Thursday, August 30, 2007

Tribal voting key to Sierra Leone run-off

FREETOWN (Reuters) - Sierra Leone's polls have split the war-scarred country on ethnic and regional lines, stoking fears of mounting tension ahead of a presidential run-off.

Deep fault lines have emerged in the first polls since U.N. peacekeepers left the former British colony, whose diamond-fuelled 1991-2002 civil war killed 50,000 people, displaced half a million and destroyed the economy.

Ernest Bai Koroma's opposition All People's Congress (APC), strong among the northern Temne and Limba groups which together make up an estimated 39 percent of the population, cleaned up across the north and the west, including the capital Freetown.

"They have simply preached naked ethnic politics," said Joe Alie, history professor at Freetown's Fourah Bay College.

"It really does not augur well for the unity of this county, especially when you consider we have just come from a very nasty war," he told Reuters.

Koroma won 44.3 percent in the August 11 presidential vote, against 38.3 percent for Vice-President Solomon Berewa of the currently ruling Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP). The two face a run-off on September 8.

SLPP dissident Charles Margai of the People's Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC) came third and is now backing Koroma, boosted by growing demands for action against corruption and for faster reconstruction of the small diamond-rich state.

The APC, which itself ruled for two graft-tainted decades before the war, won the parliamentary vote with 59 of 112 available seats.

The support of Margai's PMDC, with 10 seats, guarantees the anti-SLPP coalition a parliamentary majority even with the dozen regional Paramount Chiefs who also sit in parliament and have tended to back the SLPP as the ruling party in recent years.

Yet the national figures belie deep regional differences.

All but two APC seats were in the west and north, and the party won only 10 percent of presidential votes in the South, whose Mende people makes up about 30 percent of the nation.

"In Bo (the main southern town), the only reason APC won votes is because of northern Temne traders who have moved around and settled in the south and still support their northern party," Alie said.


With about 100,000 votes separating Koroma and Berewa in the presidential poll, the run-off will depend largely on how well Margai, who took over 250,000 votes on August 11, can convince his southern Mende heartland to switch to the northern-based APC.

"The majority of traditional Mendes would rather decide to vote with their people, but if Margai plays his cards well he can get 50 percent of them," said political scientist Osman Gbla, dean of the social sciences and law faculty at Fourah Bay, which is West Africa's oldest Western style University.

Margai hopes to overcome regionalism to deliver his votes.

"It is evident that Sierra Leone is polarised voting-wise," Margai said. "That is not helping the nation to develop ... the north-southeast divide should be a thing of the past."

APC and PMDC campaigners plan a two-week joint tour, but despite disillusionment with the SLPP even among Mende -- some angry that Mende former Interior Minister Hinga Norman was handed over to a war crimes tribunal before he died this year while still on trial -- they may face an uphill struggle.

"At the moment I don't think I am going to vote at the next round ... We have this regional divide problem and I don't think the Mende will vote APC," said Umaru Woody, a PMDC supporter originally from the southern Bonthe district, where PMDC won nearly double the number of SLPP votes.

Voting in Sierra Leone has not always been so polarised.

In the 2002 elections more than 70 percent of voters elected the SLPP's Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, a Muslim of mixed north/south parentage, as president on a wave of post-war euphoria.

"Not all of those voters were Mende; a very large number of them were from the west and north," Alie said. "A lot of damage has been done in these elections, they have become so divisive."

Some believe the switch from proportional representation to "first-past-the-post" geographical parliamentary constituencies has emphasised the tribal vote by reducing the influence of minority groups in each parliamentary constituency.

Analysts say high illiteracy rates and low levels of political education has also contributed to electoral tribalism.

"Most of these people are poor. And because they are poor their political decisions can be bought," said Gbla.

"Politicians say if you help your kinsmen you will survive; we will give you jobs, opportunities and education. That's why people vote along their tribe lines," he said.

News | Africa - Reuters.com