Jennifer O’Mahony & Saidu Bah in Freetown
The residence of the main opposition candidate was raided by police on Wednesday as counting began in Sierra Leone after a general election.
Polls closed at 5pm on Tuesday as expected after the West African nation’s 3.1-million voters chose a new president, Parliament and local councils. Partial tallies are expected on Friday and complete results within two weeks.
President Ernest Bai Koroma, who cannot run again after two consecutive five-year terms, has anointed former foreign minister Samura Kamara as his successor for the ruling All Peoples Congress (APC).
The residence where Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) leader Julius Maada Bio was staying was surrounded by police, who were initially refused entry, they told AFP.
After an intervention by former Ghanaian president and election observer John Dramani Mahama, the police were allowed to enter but they refused to comment on the purpose of the raid.
“He was able to persuade them to allow us access to the building,” said Mohamed Kamara, head of the police criminal investigation.
“We came in with a warrant,” he added, saying officers observed material on several laptops before leaving by 8pm.
SLPP spokesman Lahai Lawrence Leema said it was an “act of intimidation” aimed at “rigging elections”.
The APC and SLPP have dominated Sierra Leone’s politics since independence in 1961, but other parties are hoping to make their mark after mounting charismatic campaigns targeting the two parties’ shortcomings.
A statement released by civil society groups mentioned scuffles in a rural area, which were quickly brought under control.
An AFP journalist also witnessed riot police being deployed on the streets of the capital Freetown, and Chief Superintendent Mohamed Bangura confirmed two arrests had been made after scuffles involving rival parties.
The export-dependent economy of the mineral-rich but impoverished country is in a dire state following the 2014-2016 Ebola crisis and a commodity price slump that has driven away foreign investors.
A presidential runoff is likely, according to experts, because the threshold to win outright in the first round is 55%.
Sierra Leone, battered by a civil war from 1991 to 2002, is divided along regional lines that overlap with ethnicity. The APC broadly relies on the Temne and Limba people in its northern strongholds, and the SLPP is more popular in the south with the Mende ethnic group.
The National Grand Coalition (NGC), headed by former United Nations diplomat Kandeh Yumkella, is challenging the two-party system by appealing to young and better-educated urban voters deemed less likely to vote along regional and ethnic lines. Its communications chief told AFP it had reported some irregularities to the National Election Commission.
“In general, voting seems to be going on in an orderly manner. But there are complaints from the opposition that the ruling party’s partisans are stuffing ballots in some of their strongholds, particularly Tonkolili,” said Lansana Gberie, a Sierra Leonean political analyst and author.
The electoral commission admitted in a statement that ballot papers were not printed correctly for one mayoral election but said the vote had otherwise gone smoothly.
The current government is accused of misusing funds meant to rebuild the country’s health system after Ebola, and of failing to address the fallout from a mudslide in August that killed hundreds.
Observers from the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States, the European Union and the Commonwealth oversaw voting. — AFP