The chief electoral commissioner in Sierra Leone, Christiana Thorpe, has helped make free and fair elections possible in her war-torn country. She has received the German-Africa Prize in recognition of her work.
One of the world's least developed countries, Sierra Leone, suffered a bloody civil war that ravaged the country for over a decade. That the African nation was able to hold elections in 2007, just seven years after violence ended, was largely due to the work of Christiana Thorpe, the country's chief electoral commissioner since 2005.
She received the German-Africa Prize on Tuesday Sept. 15 at the Deutsche Welle in Bonn. She said she is confident that political and living conditions in Sierra Leone will continue to improve.
"I am very optimistic, and I think my country is headed for the best," she told Deutsche Welle. "We are determined and we will make it."
Much remains to be done
Thorpe said she knows she needs to remain optimistic because much work remains to be done. The United Nations Human Development Index put Sierra Leone at the bottom of its latest ranking of 179 countries.
The 11-year civil war made politicians forget the rules of democracy, Thorpe said. During the 2007 parliamentary and presidential elections, parties tried to control the media and bribe whole villages to change the ballot. Thorpe informed people of their rights as voters.
"If we really want the democratic process to work, I think the grassroots approach is the way that people can understand why they need to vote and what they are voting for," she said.
The independent electoral commission sent educators to schools, communities and families ahead of the 2007 elections. As a result of its work, more than 75 percent of the population cast ballots. Former opposition leader Ernest Bai Koroma from the All People's Congress became the new president of Sierra Leone and the political changeover took place in a democratic manner.
How democracy works
Those are events that Michael von der Schulenburg, the representative of the UN Secretary General in Sierra Leone who also heads the UN peace mission to the country, said shouldn't be underestimated.
"Elections in conflict areas are possible because of some very courageous people," he said. "Christiana Thorpe is one of these people. She has done a tremendous job for this country. She has set an example of how democracy works."
In a society that has been deeply affected by violence and war, and where poverty is rampant, it is particularly difficult to evoke understanding for democratic rules, Thorpe said.
"I think what needs to be changed is voting on issues - not on personality or ethnicity or tribal links," she said. "We want to say, 'Let's look at our nation, what do we need as a nation?' rather than 'Mr. X is my cousin so I'll vote for him.'"
In order to help more voters in Sierra Leone get to that point, Thorpe says she is already busy preparing the 2012 elections.
Author: Ute Schaeffer (ari/sms)
Editor: Susan Houlton