By Lawrence Williams
US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken (photo) has announced a significant policy change regarding visa restrictions for Sierra Leonean officials. The decision comes in response to concerns raised by the State Department about the conduct of the June 24 multi-tier elections which many local and international observers said lacked transparency.
In a statement issued Aug. 31, Blinken said the United States will pursue visa restrictions for individuals believed to have undermined democracy in Sierra Leone. This includes those involved in election manipulation, voter intimidation, and human rights abuses.
“Under this policy, the United States will pursue visa restrictions for those believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining democracy in Sierra Leone, including through the manipulation or rigging of the electoral process; intimidation of voters, election observers, or civil society organisations through threats or acts of physical violence; or the abuse or violation of related human rights in Sierra Leone,” secretary Blinken said.
According to the US State Department, the sanctions specifically target “specific individuals” who are believed to have engaged in election manipulation or rigging. It is important to note that these restrictions do not apply to the general Sierra Leonean population and may extend to include the families of those individuals involved.
“Family members of such persons may also be subject to these restrictions. Persons who undermine the democratic process in Sierra Leone—including in the lead-up to, during, and following Sierra Leone’s 2023 elections—may be found ineligible for U.S. visas under this policy,” the statement reads.
Despite denials from Sierra Leone’s electoral body, the disputed election results have sparked calls for an independent investigation and demands for the publication of disaggregated results at the polling station level. In response to the outcome, the main opposition party, All People’s Congress (APC), has voiced its rejection and threatened to boycott parliament and local councils unless the election results are nullified.
Early this month, President Bio announced the creation of an electoral review committee headed by Vice President Mohamed Juldeh Jalloh to assess the 2023 electoral cycle and make recommendations for future elections. The initiative has received applause in many government circles, but has been criticised far and wide outside government circles for the incompatibility of the vice president being both a referee and a player. Also, David Reimer, the outgoing US ambassador to Sierra Leone, has reiterated the call for an independent investigation, saying the US will accept nothing less than an independent outside review of the elections.
The move by the US Secretary of State has been welcomed by pro-democracy activists in Sierra Leone who appreciate the international community’s commitment to ensuring fair and transparent elections. However, the full details of those affected by the recent sanctions have not yet been released to the public.