Sunday, July 15, 2007

Sierra Leone risks violence if polls botched-report

DAKAR, June 12 (Reuters) - Sierra Leone has a chance to turn its back on its 1991-2002 civil war at elections next month, but anger over corruption and poverty could bubble over into violence if the polls are not fair, said a report on Thursday.

The study by think-tank International Crisis Group (ICG) entitled "Sierra Leone: The Election Opportunity" said that many of the conditions that sparked the West African country's diamond-fuelled civil war were still present despite national elections in 2002 and local polls in 2004.

A lasting peace in the former British colony is impossible unless August's presidential and parliamentary polls are transparent and the new government swiftly tackles graft and inequality, Crisis Group said.

"The 2007 elections are a crucial opportunity for Sierra Leone to definitively turn its back on conflict," said Carolyn Norris, Crisis Group's West Africa Project Director.

"But if the new administration does not start with a strong reform program, the population's tolerance of bad governance and uneven economic development is unlikely to last much longer, and a return to conflict would be a real possibility."

Funded by the sale of illegally-traded "blood diamonds", Sierra Leone's 11-year civil war killed an estimated 50,000 people, devastated the heavily-jungled country's infrastructure and drove hundreds of thousands from their homes.

Sierra Leone ranks second from bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index.

The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels, led by ex-army Corporal Foday Sankoh, became notorious when their drug-fuelled child soldiers hacked the limbs off women and children.

Outgoing President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, re-elected by a landslide in 2002 on a wave of post-war euphoria, has divided his ruling Sierra Leone's People's Party (SLPP) by anointing a successor, Vice-President Soloman Berewa.

The formation of a breakaway People's Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC) led by Charles Margai led to clashes and house burning in some traditional SLPP fiefdoms this year.

The opposition All People's Congress (APC), which made gains in 2004 local elections, is seeking to exploit this division.

Confrontation could also be encouraged by a return to a constituency-based model, which enhances the authority of traditional tribal rulers, known as Paramount Chiefs, who may seek to capitalise on their new-found political leverage.

With youth unemployment rampant, there is no shortage of willing political agitators, the Crisis Group said, calling on all parties to publicly appeal for a non-violent campaign.

The think-tank also recommended the National Electoral Commission should prepare voters for the shortcomings of the electoral system, so as not to spark unfounded fears of rigging, and sensitise chiefs on the importance of fairness.

Reuters AlertNet - Sierra Leone risks violence if polls botched-report