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Are Personal Friendships and Political Affiliation Mutually Exclusive?

2012 August 22
Woodrow (left) at a voter registration center outside the town of Bo

A voter registration center outside the town of Bo (Woodrow is far left)

By Woodrow Covington

At a party before I left for Sierra Leone I was speaking with a group of my graduate school friends when it came out that one of our classmates was a staunch Republican. The reaction among the group of Democrats was the same as if we had just learned he was slightly mentally ill, and had been the entire time we had known him. One girl said, “He just seems so… I don’t know, normal.”

Although we may disagree politically, and earnestly vilify his party, I am sure we will all continue to see each other socially and enjoy each other’s company. Still, information about his political leanings has produced a kind of conflict in our relationship with him. The cause of this discrepancy lies in the assumptions we have about members of the other political party. In labeling each other “Republican” or “Democrat,” we heap a number of assumptions upon people, and often do not go to the trouble of verifying whether or not they are accurate. Before, we observed that we had many things in common, and assumed he had the same political beliefs we did; now, our observations are in conflict with the assumptions we have about members of his party.

That same conflict between the personal and the political exists in Sierra Leone, but on a far larger scale.

Politics in Sierra Leone is extremely contentious. I was talking with a friend I’ll call “Matthew”, a college student in Freetown, about politics last week. Matthew is a member of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), and here is how he described the opposition All People’s Congress (APC):

“They are hateful people. They support cults and use violence to get what they want. They use guns and beatings, and encourage their followers to beat people up from other parties. They should all be in jail for the crimes they have committed!”

A few days after, I was talking to “Anthony”, who is young, college educated, and working at a local conflict resolution-oriented nonprofit. Politics again came up, and Augustus started to rant:

“The SLPP are terrible people! They are horrible. They try to intimidate everyone else by using violence. They beat people in the street, even women and kids! They will ruin the country if they gain more power.”

Neither man, however, could name any significant policy differences between the two parties. All they knew was that members of the other party were terrible people while members of their own party were, as Anthony put it, “working to develop Sierra Leone.” Each man is young, educated, and employed in an office – they are on a path to being leaders in society. They are also part of a demographic that is traditionally the most progressive. So what could explain this unflinching commitment to their parties and their complete vilification of the opposition?

The answer is a combination of tribal identities, media, and corruption. Politics in Sierra Leone is divided along regional and tribal lines, with the Temne-dominated northern and western parts of the country supporting the APC and with the majority Mende south and east favoring the SLPP. These two tribes each account for about 30 percent of Sierra Leone’s population. Other, smaller tribes like the Krio tend to vote in blocs aligned with the two main parties as well.

Talking Drum Studio

Talking Drum Studio

The media in the country is similarly divided between the two parties. Newspapers have clearly defined political leanings, as do most radio stations. One notable exception is Search for Common Ground’s acclaimed Talking Drum Studios, which has sought to provide objective, high-quality programming. However, SFCG is fighting an uphill battle in a highly polarized media climate. The parties themselves broadcast information through advertisements and their official media outlets and it is difficult to find unbiased information about Sierra Leone’s politics. Overall the public discourse is fraught with personal attacks and inflammatory language.

This polarization is perhaps most significantly the consequence of widespread corruption, which results in a ‘winner-take-all’ approach to elections. Through networks of patronage, the party faithful are rewarded with coveted government posts and other favors, meaning that members of the losing party are disadvantaged for an entire electoral term. Each party knows this, resulting in a strong incentive to win at all costs.

This longstanding state of Sierra Leonean politics has produced violence during every election since the country’s independence, much of it perpetuated by men under the age of 25. With 800,000 young people unemployed in the country, gangs of youths have become a powerful political tool in Sierra Leone, mobilized by political parties with promises of payment or political favors.  Thus, the assumptions that Matthew and Anthony had about the opposing party using violence were, unfortunately, both somewhat accurate.

Within all of this political tension and violence, however, inter-party and inter-tribal friendships and marriages are common. Similar to the way that Americans cannot tell a Democrat or Republican on sight, Sierra Leoneans cannot visually determine whether someone is an APC or SLPP member, and many are often friends with members of the opposing party. Although certain tribes and parties are more prevalent in certain regions, these places are far from homogenous, and violence is usually a rare occurrence when members of different political parties encounter one another.

The community centre for the villages of Leicester and Gloucester, where citizens will vote in November

The community centre for the villages of Leicester and Gloucester, where citizens will vote in November

Elections, and the period preceding them, are a different story. Similar to the way my friends and I automatically changed our assumptions about our Republican friend, during times of increased political tension, the party labels here grow in importance until the assumptions they bring come to define people.

Unfortunately, some of these negative stereotypes are true: both parties use violence and coercive tactics, and members of both participate in the widespread corruption that defines politics here. The APC and SLPP each seek power, and are willing to go to great lengths to achieve it.

However, despite these negative aspects of both parties, members of each seem to sincerely believe that their party offers the best way forward for Sierra Leone. Each has pledged to reduce corruption, and each signed a 2009 Joint Communiqué condemning electoral violence. Both have emphasized their commitment to sustainable development as well.

Downtown Freetown

One path to reducing electoral violence may be to highlight these similarities between the two parties – both positive and negative. Ironically, highlighting that each party uses violence might be one way to reduce it. Emphasizing that each party has the same goal of moving the country forward would be another method to bridge the divide and reduce tensions. The personal ties between members of different parties reflect the potential that exists to bridge the political divide.

With the rampant corruption and resulting political favors it allows, however, it is in each party’s self-interest to keep promoting negative assumptions about the other, even if they result in violence. Until this practice ceases, people like Matthew and Anthony will continue to fight, sometimes physically, for their party. Though common ground between the APC and SLPP is present, efforts to find it will fall short until the parties themselves stop trying to actively divide the populace and manipulate the assumptions citizens have about the other party.

These same observations about party politics hold true for the U.S. as well. Although Sierra Leone is more politically polarized than America, American political parties encourage the same kind of negative stereotyping. Both Republicans and Democrats paint each other in broad, often inaccurate strokes, throwing labels and accusations at each other like political spears. In both countries it is beneficial for the parties to hurt their opposition, though this may come at the expense of increasing tensions within the country – sometimes to the point of violence. Productive discourse cannot occur in the context of these manipulated stereotypes; the only benefits that come from political polarization are for the parties themselves.

Woodrow Covington is a recent graduate of Georgetown University’s Conflict Resolution M.A. program and recently finished conducting research for Search for Common Ground Sierra Leone on natural resources and conflict in the country as well as evaluating an ongoing national elections project. He has previously held positions at the EPA’s Conflict Prevention and Resolution Center as well as at the United Nations Development Program, and is originally from northern California. He can be contacted at wcovington (at)

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