Sierra Leone vote a test of self-rule

The war-torn country holds its first election without foreign peacekeepers on Saturday.

The last time residents of Sierra Leone were asked to choose their president, the tiny West African country was just coming out of a brutal 11-year civil war fueled by the illicit trade of "blood diamonds." There were 17,000 international peacekeepers in the country and the process was run by the United Nations.

Five years later, the peacekeepers are gone and Sierra Leone is trying to show that it is up to the challenge of running a democracy on its own.

Saturday's presidential and parliamentary vote will be a key test of whether Sierra Leone is ready to stand on its own two feet. Election preparations look good for a nation on the mend, say observers. But while violence is not expected on polling day, many are raising concerns about the country's ability to maintain security if groups of voters are disenfranchised or losing candidates foment protest in the aftermath of the vote.

"This time around, it is we Sierra Leoneans who are taking the democratic process forward. It is very important that we run this election properly so Sierra Leone is seen as credible by the international community," says Josephine Koroma, deputy executive director of the Network Movement for Democratic Change.

Security concerns

Security is chief among people's worries – as the police, whose job it will be to ensure a peaceful polling day, acknowledge.

"The citizenry of this country is concerned that without the UN, the Sierra Leone Police [may not] have the capacity to police the elections in a free and fair way," says Kadi Fakondo, assistant inspector-general of police.

"We believe we are up to the task," Ms. Fakondo adds.

But with only 9,400 officers and 6,100 polling stations to patrol, the police have been forced to draft help from the prison and fire services as well as the traditional chiefdom police.

The Army will be confined to barracks on election day, making this an entirely civilian affair.

Weeks of campaigning have been marred by sporadic violence, most of it in the large southern and eastern towns where rival gangs of supporters have clashed on the streets. No deaths have so far been reported.

There are seven contenders for the presidency, but only three are considered to be serious: The ruling Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) is led by Solomon Berewa, who is challenged by the All People's Congress (APC) under Ernest Koroma and the People's Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC), led by Charles Margai.

Candidates' rhetoric raises tensions

Politicians on all sides have ratcheted up the tension. Even before a single vote has been cast, some have announced that anything short of an outright victory for them will mean the election has been rigged.

One recent example was at a rally in the center of the capital, Freetown, this week, when Mr. Margai made reference to an incident in which a gun was fired during an earlier rally in the east of the country.

He told his cheering supporters, "If I hear one gunshot again, I will send 20,000 men to take care of that situation…. Any gunshot we hear in this country is [outgoing president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah] declaring war on this country!"

Other candidates have not behaved much differently, prompting the UN, the Economic Community of West African states (ECOWAS), donor governments, and civil society groups to repeatedly call for a nonviolent election.

The newly formed National Electoral Commission (NEC) is running the elections for the first time and has successfully registered 91 percent of those eligible to vote. The NEC has so far performed well. Saturday's polls, however, are taking place in the middle of the rainy season, leading NEC chairperson Christiana Thorpe to say, "We are anxious to see what percentage [of the 2.6-million registered] will actually turn out."

Ms. Thorpe was adamant that on polling day, "Our biggest challenge is the weather."

In tropical West Africa, rain can come as a deluge that lasts for days or weeks. Inadequate drainage and poor municipal infrastructure mean city neighborhoods flood and shacks are washed away. In the countryside, entire sections of the country become unreachable.

If it rains heavily on Saturday, many voters could be disenfranchised.

While Sierra Leone may yet make it through polling day, Ms. Koroma warns that if the the voting and counting procedures are not transparent, "people might react with violence."

If voters feel cheated, it is when results come trickling in that tensions may turn to violence as losers take their grievance to the streets rather than to the special electoral courts established to deal with legal challenges to the vote.

But for now, all Sierra Leoneans are focused on Saturday's polls.

Fakondo could be speaking for the entire nation rather than just the police when she says: "Are we ready? Now is the time for us to prove it."

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