Sierra Leone’s electoral officials tallied votes yesterday after a peaceful day of voting in general elections seen as a litmus test of the West African nation’s post-war recovery.
Observers estimate a high turnout after Saturday’s presidential, parliamentary and local elections in which voters lined up all day to vote for a government they hope will bring prosperity and cement growth after a decade of peace.
On Saturday night after polls closed, citizens crowded around radios as provisional results from polling stations were announced.
Sustained cheers, vuvuzela blasts and whistles erupted across a ruling party stronghold in Freetown as Sierra Leonean President Ernest Koroma’s All People’s Congress (APC) pulled ahead in parliamentary poll results from the provinces.
Decisive results are due later this week and final results will be announced on Monday next week.
The poll is seen as a tight race between 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 one of the world’s poorest nations.
Koroma is regarded as the favorite, but analysts expect a tight race.
While no major incidents have marred the election process, peace 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.”
Since independence from Britain, the two parties have dominated the political scene, both drawing support from traditional ethnic strongholds.
Bio’s Sierra Leone People’s Party is typically supported by the Mende — one of the country’s largest ethnic groups — and other southern tribes. Koroma’s APC is favored by Temne, the other major tribe, and others in the north and west.
“The real test for Sierra Leone’s democracy is how the loser accepts the defeat,” Jonathan Bhalla of the London-based Africa Research Institute said.
The election is a yardstick of Sierra Leone’s recovery from the 11-year civil war that left 120,000 dead and many mutilated by rebels who hacked off hands and feet. It will also hand the victorious party stewardship of a lucrative mining boom.
Richard Howitt, head of an EU observer mission, 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.
He said the transparency of the process was important for the acceptance of results.
In the presidential election, a candidate will have to win 55 percent of the vote to avoid a run-off.
A decade after the end of a war synonymous with the sale of “blood diamonds,” Sierra Leone has become accustomed to peace.
Now the concerns of most voters are development, prosperity, education, healthcare and greater employment opportunities.
Sierra Leone is rich in mineral resources and its massive iron ore stores are expected to add 21 percent in growth this year to the country’s US$2.2 billion GDP, the IMF estimates.
However, it also has one of Africa’s lowest life expectancies at 47 years and the highest rates of maternal mortality, World Bank data show. Youth unemployment levels hover at 60 percent.