7 March 2018

Sierra Leone: With a Few Glitches, Voting Opens According to Plan

On a hill overlooking Freetown, the capital, 20-year-old Abbas came with his blanket to Grace Christian Church polling station for the 2018 Sierra Leone elections. The first-time voter camped out so he could be the first person in line in his precinct.

"I'm excited to vote," he said, as polling station workers walked around with furniture an hour before the polls opened at 7am.

Sierra Leoneans have 16 presidential candidates to choose from, the widest choice ever, with six of those considered frontrunners. Many are questioning whether the election will break the two-party system that has dominated politics in the country since 1996.

Candidate Samura Kamara of the ruling All Peoples' Congress (APC) was hand-picked by president Ernest Bai Koroma, who is stepping down after two terms. The other leading party previously in power is the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP), with Julius Mada Bio as their flag bearer.

Four other candidates are also thought to be in with a chance Samuel Sumana from Coalition for Change, the former vice president before he was sacked by Koroma; Musa Tarawally of the Citizens Democratic Party, who wants to bring back missionaries to schools; Mohamed Kamarimba Mansaray of the Alliance Democratic Party (ADP), who hopes to create a middle class; and Kanda Yumkella, of the new National Grand Coalition party (NGC) who has impressed youths, but has had to deal with a Supreme Court case questioning his nationality.

On the outskirts of town, in Jui, the doors opened exactly at 7am, as the disabled and aged were given priority in line to vote.

National Election Watch, an umbrella group of non-governmental organizations, released preliminary findings at midday saying that 81 percent of all polling stations across the country opened on time.

The polling stations are arranged by last name, and in polling stations RFI visited, the 'K' lines and the 'S' lines were the longest, due to the large number of voters with surnames like Kamara, and Sisay.

The European Union Observer Mission Head Jean Lambert spoke at St. John's School in Freetown about her observations this morning, saying that she saw a large turnout.

At one polling station Lambert observed some people queueing for hours to cast their democratic vote for the party of their choice.

"That enthusiasm has been there, people willing to wait calmly... Even if in some places things have not quite gone according to the time, people have still waiting and have felt free to go in and cast their vote," she said.

"We're hoping that that's what continues throughout the day," she said.

At SOS Children's School in Lumley, Ibrahim Bundu walked in and out of the voting station in 20 minutes. "It was quick," he said.

"I feel good," he said after leaving the polling station. "I have assurance that the person I voted for is supposed to be right for this country," he said, mulling his choice of candidate.

Voters want change and a more positive future. With inflation at 20 percent, large youth unemployment, and only 37 percent of the population able to read and write, voters say they want jobs and development.

Desiring change in Sierra Leone is why Abdul Dainkeh, 22, a first-time voter, began queuing at 4:30am at his polling station, E.D. Williams School in Freetown. Jostling in line at 10am, the people meant to vote in Station 2 and Station 5 there had not voted yet. Perhaps indicative of occasional organizational hiccups.

Inside the polling area, the political party representatives observing the ballot were frustrated. Moussa Bakary of Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) told RFI that there were no polling station workers for Stations 2 and 5 and so nothing had been set up. Workers finally showed up at 9:45am, he said, amidst angry voters waiting to cast their ballots.

"As you see here, the two stations have been pushed together to make one station," said Bakary. "The voters are outside, they are so anxious, and the workers have decided to combine the two stations together so the voting process can go on," he said.

"I am not happy about it. I feel so bad about it. I will write to my party and let them know about it," he said.

Polls close at 5pm nationwide no announcement has been made yet to see if polling stations that opened late will remain open a while longer.

Sierra Leone

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