Congosa in Krio means gossiping and spreading rumour, but its connotations are much darker than in English. It equals with name spoiling. In a society where attack against somebody’s public image can meet mundane as well as occult retaliation, gossiping is considered as the antisocial behaviour par excellence. However, although unanimously condemned, congosa is omnipresent and is an essential part of public life. Friends, as well as strangers constantly share, comment and analyse stories of uncertain origin in a sort of collective jubilation. Rumours are much more than stories circulating without signature with questionable truth content. Because they are often the expressions of mistrust, doubts and alternative hypotheses challenging – while evoking – the moral order of a society, they touch upon the political, everywhere. But in Sierra Leone the political and the rumour are probably even more tightly knit together, in a way that congosa and politics become inseparable. Commenting on a previous Sierra Leonean election (that of 1986, still within the one party system) Mariane Ferme notes: “only through the careful and sometimes unpredictable management of rumours of secrete gathering and strategies can the abuses of the electoral system be kept in check” (Ferme 1999:161).
In the following I will try to demonstrate how Ferme’s almost 30 year old proposal can still be used to understand the political in Sierra Leone. Ferme links rumours and political secrecy through the “cultural order of dissimulation” prevalent, according to her, in Sierra Leone, cross-cutting ethnic and social boundaries. Within this order, true meanings are never manifest, they have to be found, reconstructed and brought up to the surface “from the underneath of things” (Ferme 2001). “(M)eanings are perceived always as unstable and different from prior manifestations. This facilitates all sorts of mystifications – a process that has its own political and truth effects, but also creates the conditions for contesting claims to power that are based on concealed knowledge” (Ibid: 6). Rumours have a special role in creating and maintaining secrecy because they convey ambiguous meanings which never get definitively stabilized. In other words, rumours are the vehicles through which secret meanings are produced, shared, and kept secret.
The 2018 Sierra Leone general elections yet again revealed the importance of rumours in an age of fake news, where gossip does not only spread mouth to mouth, but also by national and international media. However first of all it is social media that bring messages from the government, private opinions, pictures, videos and comments to Sierra Leoneans with an impressive instantaneity. For this reason, during the whole election process, citizens spent considerable time sharing and commenting such news, guessing their possible meanings and probable implications. This is how news became rumours. The content of these rumours were generally worrisome, they pointed at possible disruptions both in the political and in the cultural order. Some of them spoke about violent actions happening somewhere, far from the recipient of the news, some, although pretending to be neutral, carried the seeds of possible future violence. This constant flow of disquieting information and the necessity to make sense of it, created a permanent tension. But it also had a secondary effect: it directed the entire public gaze towards the political, making it literally an everyday household issue.
Guessing the winner is part of any voting, but in the Sierra Leone case people did not only guess the end result, they had to make bets on almost each of the constitutive elements of the process. In order to predict the outcome they had to do a considerable amount of hermeneutical work, trying to research what was hiding beneath the surface of ordinary words and what could simply be random events. But every rumour had to be investigated with great care.
The elections were held on the 7th of March and ended with a slight victory of the opposition party; the SLPP. This victory however was not enough to form a government, so a run-off was scheduled for the 27th of the same month. SLPP’s victory in the first round was contested by the ruling party; the APC. Representatives of APC accused their adversaries of rigging the election. How an opposition party could actually rig the elections was never explained. People commenting the events made hints to “hacking”, which supposed the manipulation of electronic files, but nobody had any real idea on how a very analogue counting system of the National Election Commission could have been hacked. Given the uncertainties, it was interesting to follow how the story of the alleged hacking grew out of a seemingly unrelated incident and became thicker with every detail as it passed from mouth to mouth.
On the day of the election police raided an office where the opposition’s candidate, retired Brigadier Julius Maada Bio waited for the results with his supporters. Bio protested against what he claimed to be police harassment, but he could not prevent the incident from turning against him in the form of a rumour. Within weeks the event gradually became endowed with the force of proof attesting, in the eye of the public, the soundness of the allegations. People at every corner of the city commented on how and why the police were sent to an “unfinished building” (this detail was emphasised), where the SLPP’s flag-bearer was having a meeting “behind closed doors” with unidentified men. “Not even his house, why was he there?” – they asked each other, without waiting for any answer. A policemen participating in the action was purportedly telling others how “he got scared” when Maada Bio came out in person stating that “no one would enter the place”. Commentators claimed to know for certain that some minutes later a “closed truck” left the premises which the police subsequently failed to follow, so nobody would ever know what it was transporting. These details became important precisely because although explicitly they did not reveal any secret, in the narrative they were made to look like they carried the implicit meaning of a dark mystery.
The intervention of the police did not have an official follow up, but during weeks after the announcement of the results, APC supporters (but also those of the other loosing parties) discussed at all possible occasions the magical nature of the figures announced, claiming that adding up the percentages made more than 100%. Rarely if ever were commenters sure of what percentages they talked about. Without mentioning the connection, it was understood that the figures were false because of the “hacking” that everybody seemed to know about.
Rumours shadowed also the role of other actors involved in the election. Within days of the announcement of the elections results the National Election Commission (NEC), which had been so far lauded for its good performance, was named as the main culprit in making the elections “incredible”, sometimes accused of incompetency, sometimes more directly of cheating. While a nation was waiting impatiently for the day of the second round, the news came that an APC member took NEC to court for fraud. Guessing immediately started: would voting be held in these conditions? The court hearing was tabled just one day before the scheduled election. Was it possible to hold an election the very next day? What would be the rule of the court? And most importantly: who was in reality behind the court order and who was behind the court? Yet again people speculated about the underneath of things.
It seemed that whatever the court ruling would be Sierra Leoneans were in trouble. People proposed that if the elections were postponed it would make the ruling party appear as the ones who manipulated the court in order to procrastinate the elections. Eventually it could give the incumbent president a pretext for staying in power for indeterminate time – similarities with old Sierra Leonean dictators were brought up. But on the other hand if the election was to be held under these conditions, the result would surely be contested as well. In one way or another half of the country would be dissatisfied and the disgruntled youth would rise up. Large scale violence and destruction seemed to be almost unavoidable, if one were to believe in the circulating rumours.
On the 26th of March the country held its breath, waiting for the ruling of the Court. SLPP supporters gathered in the courtroom and a smaller crowd surrounded the building, shouting loudly the name of their candidate, occasionally threatening with retaliation if the court prevented the election planned for the next day. Was it because of this threat or because of more in-depth legal considerations that the court finally dropped the case that it had accepted only 2 days before? Did the court act independently or under influence of somebody or something? And if it was influenced: how? The air was rife with rumour. It was not until the evening that the public learned that the run-off elections were to be held, but rescheduled for a few days later. What seemed to be impossible in the morning, looked like an obvious solution by the evening. Instead of creating havoc, as was feared, the decision was somewhat magically received with satisfaction and with the greatest calm in all camps.
The additional time created space for more news about alleged acts of violence in different parts of the country and for more speculation, namely about the possible actors that might try to exercise their influence on the election. But the accusations of NEC stopped. Instead, new denunciations started to circulate. The ECOWAS-EU-AU-UN observer team was accused not only to be biased but of rigging the elections in favour of the SLPP. After his return to Ghana, former Ghanaian President Mahama, the chairman of the Commonwealth Observer group, issued a statement refuting such allegations. Still media close to APC depicted President Mahama as “a puppet of the West”, insinuating that changing the incumbent president, Ernest Bai Koroma for Maada Bio corresponded with Western interests. In the same time Koroma was accused by his adversaries to use Chinese support to remain in power. Although none of these allegations were proved or disproved officially, they pointed to the fact that the public opinion was very much aware of the international context and its possible impacts on Sierra Leonean politics.
After this long suspense the decisive day on the 31st was eagerly awaited and feared. Belying such fears, one more time, just like on the 7th, the day unfolded peacefully, and without any major incident. But the suspense was not yet over. The race was so tight that it was impossible to predict the winner. Now people were worried about what would happen after the announcement of the result. Would the defeated party accept the defeat? Would the supporters of the winning party take revenge on the other camp? Could it be that the official ending of the election would descend into the kind of violence that had been constantly evoked but always narrowly avoided ever since the election process started? Nothing similar happened. One week after the election NEC announced the victory of the opposition party. Three days later Samura Kamara, APC’s candidate publically accepted the results. Sierra Leone remained within the perimeters of democracy. Was the danger of violence ever real?
I believe that for the first time after the war, descent into generalized violence was a real possibility and Sierra Leoneans were acutely aware of it. In this context control and manipulation of information became a tool to maintain a fragile balance between opposing social and political forces. Manipulation of information has become a regular strategy of powerful actors even in the global North, as shown by the real or supposed scandals around the voting in the USA and the UK. That wilful manipulation occurred in Sierra Leone must certainly not be excluded, but this is not the key point. Rather the point is that rumours, or Congosa, are in itself the key to move and manipulate an electorate in Sierra Leone. But it is also the reverse: It is central to observe and understand how public opinion use available information to hold political leaders to account, by implicitly making them responsible for any possible surge of violence. Rumour in this light does not only seem to have a political effect but also appears as having the power to keep the political in check. I do not doubt that in other circumstances imagined violence might have disastrous consequence on social peace but I would argue that during the 2018 Sierra Leonean elections rumours had a paradoxical regulating effect: contributing – by the constant evocation of the dangers of violence and political chaos – to the maintenance of peace and order.
Dr. Diana Szántó is a cultural anthropologist and social activist. She founded Artemisszio Foundation, an organization actively promoting engaged anthropology in Hungary, which she directed for 12 years. Her research interest is in intercultural relations, international development, urbanity, civil society, migration, medical anthropology and disability. Her doctoral thesis investigated the post-war transformations in Sierra Leone from the point of view of polio-disabled communities. Currently, she teaches medical Anthropology at School for International Training (USA). Her book, “Politicising Polio in Sierra Leone” will be published by Palgrave Macmillan next year.
Ferme, M. (1999). Staging Politisi: The Dialogics of Publicity and Secrecy in Sierra Leone. Civil society and the political imagination in Africa : critical perspectives. J. L. Comaroff and J. Comaroff. Chicago, University of Chicago Press: xi, 318 p.
Ferme, M. C. (2001). The underneath of things. Violence, history, and the everyday in Sierra Leone. Berkeley [u.a.], University of California Press.