FREETOWN. (AFP) – Sierra Leoneans voted Saturday in a high-stakes election which will hand the victors stewardship of a lucrative mining boom and test the west African nation’s post-war recovery.
The elections are being closely watched by the international community which has helped Sierra Leone rebuild since its devastating 11-year civil war ended in 2002.
In Freetown, the country’s dilapidated, tropical capital wedged between mountains and the sea, long lines of voters stood patiently in the cloying heat to choose a president, lawmakers and local officials.
The city’s normally traffic-choked streets were empty of all but specially accredited vehicles, and voters made their way to polling stations on foot, or aboard a few circulating buses. Soldiers and policemen kept a strong presence.
“Everything is going well, and we are pleased with the turnout so far,” said National Electoral Commission spokesman Albert Massaquoi.
President Ernest Koroma, seeking re-election, was due to vote in the early afternoon, while his main rival Julius Maada Bio cast his ballot in the west of the capital earlier Saturday.
For most voters, further development, improved access to education and health care and greater employment opportunities should be the main priorities of the next government.
“I am quite satisfied with development and progress in the country. He (Koroma) is trying. He has to do more, it doesn’t take (only) five years to change a whole country,” said Femi Turner, 62, a building contractor.
“I would like to see more development … good health care, good education.”
While still one of the world’s poorest countries, Sierra Leone is rich in mineral resources and massive iron-ore stores are expected to add 21 percent growth in 2012 to its $2.2 billion (1.7 billion euro) gross domestic product, the International Monetary Fund estimates.
The impending windfall raises the stakes for the government that will be in office for the next five years.
The country still has one of Africa’s lowest life expectancies at 47 years according to the World Bank, and highest rates of maternal mortality. Youth unemployment levels hover at 60 percent.
Koroma, 59, of the All People’s Congress (APC) is seen as favourite to win, but only by a thin margin. He has been praised for the infrastructure boom, although his detractors say it has been marred by rampant corruption.
His main challenger is ex-military leader Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP).
Despite a somewhat murky past as a putschist who briefly held power in 1996, Bio, 48, has amassed significant support and may prevent Koroma from reaching the 55 percent of votes required to prevent a run-off.
Due to his stint in the country’s top seat during which he handed power to a democratically elected government, Bio has sold himself as the nation’s “Father of Democracy”. He has warned he will not accept a “dirty election”.
Traditional political rivals since independence from Britain in 1961, the two parties have also tried to cut across a factionalised political system in which voting tendencies split along regional and ethnic lines.
Bio’s SLPP is typically supported by the Mende — one of the country’s main tribes — and other southern tribes. Koroma’s APC is favoured by his Temne tribe and others in the north and west.
– Child soldiers and blood diamonds –
It has been a decade since the end of the war which left the world with images of child soldiers and rebels funded by the sale of “blood diamonds” hacking limbs off their victims.
Starting from scratch, its infrastructure devastated in the conflict, Sierra Leone has come a long way in the past decade.
While the 2007 election that brought Koroma to power was marked by several incidents of violence, it was followed by a peaceful transfer of power between the ousted SLPP and the APC.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned Friday that peaceful elections were “critical for consolidating Sierra Leone’s hard-won peace and for demonstrating that the tremendous progress the country has made since the end of hostilities one decade ago is irreversible.”