Sierra Leoneans voted today in the third election since the end of a civil war, choosing whether to give President Ernest Bai Koroma a second term leading sub- Saharan Africa’s fastest-growing economy.
Koroma, 59, faces eight challengers including Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party, which ruled the country before Koroma came to office in 2007. People standing in line by the 5 p.m. closing time for polling stations were being allowed to vote, according to Albert Massaquoi, external relations officer with the National Electoral Commission. Results are expected within a week, according to the commission.
None of the candidates will probably secure the 55 percent needed for a first-round win, said Jean-Baptiste Bouzard, Africa analyst with Bath, England-based risk-analysis company Maplecroft. An expanding economy and support from his Temne ethnic group, the country’s largest, should give Koroma the edge in a runoff, he said.
“Koroma’s economic achievements during his first term, his strong support base among the Temne ethnic group, and his effective use of political alliances are expected to secure victory,” he said in an e-mailed response to questions Nov. 13.
Sierra Leone’s $2.2 billion economy will expand 21 percent this year and 7.5 percent in 2013, fueled by diamond mining and iron-ore production by London-based African Minerals Ltd. (AMI) and London Mining Plc (LOND), according to the International Monetary Fund. Foreign direct investment soared to $3 billion so far this year from $200 million in 2007, Koroma said in an interview in Freetown, the capital, on Nov. 10.
The West African nation of 6 million people, founded as a British colony and a home for former slaves in 1808, gained notoriety during the 1991-2002 civil war for the tactic used by Revolutionary United Front rebels of chopping off the hands and legs of civilians and using child soldiers.
Koroma, leader of the All People’s Congress, may have “an edge looking at the GDP growth, drop in inflation and investment ventures in the mining and agricultural sectors that have created jobs,” Victor Koroma, chairman of the Freetown-based Civil Society Consultative Forum who is not related to the president, said in an interview.
Inflation slowed to 11.6 percent in September, the lowest this year, according to Statistics Sierra Leone, with the rate forecast to average 13.7 percent this year compared with 18.5 percent a year earlier, IMF data shows.
Nasiru Deen, a 36-year-old auto mechanic, lined up three hours before polls opened to “exercise my right,” he said as he waited to vote in eastern Freetown. “No president has done so much to develop infrastructure and the economy the way President Koroma did in the past five years.”
If Koroma wins, he will probably continue programs put in place during his first term, with priority on infrastructure and energy, said Bouzard.
Hassan Sorie, a 25-year-old electrical technician, said he wants the next leader to place a priority on job creation. “I haven’t seen much in jobs for the past five years and cost of living is still high for me, so we need a change,” he said as he waited to cast his ballot.
Sierra Leone remains among the world’s poorest nations, ranking 180th out of 187 countries on the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index, which measures indicators such as life expectancy and income. At the end of the civil war a decade ago, Sierra Leone was at the bottom of the HDI table.
The conflict killed at least 50,000 people and forced 2 million to flee their homes. It ended after British troops sent by U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair to evacuate foreigners intervened to defeat the rebels.
During the election campaign, SLPP and APC supporters clashed in the country’s east and south, according to Control Risks, the London-based risk consultancy. Ten people were injured in the eastern diamond-mining region of Kono on Oct. 28 and party activists clashed in the Southern province town of Bo on Nov. 2, the risk advisory group said in a note to clients.
“While a post-election dispute over the results has the potential to act as a catalyst for renewed violence, the state apparatus should be capable of restoring order,” said Maplecroft’s Bouzard. “The risk of violence spiralling out of control appears to be low.”
Processes were followed and turn-out was high, Richard Howitt, a member of the European Parliament and head of the European Union observer mission said on his Twitter account after polling stations closed.
This year’s campaign has been less tense than in 2007, with parties being allowed to hold rallies in strongholds of their opponents and candidates urging peace, said Koroma of the civil society group.
Koroma’s decision to retain Vice President Samuel Sam Sumana as his running mate after he was linked to two corruption investigations this year “illustrates the primacy of domestic political imperatives over concerns about the government’s international reputation,” according to Control Risks. Sumana’s hometown of Koidu is the capital of the Kono region that is considered a swing area and supported the SLPP in 2007, the group said.
Bio, a Mende, the country’s second-biggest ethnic group, has pledged to tackle government corruption, accusing Koroma of putting “immunity” around “sacred cows,” according to remarks on his campaign website. The 48-year-old former military ruler has also pledged to review mining contracts signed by Koroma’s government.
“We are not yet there on people voting solely on issues,” civil society’s Koroma said. “Maybe it works for the elites, but a good number of people still pay attention to regional and tribal attachments to determine who to vote for.”
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