13 May 2002

Sierra Leone: Voters Look for Landmark Change at the Ballot Box

Freetown, Sierra Leone — On the eve of elections, Sierra Leoneans are hoping to put behind them the bitter memories and atrocities of more than a decade of brutal civil war. They want to close a page that has sullied their reputation and tarnished their history.

It will not be easy. Though fighting has stopped, the political battle continues.

Less than 24 hours before the polls open for the presidential and parliamentary elections on Tuesday, opposition political parties have renewed their complaints to the National Electoral Commission (NEC) that they were prevented from campaigning freely.

The parties have expressed their dissatisfaction with the period running up to the poll. They have accused the governing Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah of using widespread intimidation in parts of the country to stop their rivals carrying out an effective campaign.

Kabbah, in power for a chequered six years during which he was toppled and reinstated nine months later, is one of nine candidates contesting the presidential ballot on Tuesday.

Especially vocal in their criticism of Kabbah’s SLPP are the former rebels of the Revolutionary United Front, which launched the war in Sierra Leone in 1991. After disarming, the rebel group established the Revolutionary United Front Party (RUFP), which has complained to the NEC that it was not given enough time to organise rallies and gatherings.

The NEC chairman, Walter Nicol, heard these grievances about the SLPP, especially coming from the south, east and north of Sierra Leone, repeated in Freetown by party representatives

A furious southern regional chairman of the former governing All People’s Congress (APC), Victor Boukarie Roh, angrily told international observers and journalists in Sierra Leone’s second city, Bo, on Sunday, that the local electoral commission had not done enough to rein in the excesses of the SLPP.

Foh also claimed that the NEC in Bo had consistently favoured the governing party over others, handing the SLPP pre-election material, such as posters and lists of polling stations, while other parties went without.

At a news conference on Monday, the electoral commissioner confirmed that a number of irregularities had been spotted -- including identified cases of multiple voter registration. Nicol said two election officials were dismissed in a separate case.

The continuing political squabbles in Sierra Leone barely mask the fragile peace and lingering tensions that erupted onto the streets of the capital Freetown on Saturday, in violent clashes between RUFP and SLPP supporters. The city was full of President Kabbahs’s followers preparing for his final mass rally at the national stadium.

United Nations’ peacekeepers fired warning shots into the air and stepped in to help local police who failed to keep the two camps apart. More than a dozen people were injured and treated in hospital.

The RUFP claimed that at least two of its supporters had been killed.

Lieutenant-General Daniel Ishmael Opande, the Kenyan commander of UN military force in the country, reassured Sierra Leoneans that his peacekeepers would continue to provide security and back-up for the newly trained police force.

The United Nations special mission in Sierra Leone, Unamsil, is currently the UN's largest peacekeeping operation.

Although the Saturday skirmishes were an isolated incident in an otherwise peaceful build-up to the elections in Sierra Leone, observers note that, despite much talk of reconciliation and national unity, the current peace is still uncertain.

Opande made a similar observation. "Let’s say the worst is, perhaps, behind us, but the peace that is reigning here needs to be built upon and to be strengthened. Fires can still be lit and they can burn," he warned.

The conflict in Sierra Leone formally ended just five months ago. Figures for those killed during the war range between 50,000 and 200,000.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan issued a message of encouragement to Sierra Leone on Monday, saying the upcoming elections marked "an important milestone in the peace process".

Yet, despite considerable optimism about the future expressed by senior UN officials in Sierra Leone, analysts stress that the country is still in the post-war phase, emerging from ten years of horror, so it will take time for peace to take hold. They add that the fundamental reasons behind the conflict must be addressed.

Despite diamonds and other natural resources, Sierra Leone is languishing at the bottom of the UN’s human development index as the poorest country in the world.

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