Early results from Sierra Leone’s independent National Electoral Commission (NEC) of last Saturday’s presidential election show strong support for the opposition party candidate. In results released yesterday, Ernest Koroma of the opposition All Peoples’ Congress (APC) party leads incumbent Vice President Solomon Berewa of the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) with Charles Margai of the People’s Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC) in third place. Koroma has almost double the ballots cast for Berewa so far. To win he needs 55 per cent of the vote in order to avoid a run-off. However with only 20 per cent of the vote counted and the NEC continuing to issue updates every day, it is too early to call victory.
Outgoing President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah ordered security forces to keep a high state of readiness as signs grow of public frustration at the slow vote count amid vote-rigging allegations and electoral intimidation. The President addressed the nation on radio and said “"I have instructed the police... to deal firmly with any threats to the peace and security," Seven candidates are vying to replace Kabbah who has been president for 10 years. Kabbah himself is unable to seek re-election after completing the two terms allowed by the country's constitution.
Kabbah was first elected in 1996 but his first term was interrupted by the civil war a year later when he was ousted by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). The war was funded by blood diamonds and claimed 120,000 lives and left many more mutilated and traumatised. Kabbah was returned to power after a military intervention by the Nigerian led Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) which defeated the RUF. Kabbah won the most recent poll in 2002 which was organised by the UN, which still had peacekeepers on the ground at the time. The British-led UN Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) finally withdrew in December 2005.
Kabbah won the 2002 election on the promise of peace. However this time around it is more likely the state of the economy that will determine the winner. Despite reintegration programmes, thousands of ex-combatants and child soldiers (many of whom never went to school) are unemployed. The UN estimates that some 65 percent of Sierra Leoneans are jobless, with unemployment as high as 80 to 90 percent in some areas. Sierra Leone remains a fragile economy dependent on donor funds. The country needs to take further steps to address the root causes of the conflict and cultivate a culture of human rights. Most of the profits from diamond mining are still being pocketed by private hands rather than the Government.
Yet there is a renewed sense of optimism among Sierra Leone 6 million population that the worst of their problems are behind them. There was much enthusiasm for democracy ahead of the weekend election. Voters hope a new government will tackle some of the vast social problems facing the country and finally leave its violent past behind. Sierra Leone's capital Freetown had a carnival atmosphere with chanting and singing on every street corner. Freetown’s traffic was brought to a standstill as young people dance away to open-air sound systems provided by the party’s to engage their support.
The election itself is being managed by the National Election Commission (NEC) which is charged with conducting all public elections in Sierra Leone. The NEC is led by a Chief Electoral Commissioner, who works with 4 other Commissioners each overseeing one area of the country. The Commissioners are appointed subject to the approval of Parliament, which has the job of ensuring that the Commission is not prejudiced towards or against any particular political party or politician. However Opposition parties have criticised the NEC for not dealing with voting irregularities in the last election.
As a result, this latest election was heavily monitored by many outside groups including the National Election Watch (NEW). NEW is a coalition of 75 local civil society organizations that has trained some 150,000 monitors. The group says its mission is to ensure "free, fair and transparent elections" One of these groups, the Mano River Union Women Parliamentary Network (MARWOPNET), fielded all female observer teams in strategic areas in seven of the country’s 13 districts to monitor the 2007 elections process in order to assess and determine its transparency and credibility. It has now lauded the peaceful election and says it will have a beneficial effort on a forthcoming poll in neighbouring Guinea.