Sierra Leone Voters Upbeat, Election Sees High Turnout

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RAPAPORT…Turnout was high and the lines were orderly in Sierra Leone’s first presidential elections since the withdrawal of United Nations peacekeepers two years ago.

When polls opened at 7 A.M. on August 11, 2007, crowds braved the rainy weather to cast a ballot for the parliamentarians and presidential candidate of their choice. While the United Nations peacekeepers sent to stabilize the nation were two years removed from Sierra Leone, some 19 international and 39 domestic observer groups oversaw the elections and reported a smooth and orderly process.

Jeffrey Harris, head of the Human Rights Unit of the European Parliament, told reporters that voters were very enthusiastic.

“The polling officials are well-trained, and the voters cast their ballots peacefully. Generally speaking, I have not seen any violence or conflict,” said Harris.

By evening however, reports came in that some groups of young people were gathering near closed polling places and threatening to storm them. National Electoral Commission (NEC) head Christiana Thorpe told reporters that the nation responded by sending armed police to polling stations to allow the counting of the returns to commence unhindered. In one extreme case, she said, tear gas was needed to disperse a crowd, but that the situation was well under control. Counting is expected to continue until August 23, 2007.

“Armed security has now been provided to all polling stations in this area so that counting can continue,” she said in a news conference.

Some 572 contenders are competing for 112 parliamentary seats and 7 are contending for the presidency. Election rules state that the president-elect must win 55 percent of the vote in order to be declared the official winner. In the event that no candidate secures a 55 percent majority, a run-off election will be held within two weeks of the official returns. Most analysts believe current vice president Solomon Ekuma Berewa of the incumbent Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) is the most likely to succeed term-limited president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. Kebbah won the 2002 election with a comfortable 70.1 percent majority.

“I am confident I’ll win,” Berewa assured reporters after casting his ballot.

Overall, the election events went better than expected, considering the nation’s poverty, corruption, and history of violence. Sierra Leone is ranked 176 out of 177 nations on the U.N. Human Development Index, making it one of the poorest countries on earth. It is also one of the world’s most corrupt nations – Transparency International ranked the West African nation at 148 out of 163.

Still, many such as Sheku Turay, 79, who arrived four hours early to his Freetown polling station, expressed optimism about the future.

“I am eager to express my wish to see progress in the country,” Turay told Xinhua. “And I am sure things would be better in the future,” he added.

The real test for Sierra Leone, many NGO’s and analysts agree, lies in the months following the election. The Belgian think tank International Crisis Group warned before the election that “most of the problems that existed before the war remain.”

Besides the poverty, bad governance, and disillusioned youth, the group singled out corruption in its diamond industry, which largely funded the decade-long war that claimed the lives of ten of thousands. Sierra Leone reported diamond exports of $125 million in 2006, but many advocacy groups question the figures and claim that smuggling could account for numbers double or triple that of official figures. The think tank’s report said that corruption within its diamond sector was “extremely dangerous, as impoverished diamond diggers were among the most enthusiastic” rebel volunteers in the civil war.

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