The US imposes visa restrictions in response to the contentious Sierra Leone election
Visa restrictions have been imposed by the US administration on individuals believed to be undermining Sierra Leone’s democracy, following their response to the controversial general election held in June 2023. This decision comes in the aftermath of a divisive election that Western observers criticized for its lack of transparency, leading to the subsequent action taken by the US government.
Announced by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday, the visa restrictions are directed at US officials suspected of interfering with or manipulating elections in Sierra Leone. This also applies to those accused of intimidating voters, election observers, and members of civil society through threats or physical violence. Mr. Blinken articulated the policy, stating, “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 organizations through threats or acts of physical violence; or the abuse or violation of related human rights in Sierra Leone.”
The Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone (ECSL) received strong criticism from Western observers for the perceived lack of transparency in the electoral process. While some local and regional observers, such as the African Union (AU) and Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), certified the election as free and fair, the Western observers held a contrasting view. President Julius Maada Bio and his party were declared winners of the presidential election, leading to allegations of an unfair advantage by the major opposition All Peoples Congress (APC).
With President Bio securing victory with 56.17% of the first-round vote and his Sierra Leone People’s Party achieving a majority in the House of Representatives, the APC, whose candidate Dr. Samura Kamara garnered 41.16% of the vote, opted to abstain from participating in government institutions with lesser power. The APC urged for a rerun of the election and called for sanctions to be imposed on President Bio and his senior advisors, whom they believed were responsible for alleged tampering with the election.
Secretary Blinken clarified that the visa restrictions would target “specific individuals” and not Sierra Leoneans as a whole. While details about the individuals impacted by this policy were not immediately provided, the families of the affected individuals could also be subjected to these restrictions. This decision underscores the United States’ commitment to supporting the aspirations of Sierra Leoneans for free and fair elections that reflect the will of the people and bolster democracy and the rule of law.
The US government had urged Sierra Leone’s government to address any legal gaps that contributed to the election-related issues. Although a committee was established to investigate the matter, US officials expressed dissatisfaction with the choice of personnel and recommended establishing an independent panel. In July, President Bio criticized Western interference in Sierra Leone’s political system, asserting that foreign officials lacked the authority to certify election results.