S Leone poll contenders agree non-violence pact

Sierra Leone’s rival presidential contenders will lead supporters in a joint peace march to cement a pact against violence following clashes ahead of a run-off vote, their parties said on Monday.

Opposition frontrunner Ernest Bai Koroma and his ruling party rival, Vice-President Solomon Berewa, agreed the deal in talks on Sunday with President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.

In a joint statement, the candidates pledged to work for “violence-free elections” and condemned intimidation and attacks on persons or property. They agreed to ride in the same vehicle together in a “march for peace” in Freetown on Thursday, two days before they face a deciding run-off vote.

This is the final phase of elections seen by international observers as a test of Sierra Leone’s recovery from a 1991 to 2002 civil war, which was fuelled by illegal diamond smuggling and killed more than 50 000 people.

An inconclusive first round presidential ballot took place on August 11. Koroma finished ahead of Berewa but failed to gain the required votes to win outright, making a run-off necessary.

The first round went ahead peacefully, but supporters of Koroma’s opposition All People’s Congress (APC) and Berewa’s Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) have fought battles in the capital and countryside since then.

Supporters of Koroma and Berewa fought with machetes, sticks and stones in Freetown on Saturday, forcing police to fire tear gas to disperse them.
Dozens were injured.

The violence, after earlier clashes in the south and east, raised fears that political and ethnic tensions could reopen old wounds from the war, one of Africa’s most brutal, in which drugged child soldiers killed civilians and hacked off limbs.

Kabbah, who warned last week he could declare a state of emergency if the clashes worsened, praised the two candidates as “patriotic Sierra Leoneans”. Parties welcomed the peace pact.

“I think it is a massive step. We can end the violence,” APC spokesperson Alpha Kanu said. “Our president has waved a magic wand.”

Peace messages

The peace deal also banned the candidates from using ex-combatants and vigilante groups in their campaigns.

To try to foster a climate of reconciliation, Sierra Leone’s cellphone companies sent texts to customers this weekend urging them to “say no to violence”. Pro-peace pop songs filled local radio airwaves.

But some voters were sceptical about whether the pact between the candidates would hold. “They should practise what they have agreed,” said Memuna Sesay, a teacher in Freetown.

The elections have revealed ethnic fault lines in the small, poor nation of more than five million people, with the SLPP drawing its support from the southern Mende peoples and the APC stronger in the largely Temne north and west.

The APC’s Koroma won the August 11 first round with 44% of the vote. Berewa of the SLPP polled 38%, but faces an uphill task to win the September 8 run-off after third-placed candidate Charles Margai threw his support behind Koroma.—Reuters

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