Thursday, August 09, 2007

Sierra Leone polls can set example to West Africa

FREETOWN, Aug 8 (Reuters) - Sierra Leone can set an example to other countries emerging from a decade of wars in West Africa by successfully holding its first elections on Saturday since the departure of U.N. peacekeepers, a top U.N. official said.
The former British colony's 1991-2002 civil war, which killed 50,000 people and devastated its infrastructure, was intertwined with conflicts in neighbouring Liberia and Ivory Coast. Soldiers, many of them children, spilled across borders.
"We see these elections as a very strong signal that can be sent to Sierra Leoneans but also to West Africa that you can go through a national crisis, overcome it and start building a future in a peaceful and democratic manner," said Victor Angelo, representative of the U.N. secretary-general in Sierra Leone.
"For many, many years West Africa was the source of discouraging news, now we have a great opportunity here with the case of Sierra Leone to send a positive signal to the world," he told Reuters in an interview.
Liberia's 14-year civil war ended in 2003, but 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers remain after elections in 2005 which saw Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf win power as Africa's first woman leader. Her government remains reliant on U.N. logistical support.
The region's economic powerhouse, former French colony Ivory Coast, is working towards elections next year to reunite it after a 2002-2003 civil conflict.
Angelo played down the possibility of violence at Sierra Leone's weekend presidential and parliamentary polls, where the opposition All People's Congress (APC) is seen mounting a strong challenge to the ruling Sierra Leonean People's Party.
Earlier skirmishes between rival supporters in southern Sierra Leone appeared to have died down, he said.
"We have to make sure the poll is credible," he said.
"If we manage to do a good polling day then after that there is no other option but to accept the results."
Angelo praised the track-record of the international community in bringing peace and security to Sierra Leone, as well as encouraging an improvement in human rights under President Tejan Kabbah's outgoing government.
But he said the next administration would need to make more economic progress to provide work for the nearly two-thirds of young Sierra Leoneans without jobs. In particular, tackling widespread corruption was needed.
"I don't think they have any other choice. There is a call from the population of Sierra Leone and there is call from the international community about addressing corruption," he said.

INTERVIEW-Sierra Leone polls can set example to West Africa | Reuters