FREETOWN, SIERRA LEONE — WHEN gunfire rang out following an almost regal swearing-in ceremony here in the capital on Friday, Sierra Leoneans ducked, thinking it was another coup. Then people realized that the shooting was a 21-gun salute signaling the peaceful transfer of power, and let out shouts of joy.
While variations on democracy are in vogue across Africa, rarely have military leaders been willing to relinquish power, and never during war. But Brig. Gen. Julius Maada Bio, who had taken over Sierra Leone only two months earlier in a palace coup, surprised many pundits by stepping aside after the country's first multiparty elections in almost 30 years took place in February.
This West African nation's five-year civil war has killed more than 10,000 people and driven almost half its 4.5 million population from their homes. Yet displaced people are reported to be trickling back to their villages from overcrowded cities.
New President Alhaji Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, a former official with the United Nations Development Program in New York, promises to rally the country and halt the worsening poverty and violence. A sign on the wall of his party headquarters states, "I am qualified to do anything with nothing."
Elections in wartime
His task seems almost that daunting. The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels did not participate in the elections and have continued attacking civilians. Sierra Leoneans and international- aid donors were divided over whether the voting should be postponed until there was a peace agreement and the rebels could participate. But civilian leaders overwhelmingly supported going ahead with the elections out of fear that the war between the RUF and the Army would indefinitely delay the democratic process.
During the first round in late February, rebels chopped off the hands of some people who had ink stains on their fingers to prove they had voted, in order to dissuade others from voting. Overall, however, more than half the registered voters turned out.
Last week, Sierra Leone's outgoing leader, General Bio, officially met rebel leader Foday Sankoh for the first time in neighboring Ivory Coast. Both men embraced and agreed it was time for peace, and Mr. Sankoh said he will talk with the incoming president.
Fears of a rebel-military alliance
In Bio's abdication speech Friday, which was reminiscent of the British handing over the Sierra Leonean colony to its inhabitants in 1961, he said he hoped that his Army's actions will "allay doubts of our good intentions."
Yet many doubts do remain, including concern about suspected links between the military and rebel leaders. Some feared that the military and rebels would unite to overthrow civilian rule. During the first round of elections, Army soldiers were identified shooting civilians in several cities.
During the second round of elections, rebels and the Army conspicuously halted attacks, seeking instead to impose impossible conditions on the electoral commission, observers say. "The military government was always looking for legal loopholes. It was like steeplechase. We just played the game," says James Jonah, the former United Nations undersecretary general for political affairs, who headed Sierra Leone's electoral commission.
Despite a vast wealth of natural resources, Sierra Leoneans are among the most impoverished people in the world, according to the United Nations. A senior UN official in Freetown, Elizabeth Lwanga, who last week helped launch a $57 million appeal for emergency assistance, says that economics is fueling the war. As in neighboring Liberia, which is also struggling to move from civil war to peace and democracy, much of the fighting has been over control of the diamond mines.