U.N. Electoral Chief

Credible Elections to Occur in Sierra Leone

Carlos Valenzuela, former U.N. Commissioner of the Iraqi Independent Electoral Committee, at a press conference at the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) headquarters in Mexico City, Mexico, on June 21, 2004. (Photo: Alfredo Estrella / AFP-Getty Images)

The trademark dark shirts and unkempt hairstyle usually portrays the image of a celebrity, not of someone who has helped organize 17 elections, often in some of the world's most troubled countries, including Iraq. His telephone is the one that the United Nations rings when there is an election to be held, and the organization has not stopped calling since representatives from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Colombia approached Mr. Carlos Valenzuela in 1992 to help with civic education for elections in Cambodia and serve as electoral officer there.

"I decided this is good, election is good, it's part of my interests which had been development and democratic citizenship," said Valenzuela. "Cambodia led to another mission that was in South Africa, and I continued and haven't stopped."

And so for 15 years Valenzuela has been fulfilling his childhood desire to travel the world, meet people and live in different cultures while turning the theory of democracy into practice for people living in some of the world's most dangerous places. His unassuming, soft-spoken and affable personality distances him from trouble. Yet from one continent to the other, he has helped set post-conflict countries on their path to democratic governance; from Asia to Africa, South America to the Middle East — at times under the barrel of the gun.

According to Valenzuela, "After Iraq I was tired." Understandably so, because as the chief electoral officer during the elections in Iraq, Carlos — as he is commonly known — had to worry about the success of the elections, the lives of those working with him, and he had to stay constantly within the protection provided by his twelve bodyguards.

"It's sort of frightening to see your name, the first name on the list of persons wanted by Al-Qaeda in Iraq," he said.

He survived Iraq and was heading home to Colombia for a long respite from traveling when he got another call. This time round, the U.N. needed him to come help the new National Electoral Commission (NEC) in Sierra Leone deliver credible elections to its people.

The conditions in Iraq and Sierra Leone are similar and different in some ways. Like Iraq, Sierra Leone has not seen locally-owned democratic elections in several decades. Unlike Iraq, the security situation in Sierra Leone is safer, because the United Nations Integrated Office in Sierra Leone (UNIOSIL) has been seeing dividends in its work maintaining and building peace here. Valenzuela has said that Iraq was the first election he did not spend polling day with voters, but in Sierra Leone he expects so see voting first-hand.

For 11 years Sierra Leone was engulfed in a war that crippled its infrastructure and democratic institutions. At the dawn of peace a great deal of work needed to be done to put the country on the path to democratic governance while consolidating the hard earned peace. And, according to the Executive Representative of the United Nations Secretary General in Sierra Leone, Mr. Victor Angelo, the progress is seen in the "civic and political maturity" of the country just five years after the war.

The NEC recently completed a successful voter registration exercise in preparation for the elections. Some 2.6 million people, accounting for about 91 percent of the population eligible to vote in Sierra Leone, registered to make it to the polls on Aug. 11 to participate in the first democratic presidential and parliamentary elections organized for and by Sierra Leoneans since 1967. Despite these successes, Valenzuela has not been seen frequenting the country's world-renowned beaches since arriving here a few months ago.

"I have always said my most difficult mission is the one that I'm involved in right now, because it hasn't finished," the polling expert said.

The coming elections are widely regarded as being critical in maintaining the gains made in Sierra Leone since dusk settled on the pains of war here. But for the man sent to help ensure that the elections keep the country on the path of peace and development, the timing of this election makes it particularly challenging.

"The big problem here is that it's a difficult election; the infrastructure is not there, the institution is new and not consolidated," said Valenzuela. "NEC is expected to do a magnificent job. In 2002 and 2004 everybody said, 'OK let's go vote.' This time it's really a competition between parties; it's a political competition."

The U.N.'s elections specialist noted that war-weary Sierra Leoneans were more forgiving of normal problems during previous elections organized by the U.N. after the war. Those elections set a benchmark that the NEC, which was newly-established just over a year ago, has to follow. But Valenzuela is not the least worried. He has successfully delivered credible elections in countries such as East Timor, where there never had been elections before, and where he was kidnapped by Indonesian soldiers and held under siege for weeks in 1999.

"When I got to the hotel, my room had been looted," he recalled. "I sat down, fell asleep and when I woke up the hotel had been burnt. I just could not leave, I tried to hide, and at some point I decided I had to leave because the hotel was burning. And the Indonesian military who said I was a journalist told me, 'You're going to die,' and I said, 'I'm not going to die, you have to protect me because I'm U.N. staff.' At the end they took me out."

Death was not on his mind. Instead he said he was worried about the people he was looking after who did not have the protection he got. But at the time, he was at least protected from the chaos outside his hotel.

"It was like a B-movie; there were shots, and fire and burning," Valenzuela said. "And then they took me to this one car; I don't know what happened to my car. I had my radio and called and said, 'I'm being taken to the airport.' They said, 'You're going to the airport,' and I said, 'No, I'm being taken to the airport.' And then for almost two days I was held by the Indonesian army; they wanted to put me in this Indonesian army plane, but I refused to go. In the meantime, the U.N. was negotiating with them, and after a day and a half, it was agreed that I should leave."

There have been other close calls on Valenzuela's life but neither the guns nor the normal difficulties of organizing elections have weathered this French-educated doctor in Economics and Social Science. At 14 years of age he left his native developing country for the United States and said he hated it, but in Europe he found his love. He moved to France two years later and was a career student there; one who did not miss what most young men in Colombia were enjoying, asserting that, "I'm probably the only Colombian who hates football. I just can't stand it."

When he finally decided to pull the curtains on formal education, he turned down a teaching job with a university in France. His feet were itching to return to his "very musical" Colombia, since in all the years he lived in France, "I never worked, except I danced."

"I always liked dancing and that's been my thing, it's dancing. When I was very young, at age 16, I was in Germany and I discovered folk dancing from Eastern Europe and that became my passion. And that's what I did, that's how I lived in Europe for 15 years, teaching dancing, which destroyed my knees. And that's why now I have to go to the gym every day to work on my knees, otherwise I can't walk. It destroyed my knees. I danced full time for about 20 years. Almost every night I'd be dancing for hours. And that was my way of living, that's what I taught. I danced in troupes also but mostly I taught. For my personal pleasures I dance."

Valenzuela describes himself as opinionated and laughs at characterizations of him as soft-spoken and diplomatic. He is certainly not subtle, judging from his tough responses that quieted, among others, former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who had speculated negatively on the possibility of a successful election in Iraq. When losing political parties in East Timor confronted Valenzuela with an accusation of alleged fraud, he said to them, "Prove it." They had no proof but continued to insist that there was fraud. To which, he said, "How?" They responded, "Well we know that we were the strongest party in the district and we lost." Valenzuela then retorted, "Yes, but that's democracy, that's elections; you can never be sure."

"Elections are not an end on themselves, and they are just a small part of the big process," he posits. "So, people tend to just judge elections, like, have they changed the world. Of course they haven't changed the world. And democracy is not just elections. But elections are important in the search for democracy."

Sierra Leoneans have been on that search and the NEC continues to help. With more than 90 percent of electors registered during the recent successful voter enrollment exercise, another milestone has been reached in the search for democracy that generations here have not seen in decades. And Valenzuela indicates there is a lot of hope; that people want to make things happen. Certainly this positive spirit is helpful to the man who wanted to take a break from assisting with elections to focus instead on setting up an International Center for elections administrators in Mexico City.

According to Valenzuela, the NEC may be new but it is fully capable of delivering credible elections. Following the 2004 elections the Commission's administration was gutted; its staff are no longer government employees. It is fully independent from the government, and if its employees are found to be aligned with political parties, as has occurred, they're promptly sacked. The Commission has also received tremendous support from the U.N. system in Sierra Leone. The UNDP manages the basket-fund that finances the elections. And the U.N.'s chief adviser to the Commission, who has stated that Nelson Mandela is a wonderful person, after spending two days with him, said that the NEC's "credible leadership" has been a plus in his decision to do his last election, in Sierra Leone.

"I met the chair of the Commission, Dr. Christiana Thorpe, and I was very impressed," he said. "I felt that she is a very strong woman, who would really give credibility to the elections, and gave me the feeling that it was good to work with somebody like her. So, I'm very happy being back to doing elections although I had decided not to go back into this kind of situation."

But the responsibility of NEC to deliver credible elections is as much the job of the NEC and its U.N. adviser as it is of the political parties and the people of Sierra Leone. Valenzuela opined: "The NEC has the biggest responsibility and we work with NEC on that. You expect the NEC to provide the technical and operational framework for the elections but you expect the political parties to act in accordance to the rules of the game. The political parties have a huge responsibility and it's up to them also to deliver a credible election. It's a national responsibility."

All the major political parties and the media have signed a code of conduct that was facilitated by the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone. Both documents are designed to help maintain a culture of peace, especially during the election.

"I have been just flabbergasted by the printed media in Sierra Leone, because their coverage has been just absolutely, to me, insane. It's so negative, and so imbalanced, and so without any kind of perspective. If there is an incident, I don't think under any circumstances that you should not report the incident. But don't report the problem by itself without any sort of context," said the elections specialist.

Valenzuela explained that the job of the team he heads is to assist NEC ensure that the elections are credible. And their approach is very much proactive. He said they try to envisage potential issues and address them ahead to ensure the credibility of the elections. It's tedious work that sees him shuttling back to NEC headquarters daily, scrutinizing every procedure and policy of the Commission against international standards, and he is often seen taking stacks of papers home to work into the late hours.

So far the strategy has worked. The voter registration exercise, considered to be a very important and difficult part of an electoral process, has ended with a few usual, but minor, hiccups. Over 2.6 million people registered during the exercise and the man who helped deliver credible elections to Iraq's 22 million people posited that the registration of electors "was operationally very, very well done. It was a great success. The registration was a credible exercise."

The Commission has gone back to the drawing board to make sure that polling booths are more accessible on polling day.

This election is "locally-owned" and the majority of the voting population of Sierra Leone will make it to the polls to actively do their part in moving this country forward, to maintain its peace and development. This will demonstrate to the rest of the world that Sierra Leoneans want the dusk to permanently settle on the era of war, which has been called the worst period in the history of this country. And those contesting the elections have a duty to recognize the will and desire of ordinary people, especially those who will inevitably lose.

As Valenzuela puts it, the party that comes up short at the polls must recognize that, "they did not lose, because they are opposition and there is work for the opposition. They have to work to get their representatives better results the next time, because there is always a next time."

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