In a moment in time when Africa starts to shine, Sierra Leone stands as an example of what went wrong with the continent. Half a century of independence brought about dictatorship, corruption and – during the 1990s – a terrible, blood diamond-soaked war. After the war, the country was so helpless that the first two general elections were run by the United Nations. Sierra Leoneans went to polling station for a third time on the last Saturday of November, this time to vote for the President, parliament and local administrations in an exercise run solely by the State. The two main candidates for the presidency were the incumbent, Ernest Bai Koroma of the All People’s Congress party, and the man standing for the largest opposition party, Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party.
Koroma campaigned boasting of his achievements, which are considerable. In the past five years there has been a wave of foreign investment and many infrastructure projects – including hundreds of miles of roads and improved electricity supply – are either completed or on the way. He also had to fight back accusation of corruption. When asked if it was true that one of the big mining companies had given him US $2m to refurbish his offices, he said “when we came in we needed a lot of support. We solicited it from governments, friends and institutions – to refurbish state house, for equipment and so on. The Chinese, the Kuwaitis, the former Libyan regime, the Qataris , the Senegalese, and the Moroccans all helped, and the British were major players in some areas. And a few companies also. But we did not ask a specific mining company for help”. The answer was not a full denial, but underlined the fact that this insurance agent has grown into a politician.
The opponent, Julius Maada Bio, is a former military ruler of Sierra Leone from 1992-1996, a deeply unpopular period before democracy. Yet, he has always been confident. “My service record is an asset to me, I am proud of it. I was part of a military government but I played a positive role. We promised to hand over after four years and we promised democracy – I stepped in to make sure those promises were kept”. Bio disagrees with Koroma’s claims. “It’s mostly cosmetic – he says. When our party was in power before Koroma we built a lot in terms of schools, hospitals and roads. In fact we constructed more roads in terms of mileage than them.” Seven other candidates challenged the incumbent, most of them commanding but a small following.
After a peaceful election and a few nervous days– some 10% of the polling stations had to recount the ballots because of fraud accusations and complaints of ballot stuffing – Koroma emerged as the winner for his second and final mandate. He won with 58.7% of the vote, while Julius Maada Bio took 38% of the ballots
Sierra Leoneans have accepted the results and showed great maturity. The country has changed from the place of war and atrocities associates with blood diamonds and illegal mining. It is now journey smoothly towards development, even if it remains one of the poorest nations in Africa, with a large proportion of the population of about six million living on less than US $1.25 a day. The economy is growing fast and President Koroma was capable of attracting investments.
The people now wish to see that steps are taken so that the massive mineral wealth be distributed more evenly among all. Sierra Leone is rich in diamonds, precious stones, bauxite, gold and iron ore. Oil was recently discovered out at sea. Forestry and fisheries are also good sources of income. Yet, 78% of Sierra Leoneans live under the poverty line. 75% of those under 30 years of age are unemployed. Health infrastructures are poor, as are power accessibility, piped water, education and public transport. However, there are signs of change. Electricity is now available and stable in the largest urban areas. New paved roads are built to improve communication. The army – once undisciplined and the cause of much havoc – has been reshaped and now sends peacekeeping soldiers to serve in UN missions around the world.