrival in Sierra Leone is, like the country itself, at once overwhelming and underwhelming. From the climate-controlled calm of the plane, the airport one steps into is a sweltering, cacophonous free-for-all of customs officials, security personnel, baggage handlers, and other airport staff (many of them self-appointed). As for the hundreds of others milling around and contributing to the bedlam, their purpose isn’t clear. Overall, while the melee leaves many travelers flustered within a few moments of arrival, my first glimpse of Sierra Leone also came with another sinking feeling: This is it?

Lungi International, Sierra Leone’s only airport, is conveniently located on the other side of a wide bay (in fact the world’s third largest natural harbor) from the capital of Freetown. To reach Freetown by land, the trip is a jarring, painful ride over some of the world’s worst roadways, in the
past fraught with bandits who could ambush and fade instantly into the jungle. Though the coastline is no more than 60 miles long, this trip can take anywhere from four hours to several days, depending on conditions.

The forehead-smacking, what-were-they-thinking placement of Lungi Airport is derived from Sierra Leone’s colonial legacy. After chasing off the early Portuguese explorers who gave the country its name, the British established Sierra Leone as a colony in 1808. In the 20th century, faced with a growing local rebellion to their rule, the British decreased their visible presence by locating their military across the bay from Freetown proper. Upon independence in 1961, the new Sierra Leonean government happily reclaimed the British air field and established the country’s first airport at a site originally selected with seclusion—not convenience—in mind.

The humor of the situation is lost on many who arrive at the airport for the first time and assess their options—helicopter, hovercraft, or ferry across the bay. For those of us traveling to Sierra Leone to observe the country’s presidential and legislative elections, the options sounded particularly bad. Two months before, option number one had plunged to the earth in a fiery crash of flying rotors, killing 22 aboard, including the craft’s less-than-sober Ukrainian pilots. A sign at the ferry’s ticket counter advertised a trip of "between two and eight hours." So much for option three. The hovercraft it was.

Exciting as it may sound, the hovercraft was far from stimulating—the turbines’ humming, womb-like heat, and gentle rocking lulled me to sleep on my first ride. Several weeks later, however, while I was in Freetown, a staff member of my organization would have a more exciting ride when one of the hovercraft’s two giant turbines failed during a night voyage from the airport. The pilots, he reported, only recognized the breakdown after the lopsided craft had steered itself well out to sea. You might wonder, Did the hovercraft have a GPS system? Anyone who’s been to Sierra Leone can tell you the answer to that question.

* * *

In 1991, decades of corruption, poor leadership, and declining government legitimacy finally culminated in a whole-scale collapse of the Sierra Leonean state. A rebel force known as the Revolutionary United Front capitalized on the power vacuum, building armies of child soldiers and outfitting them with weapons bought with smuggled diamonds from the eastern region of Kono. Other forces in the region soon became involved, including Liberian President Charles Taylor, a bumbling army of West African peacekeepers, remorseless South African mercenaries, British Special Forces, and many others. Attracted by the diamond wealth, they embroiled Sierra Leone in a chaotic civil war that would last until 2002 and leave the country and its people indelibly scarred. This is the conflict made famous in American popular culture only years later by the film Blood Diamond and the memoir A Long Way Gone.

On a continent best known for war and mayhem, the experience of a small place like Sierra Leone would not seem to stand out from other conflicts. But Sierra Leone’s war pushed the boundaries of human wickedness in ways other than mere casualty figures. While estimates of the death toll number in the tens of thousands—as compared to the three quarters of a million killed in Rwanda, and roughly 400,000 in Darfur—it is the way in which they died, and the sufferings of those unfortunate enough to live, which defined the conflict. Rebel and government forces alike marauded across the countryside, pillaging villages one by one—pressing young boys into forced soldiery with threats of death, hacking at men, raping women and young girls, shooting babies, burning houses and food supplies, and leaving in their wake a trail of death and misery. Often, those who survived these attacks, violated and/or missing limbs, without hope, were visited soon after by another army of perverted butchers.

* * *

In the rainy season, which lasts from May to November, Freetown's volcanic hills crawl with fresh growth. Lush flora pushes from the soil, sodden with the daily showers. The verdant, steaming mountains, with brilliant green tangles cascading down their slopes to the city wedged on the sandy strip between mountain and sea, reminded me instantly of Hawaii.

Freetown itself appeared chaotic, its downtown a whirling wet mix of hawkers, darting motorbikes, pushcarts, honking horns, mangy stray dogs scurrying underfoot, and overladen bicycles wobbling between traffic. Though my first days in the country were unseasonably free of rain, soon the promised deluges arrived. The rain clouds would thunder in so thick and black, and the rain beat down so hard, that our hotel’s satellite internet connection would flicker out at the peak of each storm.

In the capital, I stayed at the Bintumani Hotel—a sprawling complex that had once been the pride of Freetown. Heavily damaged during the civil war, the hotel was partially rebuilt (the hulking, bullet-ridden shell of the conference center still loomed over from the adjacent hillside) several years ago by a Chinese company, and remained under Chinese management. To an academic, the drab hotel might have seemed a fascinating manifestation of China’s growing influence in Africa, but to me, it simply meant that I would have to learn to work a TV remote, light switches, and faucets labeled in Chinese. This task was made simpler by the fact that turning anything on usually wasn’t worth the effort. The fickle electricity supply dodged on and off every few moments, and, while the rain poured down outside my window, not a trickle could be found in the pipes for days at a time. The Bintumani’s Chinese managers have learned to live with the water outage by taking a daily plunge in the hotel’s brilliant green, algae-filled swimming pool.

On the political front, Sierra Leone was tense when I arrived in early August, just days before the country’s first elections in five years. Voters speculated:would violence erupt between the Temne of the north and the Mende of the south? Between supporters of the All People’s Congress (APC) and the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP)—bitter rivals since independence? What role would be played by the newcomer and wild card in the race, the People’s Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC)?

* * *

Radio rules in Sierra Leone, a country without a power supply constant enough to have reliable television service, and where the written press is nothing more than a farcical, tabloid-esque rumor mill. (Some recent headlines include: "Old Haggard Sama Banya! Writing For Political Plenty", "A Thirty-Four Year Old Woman Struck by Thunder", "For Refusing to Offer Fish...Fisherman Loses Sight", and "APC and SLPP Are Water Mellon Comrades in Arms".) Given the state of the country’s print journalism, as the election neared, apprehensive Sierra Leoneans turned to radio, gathering together around handheld sets in shop fronts, on street corners, and elsewhere.

Updates on election preparations filled the airwaves 24 hours a day. Breaks for music were scarce, and when they came, Sierra Leone’s hippest stars rapped only about elections and non-violence, and its divas sang their hearts out, imploring the people to vote, and vote in peace.

* * *

The Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary is the project of a group of environmentally conscious local and international conservationists hoping to save the chimpanzee population that once ruled Sierra Leone’s forests. Today, the park’s staff works to rescue chimps exploited as pets or show animals around the country, hoping to rehabilitate them to forest life.

A few of us drove to the sanctuary one afternoon, high in the hills outside Freetown. The sanctuary consists of a number of small enclosures for the younger chimps, and several large sections of natural forest for the adult communities. These large swaths of jungle are surrounded by an electric fence that gives the place a "Jurassic Park" appearance while also frustrating the chimps’ efforts to scare off human intruders from "their" territory.

One large male, easily as tall as me and twice as wide in the shoulders, swung a large stick against the fence when we approached. He hooted and growled loudly to scare us off, and when this did not deter us, he enlisted a cohort of his underlings to heave rocks at us. One grapefruit-sized stone he pitched over the fence landed at my feet with a hard thud, denting the ground, and convinced me to take a few steps back.

* * *

On election day, Sierra Leone’s voters, ever fearful that catastrophe would strike and prevent them from casting their vote, began queuing at many polling stations around 4:00 AM, three hours before the scheduled opening time. By 7:00, many sites were overrun with voters, with lines in Freetown spilling into the streets and winding for blocks, as one friend captured on video.

Along with one of our local staff members, for several hours on election day afternoon I donned the trademark observer’s cap. Soon, as blue rivulets dripped off the cap’s brim, I pondered how, in the heart of the rainy season, a local manufacturer could have overlooked the need to print the logo in water resistant ink.

We began our observation at a small site in northeast Freetown, where by 3:00 PM everyone who wanted to vote had clearly done so—the voting stations were empty, the polling staff relieved to have a break from the morning’s madness.

A few blocks away, however, at the Ahmadiyya Secondary School, a large crowd of several hundred angry supporters of the opposition All People’s Congress stood outside the school compound’s gates, shouting loudly. A squadron of police in riot gear, heavily armed with tear gas launchers, rifles, and plastic shields, pressed back the crowd. Seeing observers approach, several youths from the crowd rushed toward us, tripping over each other’s words to tell their story. Supporters of the ruling SLPP had entered the station, they said, and switched out two ballot boxes with duplicates full of fake SLPP votes.

Inside the school grounds, smiling polling station officials professed no knowledge of any incident, and couldn’t seem to imagine why the crowd had gathered.

We continued our observation at that site, and one across the street, for a few more hours. By the time voting closed at 5:00 PM, the crowd’s numbers had swelled, and it had crossed the threshold to "mob" status. Trying to escape the area before the situation escalated, our car crept slowly through the throngs of agitators, who spilled down the long stretch of Kissy Road.

Soon, however, a new shout went up, and the mob began to bang on our car’s windows and body. The vehicle started to shake from side to side as they heaved against it. "Dem wanna see in dey" the driver, Santigie, told me in calm Sierra Leonean Krio, motioning toward the trunk with a serenity that suggested that our rapidly worsening predicament was all part of an average day in Freetown. The swirling crowd had halted our vehicle, demanding to see inside the trunk to verify we were not fleeing with a ballot box inside. As Santigie stepped out to open the trunk, a gunshot suddenly echoed down the street. Sirens blaring and megaphones crackling, a convoy of large armored police trucks careened along the road, sending the youths leaping to the sidewalks.

Santigie slammed his door and peeled off, swerving past scurrying protesters. Soon though, after passing through two police checkpoints, his shoulders relaxed, and he casually flipped on the radio to tune into the election news. For the rest of our ride, I remained taut, my eyes jumping anxiously from one pedestrian to the next as we rolled through the twilit city.

* * *

In the hours and days following the close of polls, news was gathered from the ground up, with citizens on crackling cellular connections phoning in poll results from stations around Sierra Leone as the ballots were counted and the tallies posted.

After two weeks of waiting, the results were in at last. Dr. Christiana Thorpe, a national record holder in track and field turned civil society activist turned Electoral Commissioner, announced the final results at a press conference as the country listened in hushed rapture.

Among her remarks on the election, the Commissioner pointed out the large number of invalid ballots. In their eagerness to participate in the democratic process, it seemed, many inexperienced citizens had simply placed ballots in the boxes without marking a vote for any candidate.

Nonetheless, the people had spoken: In the parliamentary election, the opposition APC party captured a sound majority, a clear sign from voters of their dissatisfaction with the ruling party’s stagnation in recent years. In the presidential race, the APC and ruling SLPP led the pack, but neither party’s candidate managed to secure the required 55 percent of the popular vote. A runoff election would be held two weeks later, on September 8.

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