Interview With Chief Electoral Commissioner

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone, AUG. 28, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Sierra Leone’s Aug. 11 elections were the first held there since U.N. peacekeepers left — and they did not reignite an 11-year-old war that plagued the country since 1991.

Sierra Leoneans are now awaiting a Sept. 8 runoff between the leading two presidential candidates after none of the seven contenders won the needed majority in the Aug. 11 elections. There have been scattered reports of violence and a curfew is in effect.

And the outgoing president announced today that he could invoke emergency powers to avoid further clashes between rivals’ supporters. Yet, there is hope that the successful elections earlier this month are a sign of the West African nation’s progress in returning to the civilized world.

At the center of it all is Christiana Thorpe, the chief electoral commissioner.

She first came to public attention as the minister of education. Thorpe introduced a new educational system and later distinguished herself as an advocate for the promotion of women and the education of girls.

Moreover, Thorpe is a fervent Catholic who attends daily Mass.

In this interview, she tells ZENIT that God is the indispensable factor behind her success.

Q: What do you make of your appointment as the chief electoral commissioner, being the first woman to have ever held that position?

Thorpe: I take it as a challenge, and every day I try to live up to its requirements.

Q: What challenges have you met and what successes have you achieved?

Thorpe: Elections, for many people, are just a matter of going to cast their votes.

But that is not all. Casting of votes is just the end of a series of activities and engagements.

To have the elections, boundaries have to be set, a census conducted, voter registration carried out with the lists thoroughly verified and voter education carried out.

There is also need to train people to professionally conduct the elections and equip the polling.

The candidates who are going to be voted upon also need to be nominated, accredited and they need the campaign time to convince voters. All of that preparation takes a lot of time. This demands a lot of work.

We’ve done everything to meet up to international standards.

We are coming from the war and we need international assistance to move forward in a lot of things.

So if the elections were not of international standards, we would not get the aid and assistance that we are looking for.

Q: What can you say about the political maturity of Sierra Leone?

Thorpe. We are coming into it. There needs to be a lot of voter education in all that concerns the electoral process.

Even after elections and before elections, measures should be put in place. And the commission is ready to do that, to continue to educate people on what the democratic process is about.

The democratic process is not about violence, it is not about abusive language, it is not competition in the unhealthy sense of the word. [It is] choosing people who will lead us and who will lead us within the international circle so that we, too, could be counted as a civilized nation.

Q: You will be remembered for promoting women’s rights. Why has this been such a great priority in your life?

Thorpe: Because I was always interested in women’s and girls’ education since I was a child. I think God has been directing the path I would follow.

Wherever I have gone, [I’ve worked on] issues of development, issues of handicapped people, especially that of women and girls.

And since I have a natural flare for teaching — education in general — I have enjoyed passing on information. I like to have people becoming enlightened on whatever the issue. I think I am at my best in that field.

Q: The Forum for African Women’s Education has been a success story in Sierra Leone. How did it all start?

Thorpe: I started with FAWE in 1995 when I was minister of education, and I attended the conference in Geneva where I met the FAWE executive members from Nairobi.

They introduced the idea. Basically it was to get women throughout Africa to become educated. The rate of illiteracy at that time in Africa was 70%.

I saw that the ideals they espoused coincided in with my interests and so I jumped at the opportunity.

When I came back in March, 1995, I was able to get like-minded women — 21 of them, and we started the work of establishing the organization.

It has been very successful, especially useful during the war when we were able to come to the assistance of thousands of girls who has suffered brutally in the carnage.

With women who were violated, there was need to help them keep their heads above water and to assure them that they can start life all over again, despite all these difficulties.




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