Sierra Leone 2012 Election: A test democracy
By Fran Blandy
Sierra Leoneans vote on Saturday in the country’s third election since the end of a brutal civil war, a high-stakes poll billed as a litmus test of the mineral-rich nation’s democratic credentials.
The election will be the first since the end of the 11-year war in 2002 to be conducted entirely by the Sierra Leone government, and also marks the first time presidential, parliamentary and local elections are held together.
Eight political parties are contesting the presidential vote in which President Ernest Koroma of the ruling All People’s Congress (APC) is regarded as likely to win a second term in office.
However analysts predict a tight race with former junta leader Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) who has amassed significant support and is likely to force Koroma into a run-off vote.
The two parties have a long history of enmity and violence between them has flared sporadically in the run-up to the poll. Neither leader showed up at two planned presidential policy debates during the campaign.
According to Jonathan Bhalla of the London-based Africa Research Institute, mistrust between the parties, dirty politics and the winner-takes-all nature of elections in the country has raised tensions in the west African nation.
“Voting patterns are very much along regional ethnic lines,” he told AFP.
Bio’s SLPP is typically supported by the Mende — one of the country’s main tribes — and other southern tribes. Koroma’s APC is favoured by the other major tribe Temne and others in the north and west.
Bhalla said that during Koroma’s first term, 85% of appointments to his office came from his electoral stronghold, which only boosts the impression that the losing party will be out in the cold for another five years.
The winning party will be charged with managing a bountiful windfall expected from new investments in its mineral and oil resources.
It has been a decade since the end of the war which left the world with images of child soldiers and rebels funded by the sale of “blood diamonds” hacking off the limbs of their victims.
Starting from scratch, its infrastructure devastated in the conflict, Sierra Leone has come a long way in the past decade.
Koroma is credited with improving the country’s international profile, overseeing improvements in infrastructure, electricity and the repaving of roads.
However, these achievements “are largely undercut by the massive corruption that accompanied the infrastructural projects, and by the growing economic hardships in the country,” said analyst Lansana Gberie, author of ‘A Dirty War in West Africa’.
Koroma had vowed to root out graft, but the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) has been accused of targeting “small fry” rather than high-profile officials and has not sent anyone to jail.
The president also came under fire for overlooking several scandals involving his vice president Sam Sumana.
Despite being blessed with a bonanza of diamonds, iron-ore, bauxite, gold and rutile, with oil production in the offing, Sierra Leone’s economy remains fragile and high inflation has hit the pockets of poor citizens.
This was masked by massive International Monetary Fund growth projections of 51% for 2012. As a result the government boosted spending, but mining hiccups and the weakening of world iron-ore prices saw the growth forecast slashed to 21% in October.
Another major election issue is youth unemployment, estimated at between 60% and 65%.
Koroma has overseen a free health care initiative for mothers and young children, but the country still has among the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the world and life expectancy of only 47-years-old.
“He hasn’t had a disastrous term, it’s certainly more positive than negative. The real test for Sierra Leone’s democracy is how the loser accepts the defeat,” said Bhalla.
He added that Bio, despite his murky past as the head of a military junta in 1996, is “a lot more popular than people gave him credit for”.
The country’s 2.6 million voters were registered for the first time on a biometric system to prevent multiple voting and avoid electoral fraud.
According to the National Electoral Commission, 55% of the vote is needed to avoid a run-off, second round vote. Final results are expected by Nov.26 and a potential second round of voting is planned for Dec. 8.