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Sierra Leone picks new president with hopes of economic turnaround

By AFP - Mar 08,2018 - Last updated at Mar 08,2018

A military member shouts to keep order as people queue to cast their vote during Sierra Leone’s general election in Freetown, Sierra Leone, on Wednesday (Reuters photo)

FREETOWN — Sierra Leoneans voted on Wednesday in an election to pick a new president, parliament and local councils, with many craving economic change and a boost to living standards in one of the world’s poorest countries.

Long queues formed under the boiling sun in the capital, Freetown, as party leaders cast their votes and one party complained of irregularities in the northern provinces.

“So far voting has been peaceful and I’m satisfied with the process,” said Julius Maada Bio, presidential candidate for the main opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP).

“I will only accept a free, fair and credible election,” the former military leader told journalists at the barracks where he voted.

President Ernest Bai Koroma, who can not run again after consecutive five-year terms, has anointed former foreign minister Samura Kamara as his successor for the ruling All Peoples Party (APC).

The APC and SLPP have dominated Sierra Leone’s politics since independence in 1961, but third parties are hoping to make their mark after mounting charismatic campaigns.

Kamara’s running mate Chernor Maju Bah said the vote seemed “well organised” as he voted in the capital, confirming a statement released by civil society groups which mentioned scuffles in a rural area that were quickly brought under control.

The APC and SLPP have dominated Sierra Leone’s politics since independence in 1961.

The export-dependent economy of the mineral-rich but impoverished country is in a dire state following the 2014-16 Ebola crisis and a commodity price slump that has driven away foreign investors. 

More than 3.1 million voters are registered for the polls. Partial tallies are expected within 48 hours and complete results within two weeks.

A presidential run-off is likely, according to experts, as the threshold to win outright in the first round is 55 per cent.


Smooth running 


Sierra Leone, battered by a horrific 1991-2002 civil war, is sharply divided along regional lines that overlap with ethnicity.

The APC broadly relies on the Temne and Limba people in its northern strongholds, while the SLPP is more popular in the south with the Mende ethnic group.

The National Grand Coalition, headed by former UN diplomat Kandeh Yumkella, is challenging the two-party system by appealing to young and better-educated urban voters deemed less likely to vote along regional and ethnic lines.

Its communications chief told AFP around midday it had reported some irregularities to the National Election Commission (NEC).

“So far things are going OK but we are receiving a few reports of incidents,” said Julius Spencer.

“There are some areas where there are attempts at double voting and ballot papers missing, notably in Port Loko and Tonkolili,” two northern areas known for APC support, he added.

The NEC admitted in a statement that ballot papers were not printed correctly for one mayoral election, but said the vote was otherwise going smoothly.

Arthur Taillu, a retired teacher, said it could prove difficult to dislodge the APC government.

“The present government has got a lot of clout. They have got a lot of money. And in very poor countries like Sierra Leone, money talks,” Taillu told AFP after casting his vote in Freetown.

The current government is accused of misusing funds meant to rebuild the country’s health system after Ebola, and of failing to address the fallout from a mudslide in August that killed hundreds.


Chinese influence 


Outgoing president Koroma’s increasing reliance on China for infrastructure projects, including a new airport and adjoining toll road, have also raised concerns that Beijing is seeking to keep the APC in power.

“Chinese companies and political officials have bled into the current electoral cycle, shaping public discourse, as well as long-term economic and political decisions,” noted the Institute for Governance Reform, a Freetown-based think tank in a recent report.

Voter freebies and funding for campaign materials could “potentially influence the voting public” in the APC’s favour, it added.

Observers from the African Union, Economic Community of West African States, the European Union and the Commonwealth oversaw voting.

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