Sunday, August 12, 2007

Count begins in Sierra Leone poll

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) -- Sierra Leone held its first presidential elections Saturday since U.N. peacekeepers withdrew two years ago, a historic poll that many hope will show this country can transfer power peacefully after being ravaged by coups and a long, diamond-fueled civil war.

Supporters put up a banner of Sierra Leone's current vice president Solomon Berewa.

Voters arrived before dawn, weathering a light drizzle and long lines, for a chance to choose from seven candidates. Electoral officials said balloting had gone smoothly and vote counting began after the polls closed.

The most crucial period for the war-battered nation may come months down the road, when the public begins expecting real change from a new government. Despite progress since the 10-year war ended in 2002, analysts say many of the root problems that caused the conflict -- corruption, poverty and unemployment -- remain.

"There are high expectations for these elections, which is encouraging," said Carolyn Norris, the West Africa director for International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank.

But "when the euphoria dies down, the public will want to see real change. ... If the new government doesn't perform as people demand, the patience people have shown could run out," she said.

There were no reports of violence during the voting, but police used tear gas to disperse crowds of youths setting up makeshift roadblocks in part of the capital, Freetown. It was unclear what sparked the incident or whether was related to polling.art.jpg

Saturday's victor must take more than 55 percent of the vote to avoid a run-off between the top two finishers. Final tallies are expected within 12 days of voting.

In other races, some 572 contenders vied for 112 parliamentary seats. About 2.6 million of the nation's 5 million people are registered to vote.

"I want change and development," said Jaclin Johnson as he waited to vote at a public school in Freetown. "If the elections go on peacefully, there will be development."

That's the hope, at least.

Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world, ranked 176th of 177 nations on the U.N. Human Development Index. Although its infrastructure has been restored to prewar levels and donors last year forgave $1.6 billion in crippling debt, the country has struggled to fight poverty and corruption, which is considered a serious drag on economic growth. Transparency International ranks Sierra Leone one of the most corrupt nations on earth, 148th out of 163 surveyed.

Sierra Leone exported $125 million worth of diamonds in 2006. Those are official figures, however, and advocacy groups believe real export levels are two to three times that, with the rest being ferreted out of the country via smugglers.

In a report issued prior to the vote, International Crisis Group singled out corruption within the diamond industry as "extremely dangerous," noting that impoverished diamond diggers were among the most enthusiastic rebel recruits during the war.

Civil war broke out in Sierra Leone in 1991 when a rebel group backed by Liberian warlord Charles Taylor launched fighting near the border of the two countries.

Revolutionary United Front rebels were infamous for brutal tactics, burning villages, raping women and abducting and drugging children to turn them into teenage fighters. Tens of thousands of civilians died and countless victims live today with the legacy of the rebels' trademark atrocity -- the lopping off of arms, feet, hands and lips with machetes.

U.N. and British forces defeated the rebellion, and a U.N. force stayed on, swelling to 17,500 troops before departing in December 2005. British troops have helped train a new 17,500-strong army, which, together with 9,500 police, is responsible for national security.

In July, a U.N.-backed war crimes court issued its first sentences since being set up five years earlier, handing down half-century jail terms to three former junta leaders. On Aug. 2, two former members of the Civilian Defense Forces militia, a pro-government group that fought against the rebels, were also sentenced for torturing and mutilating civilians.

Sierra Leone has held two elections since the war ended: a presidential vote in 2002 and municipal elections two years later. President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, 75, is on the verge of completing his second five-year term and cannot run again.

Solomon Berewa, the 69-year-old ruling party candidate, is considered a front-runner to replace him. His toughest competition is considered 54-year-old opposition party chief and businessman Ernest Bai Koroma.