People with disability and the 2018 electoral process in Sierra Leone. How can we not matter?

Research Paper (postgraduate)

17 Pages


Table of Contents



PWDs and Political Participation in Sierra Leone: A Historical Overview

PWDs and the Struggle for a Place and Recognition within Political Parties

Business as Usual: PWDs and their participation in the 2018 elections

Overcoming a Persistent Challenge: Necessary Steps and Actions




This article examines the long standing cultural and politically sensitive issue of discrimination, marginalization, and the violation of the rights of People with Disability (PWD), in relation to political and decision-making processes. It specifically examines the case of Sierra Leone and the prospects and challenges that PWDs were faced in the recently concluded 2018 presidential and general elections. The article provides a detailed account of the experiences of PWDs and the prospects and challenges they contended with during the electioneering process. It also provides perspectives and insights that could help to shape policies related to not only the participation of PWDs in electioneering processes, but also establishing the conducive environment for them to have a voice and place at all levels in society.

Keyword s: disability, democracy, participation, discrimination, intimidation and marginalisation.


Listening to the voices of people with disabilities in their own words we cannot but have observed that, foremost, they desire a public sphere that embraces their presence.

Anita Silvers, “Formal Justice” (1998) Democracy opens up the space for inclusion and participation of citizens in decision making processes; such participation in turn is a cornerstone for the proper functioning of any democratic society (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 2014). Conversely, where particular groups are prevented from holding or actively participating in decision making processes– either because of various social and economic barriers – specific concerns and needs that are central to their existence are more likely to remain at the margins of the politics and decision-making drive in that community (Bell et al. 2001; Bhavisha et al. 2017; Agbovi 2010).

The participation of individuals in political processes is a fundamental human right and this right is enshrined in international legal frameworks such as the United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights. Specifically, for People with Disability (PWD), their rights to participation is provided for in Article 29 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The article states that “States Parties shall guarantee to persons with disabilities political rights and the opportunity to enjoy them on an equal basis with others, and shall undertake to: ensuring that voting procedures, facilities and materials are appropriate, accessible and easy to understand and use; protecting their right vote by secret ballot in elections without intimidation, and to stand for elections, to effectively hold office and perform all public functions at all levels of government, facilitating the use of assistive and new technologies where appropriate; guaranteeing the free expression of the will, and allowing assistance in voting by a person of their own choice.”1 In short, the political participation of all people – PWDs included – is of political, moral and legal necessity. Despite such considerations, existing literature suggests PWD are usually denied such rights (Oliver, 1990; Shakespeare, 2006; Silver, 1998, Prince 2007, TRCSL 2004). This is the case especially in sub-Sahara Africa, where systems and structures have not been put in place to facilitate PWDs’ participation in political process, thereby disadvantaging and denying them their rights.

In Sierra Leone, figures on PWDs are incomplete and contradictory to say the least, and they range from 2.4% to more than 20%.2 There is also a gap in the literature on women and children PWDs and there is very limited research on the status and welfare of PWDs in general in Sierra Leone (Prince 2007). This points at a dearth of understanding on the most basic PWD-related issues from a research- based perspective, which in turns undermines the relevance and effectiveness of PWD programmes and frameworks in Sierra Leone.

The lack of focus on PWDs have had immense consequences on PWDs and these consequences have continued to undermine their participation and engagement in not only decisions related to their communities but also that have to directly do with their existence as human beings. Kabakeh Noah, a member of the Federation of Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs), which is a subsidiary of SLUDI; painted the overall gloomy picture of PWDs in Sierra Leone:3

The situation is very difficult in Sierra Leone. There are few facilities, the level of schooling is very low, and social services are non-existent. People with disability, who are not recognised by society, are all the more excluded. The main cause of the marginalisation of people with disabilities is a problem of means, but also and primarily a problem of political exclusion. Laws related to people with disability are not enforced and people are unaware that people with disability should be treated with the same level of respect and dignity that other humans enjoy.

This article provides the experiences of PWDs in relation to the prospects and challenges that they contended with during the 2018 presidential and parliamentary elections in Sierra Leone and the factors responsible for the marginalisation of PWDs in political processes in Sierra Leone. Additionally, it provides perspectives and insights that could help to shape policies related to not only the participation of PWDs in electioneering processes, but also establishing the conducive environment for them to have a voice and place at all levels in society.

The study adopted a qualitative approach, rooted in the philosophical traditions of subjectivism and theoretical approach of interpretivism. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 500 PWDs (250 men and 250 women) between the ages of 18 and 50 and 4 focus group discussions were conducted between September and November 2018 in Freetown (Western Area), Makeni (Northern Region), Bo (Southern Region) and Kenema (Eastern Region). Respondents were selected through purposive and snowball sampling methods. and 30 officials from the National Electoral Commission (NEC), Sierra Leone Union for Disabled Interests (SLUDI), and National Commission for Persons with Disabilities (NCPD), Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs and civil society organisations were also interviewed. A comprehensive of existing literature, policies and laws related to PWDs was conducted to enrich the analysis in the paper.

The paper is divided into four sections. Section one introduces the paper and its core arguments and claims. Section two provides a historical overview on PWDs and political participation in Sierra Leone. The third section provides the experiences and perspectives of PWDs during the 2018 elections, while the fourth section provides recommendations and conclusions on the way forward.

PWDs and Political Participation in Sierra Leone: A Historical Overview

Article 4 of CRPD (UN, 2006) states that it is obligatory for states to closely consult with and actively involve PWDs in decision-making processes on issues that affect or that are related to them (CRPD, article 4(3). In practical terms, during the deliberations leading to the development of the CRPD, PWDs were not only represented by their governments or their respective organisations, but were themselves present and played a pivotal role in the deliberations.

Sierra Leone ratified the CRPD in 2010 and domesticated it in 2011 when it passed the Disability Act. Since then, the National Commission for Persons with Disability (NCPD) has been established; the 2012 Public Elections Act enacted; a disability desk has been created within the National Electoral Commission (NEC), it has been transformed into the Disability and Gender Unit; and a National Electoral Commission’s Disability Policy was produced in 2015. These documents and institutional framework provide the legal basis, standards and institutional framework for the full and equal participation of PWD in public elections. However, according to interviewees, the existences of these policies and laws did very little to change their statuesque. This was the case primarily because while the laws exist, they are not enforced and the general public are not educated on them.

To overcome these barriers, the Sierra Leone Union of Disabled People (SLUDI) – with assistance from the Westminster Foundation for Democracy – developed a six-point pro-disability public policy priorities agenda, and called on the political parties and the next government to commit and invest on these priorities in the year 2018 – 2023 (SLUDI, 2017). These priorities include development of a disability wing in political party constitutions; affirmative nomination of PWDs in electable constituencies across the country; commitment to reviewing and implementing the 2011 Disability Act with clear mechanisms for its full implementation; and ensuring that PWDs have full access to centres that are not disabled-friendly etc. (SLUDI, 2017). Of all of these six-point agenda only the sixth point was addressed by NEC, as centres were made easily accessible, which encouraged and PWDs to register and vote. Thus, while the PWDs were encouraged and willing to register and vote, there were immense challenges with their active participation in playing roles within their parties and running for offices during the elections. The sections below specifically examine such challenges and present the perspectives of PWDs on the process.

PWDs and the Struggle for a Place and Recognition within Political Parties

In spite of the existing policies and structures, it appears that there a is very limited number of PWDs that are either registered or play active roles within political parties. Out of a number of 500 PWDs interviewed, 73% were not registered members of political parties at the time of the 2018 election. Coupled with this, the interviewees indicated that only few PWDs applied for party symbols. The reasons for this as they indicated could be attributed to the fact that they are of the perception that they would not be given the symbol as party officials do not believe they will win or could participate in active campaign. According to the interviewees less than 3% registered for party symbols for the parliamentary elections and this affected their confidence and trust in the process. An PWD working in a local NGO4 had this to say:

We believed that the process was going to be different in 2018 but that was not the case. Political parties have disability wings which are very symbolic and used to show-off that they care about PWDs and their representation within parties but that is not the case. When it comes to the award of symbols and party positions, they absolutely forget about us. At the very end, they take one PWD and give him an insignificant position and them claim that we are treated as equals. It hurts us very deeply.

Similarly, another PWD interviewed5 expressed her frustration:

“Politicians write very good manifestoes and include us (PWDs) as a vulnerable group whose rights and interests they will seek to protect and promote. They indicate that they will do so through empowering and providing us with a place and voice in political parties. However, the 2018 elections were not different in any sense from previous elections. We were abandoned and denied the positions we could have used to prove to society that we are capable of providing effective leadership and our minds works just as other people. We fought hard but at the end we got almost nothing. It all boils down at the end to mere use of words by politicians.”

The perception of being used and abandoned by politicians appears to be discouraging PWDs from participating in mainstream politics as they believe that nothing good comes out of the process for them. This lack of trust is as a result of the continuous inaction since the 2002 elections among politicians to make good on their promises when they win elections.

When questioned on the reason behind the neglect by politicians of PWDs after they win elections, a former minister in the Ahmad Tejan Kabbah administration6 had this to say:

“It is true that much has not been done to fully integrate PWDs into the political process in Sierra Leone. It is not that we are not aware of their needs, it is just that there are so many issues to address in Sierra Leone such as poverty, electricity, roads, school, health facilities etc. that once a party wins, they set on fixing those priorities and PWDs easily get lost along the line.”

The argument by the minister is weak and provides no good indication as to why issues related to PWDs could not be mainstreamed and fully rolled-out by successive governments in Sierra Leone. They have to be firstly recognised as human beings with needs and aspirations, with such aspirations fully integrated into the agenda of governments. Every component of the priorities raised by the minister needs to have PWDs fully integrated into them. The relegation of PWDs as an afterthought has massive implications for them and such an attitude needs to change.

An official of the National Grand Coalition party insisted on how different their party has been in dealing with PWDs:7

As a new and responsible party (NGC), with our leader being a former staff of the UN, the basic and fundamental principle of my party as clearly stipulated in our manifesto is care, concern and support for all irrespective of status. This basically means that my party did not only create a level playing field and give equal opportunity to every citizen of this country, especially those with special needs, but provided both financial and material support to PWDs to participate in the elections.

Inasmuch as the NGC official provided a good picture of what the party does in relation to PWDs, like other parties such as the APC and the Ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), NGC also provided very few PWDs as candidates during the election. This does not say much as to how different they are or could be in relation to mainstreaming PWDs into frontline decision making and electioneering processes in Sierra Leone.

When questioned on obstacles to vying for party positions and symbols, interviewees pointed at factors such as lack of the money to register or to finance a campaign, being frustrated or fed up with politics as a result of constant disappointment by politicians, illiteracy, lack of family or community support, stigmatisation and discrimination from non-PWDs, and fear of being targeted for violence and intimidation. Inasmuch as non PWDs may contend with similar challenges, it is obvious that PWDs contend with much more challenges including stereotypes and stigmatization, which led to them shying away from mainstream politics. The failure of political parties to constructively engage them and opening the socio-political space for their participation in the process denied them the chance help shape the conversations and narratives around PWDs and the 2018 elections.

It is important to note that the 2012 Electoral Laws of Sierra Leone places registration and voting limitations on persons with mental or intellectual disability.8 In principle, the prohibition of any candidate from participating in the electoral process on the grounds of being a mentally challenged has to be certified by a psychiatrist. But this provision is rarely applied because Sierra Leone has just one certified psychiatrist and services are only provided in Freetown and it is difficult to confirm that the claims are untrue. As such, any person claimed to be mentally challenged is usually immediately abandoned and stigmatised. This has the potential of them being denied the right to even vote during elections which is a violation of the CRPD.

Business as Usual: PWDs and their participation in the 2018 elections

This section provides the perspectives of PWDs who actually participated in the 2018 election, either through seeking party symbols, got party symbols, supported campaign process or became members of party executives. A PWD in a major political party narrated his experience:

I campaigned actively for party symbol for MP. I was better qualified than all the other candidates as I am more educated and loved by my people. I ran a good campaign only to realise that officials of my party were not interested in having me get the ticket. I confronted some of them and one had the audacity to tell me that they will not give the ticket to someone like me as I may be laughed at during the campaign. That completely discouraged me and I have never gone close to my party ever since. It broke something inside of me.

A PWD that received his party’s symbol for the local council election in Makeni explained her ordeal:

When given the symbol, I was very happy, I thought there was a genuine interest and support for me at the leadership level of my party. I never realised that the party may be using me to tick boxes indicating that they have PWDs with symbols. It was only when I started requesting assistance that I started hearing very negative comments and indications of no one wanting to help me with funds or transportation to help me move around during the campaign. I was left in the cold and eventually lost.

A political science9 expert at the University of Sierra Leone reflected on what could have been done to provide PWDs with support during the elections:

“The government and its development partners should have taken a careful approach in dealing with PWD related issues during the planning and preparations for the 2018 elections. This was not done, NEC made attempts at providing assistance to PWDs during voting but they were not based on studies on the needs of PWDs and such conclusions should have been reached through engagements with PWDs. The PPRC should have insisted on parties providing evidence of what they were doing to integrate PWDs into the electioneering process. This did not happen and politics went about their usual business of marginalising PWDs. Some got symbols but that meant nothing as they did not get the support they required to win.

Financial and other challenges such as illiteracy also proved to be major challenges for the involvement of PWDs in the electioneering process as described by Moses Kamara who wanted to aspire for parliamentary symbol.:10


1 UN Convention on the Right of Persons with Disability (2006) (Accessed on 1 March 2019)

2 The Census states the prevalence of 2.4%, although there is a wide agreement that the figure is underestimated. The Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone (HRCSL) estimates it to be around 450,000, or just less than 10%. The UNICEF Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey data for Sierra Leone shows that 24% of children were identified as disabled countrywide.

3 Handicap International. Representation and Perception by Senior Government Officials and Local Authorities. February, 2010. p.9

4 Interview conducted in Freetown on 14 November 2018.

5 Interview conducted in Makeni on 23 October 2018.

6 Interview conducted in Freetown on 13 October 2018.

7 Interview with a political party official in Makeni on 15 November, 2018

8 See Section 7 of the Electoral Laws (Amendment Act) 2002.

9 Interview conducted on 21 October 2018 in Freetown.

10 Interview conducted in Makeni on 20 November, 2018

Excerpt out of 17 pages


People with disability and the 2018 electoral process in Sierra Leone. How can we not matter?
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disability, democracy, participation, discrimination, intimidation, marginalisation
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Alex Sivalie Mbayo (Author), People with disability and the 2018 electoral process in Sierra Leone. How can we not matter?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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