Saturday, September 08, 2007

Sierra Leone braces for crunch presidential vote

BO, Sierra Leone (AFP) — Sierra Leoneans on Saturday vote in a tight  presidential run-off seen to test the west African country's ability to cement peace following the end of one of the most brutal civil wars in modern times.

The election pits candidates from the parties that have ruled the country the longest: the opposition All People's Congress (APC)'s leader Ernest Koroma and Vice President Solomon Berewa from the ruling Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP).

Some 2.6 million eligible voters return to the ballot boxes to choose between the two politicians who came up top with a six percent vote difference in the first round of voting.

Neither of them made it to the minimum threshold of 55 percent of ballots cast needed for a clean win, forcing the vote to go into a second round.

The vote is seen as key in testing whether Sierra Leone has truly emerged from a brutal decade-long civil war which ended six years ago. The war -- fulled by the so-called "blood diamonds" -- claimed some 120,000 lives and was marked by the widespread amputations of limbs.

While observers praised the first round of voting for being largely peaceful except for isolated cases of violence, there are concerns that tensions have risen.

"Tension is a little heightened (than in the first round)," said Ngola Karta from the National Elections Watch, which has deployed over 5,000 local poll monitors across the former British colony, one of Africa's poorest countries.

In the southern second city of Bo, 200 miles (321 kilometres) east of the capital Freetown, the rival parties were busy with last-minute preparations on Friday, following days of gruelling and violence-marred campaigns.

"We are seriously apprehensive because the SLPP is planning to rig the elections," said Abu Kargbo, chair of the regional branch of the People's Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC), an offshoot of the SLPP, which has forged an electoral alliance with the APC said.

"They are preaching tribalism, instructing tribesmen to drive out all northerners. We don't want to be another Rwanda," APC southern regional chairman Shiek Sillah, told reporters and observers from the US-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) visiting Bo on Friday.

The SLPP, which a lost huge chunk of its voters in its traditional stronghold here during the first round, also expressed apprehension.

"We are a little jittery about the activities of the APC, we know about their history of violence," SLPP secretary in the area Joseph Lahai said.

"There are lots of threats going on," he added.

National police Inspector General Brima Acha Kamara said the military had been roped in to pre-empt violence during Saturday's vote.

"Because we were fully stretched, we have had to ask for military and prisons forces' help," he told AFP.

Security fears deepened after a peace march proposed by the two rivals to calm supporters ahead of the deciding vote, did not go according to plan on Thursday.

Koroma pulled out of the march as the two sides traded accusations of lack of concern for peace in Sierra Leone, after a chequered history of brutal civil war and military coups.

The APC shunned the rally, alleging the SLPP was training militias for post-election subversive activities.

It also alleged serious intimidation of its supporters in the traditional southestearn ruling party strongholds.

Political commentator Joe Alie sees the stakes as "too high for the two. If it is a clean election, not rigged, it will be a very close race."

The elections are only the second since the country emerged from the decade of war fuelled by ethnic divisions and financed by blood diamonds and the first Sierra Leone is organising after the departure of some 17,500 UN peacekeepers.

AFP: SLeone braces for crunch presidential vote