Sierra Leone: Elections Watchdog Calls on Government to Annul Census Results

The stark differences between the 2015 census and this 2021 mid-term census cast a serious doubt on the entire process, strengthening popular belief that the census was flawed

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(R-L) Chief Census Officer, Member of the Statistics Office, Deputy Minister of Information at the official announcement of the provisional mid-term census results

By Lawrence Williams

Based on the provisional census results of the Mid-Term Population and Housing Census, Kenema, the main stronghold of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), is now the country’s most populous district. The eastern and southern regions are also the most populated areas in the country. This announcement was made on Tuesday by the Chief Census Officer who doubles as the Statistician General of Statistics Sierra Leone, Professor Osman Alimamy Sankoh. The announcement of these results has piqued public interest in a way that could ignite fire and fury. 

Already, a large number of citizens, including opposition politicians, have expressed dissatisfaction with the results via social media. According to them, the results are flawed and the ruling party is gerrymandering. Statistics Sierra Leone, however, says the results are credible. Moses Williams, the chairman of the Statistics Council, said on Tuesday that anyone or any institution wishing to challenge the system can do so.

“If there is any doubt about it, our system is open to audit. If you are not satisfied, go to the field,” Moses Williams stated.

Just yesterday, the SLPP released a statement calling on the Electoral Commission to proceed with the boundary delimitation exercise, saying they are satisfied with the outcome of the census. 

“…the SLPP now calls on the Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone to proceed with the delimitation of constituency boundaries pursuant to the powers conferred on it by the Constitution of Sierra Leone,” the statement reads.

Meanwhile, National Elections Watch (NEW), a coalition of local and international organisations advocating for credible electoral processes and practices in Sierra Leone, claims that the stark differences between the last census (2015) and this one (2021) cast a serious doubt on the entire process, strengthening popular belief that the census was flawed. The census was overshadowed by a series of ugly events, as documented in NEW’s report. They concluded that the data does not reflect the true and accurate demographic characteristics of the country.

“…it is clear that the data is not reflective of the population of Sierra Leone and has the potential to further exacerbate the already tense ethno-political divisions,” NEW stated.

Furthermore, the coalition calls for an annulment of the entire results, saying it cannot be used for political and developmental purposes. “NEW calls on the Government to revisit or completely declare the provisional results of the Mid-Term Census null and void and not to use this data for political and developmental purposes,” the organisation stated. See statement below.

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National Election WatchPress Statement for Immediate Release 2nd June 2022

NEW’s Position on the Provisional Results of the Controversial 2021 Mid-Term Population and Housing Census

National Election Watch (NEW) is aware that on the 31st of May, 2022, Statistics Sierra Leone (Stats-SL) announced the Provisional Results of the December 2021 Mid-Term Population and Housing Census.

  • NEW has consistently raised concerns about the flawed nature of the Mid-Term Census project. In our press release dated 26th July 2020, NEW questioned the lack of inclusivity of ‘all voices and opinions (political groups, civil society etc.) in the census – a critical feature of democratic governance. NEW further highlighted issues around the ‘ever-growing trends of government actions that keep casting shadows of doubt on critical governance events and processes and how such actions set a negative tone to future works’. The Government’s unwavering prioritization of a Mid-Term Census at the height of a health pandemic (COVID19) was particularly concerning. 
  • In another press release dated 26th October 2020, NEW noted that while it agreed with, HE ‘the President on the value a census brings to national development, NEW believes that the reasons for such a process must be transparent and clearly communicated to the nation’. NEW in the same press release stated that ‘the outcome of a Mid-Term census to be held in April 2021 (after postponement) will not be available for public use till sometime in 2022 when we shall be holding Local Council Elections and General Elections in 2023. This presupposes the fact that the outcome of this census will not add any value to the development planning of this government as espoused by the President in his proclamation and no government will re-focus its Development Plans in the 4th year and yield the desired results when all attention would be shifted to campaigns’. Unfortunately, the required communication and consultation needed to build consensus among actors were never properly sought, before, during, and after the counting. Besides, there were widespread protests by some opposition political parties, including (at the eve of the census) the withdrawal of funding and technical support by the World Bank; a number of citizens equally raised concerns that even though they were willing to be counted during the exercise, they never saw an enumerator.
  • Unsurprisingly, the Provisional Result published by Stats-SL falls squarely within the concerns raised by NEW from the beginning. Relative to the 2015 Population and Housing Census, the 2021 Mid-Term Census, the population in some districts in the northern and western regions dropped drastically while districts in the south and east had unprecedented population increases, raising questions on sharp regional variations. While we acknowledge populations can change over time, the gravity of the change within such a short period is hard to understand.
  • In Bombali for instance, a district which had a population of 606,544 in the 2015 census, dropped to 387,236, representing a 36% reduction in the district’s population. Port Loko which had a population 615,376 in 2015 dropped to 528,038, representing a 14% decline in population. NEW however notes that after the 2015 Population and Housing Census, Karene, a new district was created drawing population from Bombali and Port Loko District. The Western Area Urban, which had a population of 1,055,964 in the 2015 census, dropped to 606,701, representing a 43% drop. This is especially striking, given the accepted fact that Freetown continues to see an influx of new settlements almost daily.
  • NEW notes that Western Area Urban (Freetown) had a Voter Registration (adults 18 years and above) of 606,939 in 2017, while the 2021 Mid-Term Census Results indicated a population 606,701 (citizens and non-citizens). It is difficult to understand how the new population of Freetown in 2021 is less than the registered voters in 2017. This analysis draws attention to the fact that around half of the population, which is typically considered to be under the age of 18, is not accounted for.   
  • Conversely, in Bo, a district which had a population of 575,478 in 2015 increased to 756,975 in the 2021 Mid-Term Census, indicating a 32% increase. In Bonthe District, which had a population of 200,781, increased to 297,561 representing a 48% increase. In addition, Kenema District which had a population of 609, 891 in 2015 also increased to 772,472 representing a 27% increase.   

Therefore:

  • Consistent with our position in 2020, before the commencement of the census exercise, NEW is convinced that the Mid-Term Census despite any well-intended purposes, remains a flawed process and cannot be the basis for future planning and growth of Sierra Leone. Moreover, the process remains controversial, lacks inclusivity, and was ill-prepared for, as noted by a World Bank press statement dated 7th December 2021, which stated that ‘… several critical action points require further technical work to be satisfactorily addressed, including evaluation of the pilot census, the field operation plan for the enumeration, and ensuring enumerators are adequately trained. All these outstanding actions are necessary and must be addressed prior to commencing data collection to minimize the risk of inadequate and poor data quality. There is insufficient time between now and December 10, 2021 to satisfactorily address all pending actions’.
  • NEW further notes that the current status of the Mid-Term Census data defeats the purpose of the President’s proclamation of a Mid-Term Census designed ‘in order to help us plan properly, ensure equitable distribution of resources, and foster economic and social development’.  Based on this analysis, it is clear that such data is not reflective of the population of Sierra Leone and has the potential to further exacerbate the already tense ethno-political divisions. Using such results will have multiple, long-term implications and consequences for political processes and development interventions across the country. 
  • Considering all these issues surrounding the Mid-Term Population and Housing Census results, NEW calls on the Government to revisit or completely declare the provisional results of the Mid-Term Census null and void and not to use this data for political and developmental purposes. NEW also welcomes the opportunity to discuss the way forward with the Government together with other stakeholders, including but not limited to representatives of civil society, media, independent experts, community and religious leaders, political parties, and the international community.

National Election Watch is a coalition of local and international organizations in Sierra Leone with a common objective of supporting free, fair, and peaceful elections. NEW will continue to follow the process and will report its findings to the public accordingly.

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