Sierra Leone braces for poll results

After a peaceful day of voting in the presidential, parliamentary and local elections on Saturday, locals crowded around crackling radios releasing unofficial results from individual polling stations.

Sporadic cheering erupted in communities across the capital Freetown, a traditional stronghold of the ruling All People's Congress (APC), as results trickled in.

Polling officials counted votes throughout the night, mostly by lantern light, under the watch of observers, party officials, police and soldiers.

By Sunday morning most had finished and passers-by examined results posted outside polling booths.

Decisive results are not expected until next week, and the National Electoral Commission will announce the final outcome on Saturday.

The poll is seen as a tight race between incumbent Ernest Koroma, who has overseen a construction boom, and ex-military leader Julius Maada Bio, who has amassed support among many still struggling to survive in what is still one of the world's poorest nations.

Koroma is regarded as the favourite, but it is unclear whether he will reach the 55% of votes needed to avoid a run-off. While no major incidents have marred the election process, it will be most fragile when results are released. Both candidates have said they are confident of victory and Bio has warned he will not accept a "dirty election".

In the Wilberforce neighbourhood, Musa Mansary (37), a school teacher, and about 20 men sat around a small radio, declaring themselves certain of a first-round win for Koroma.

"We will accept (an opposition victory), but it is impossible. The worst will be a run-off," Mansary said.

A decade after the end of a war synonymous with feared rebel leaders armed through the sale of "blood diamonds", Sierra Leone has become accustomed to peace. Now the concerns of most voters are development, prosperity, improved access to education and health care, and greater employment opportunities.

While still one of the world's poorest countries, Sierra Leone is rich in mineral resources and massive iron-ore stores are expected to add 21% growth this year to its $2.2 billion gross domestic product, the International Monetary Fund estimates.

However, the country has one of Africa's lowest life expectancies at 47 years according to the World Bank, and highest rates of maternal mortality. Youth unemployment levels hover at 60%.

Koroma has ushered in significant investment, and construction is taking place all over the seaside capital. However, poor communities without pipe-borne water, recently ravaged by cholera, or only accessible on rocky dirt roads, still abound.

Many, seeing the progress in other areas, believe Koroma deserves a second term to deal with such problems.

"Just look around, you see people carrying water on their heads, we need a good road," Mansary said.

Others believe Bio's Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) and promises of free education and health care will improve their lives faster.

Since independence from Britain, the two parties have dominated the political scene, both drawing support from traditional ethnic strongholds.

"The real test for Sierra Leone's democracy is how the loser accepts the defeat," said Jonathan Bhalla of the London-based Africa Research Institute.

Richard Howitt, head of a European Union observer mission, on Saturday praised the peaceful election.

"The theme of this election is the fears that have been expressed to us by the people of Sierra Leone about a return to violence, and so far we've seen a relaxed atmosphere with people happy to be taking part in voting and a peaceful election."

He said transparency was important for the acceptance of results and urged parties to repeat calls for non-violence to their supporters. – Sapa-AFP

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Fran Blandy
Fran Blandy
AFP's deputy bureau chief for East Africa, based in Nairobi, Previously correspondent in Paris, Dakar and Johannesburg.

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