Sierra Leone: Election key to moving beyond war
It was 9 a.m. on May 25, 1998. Borboh Jeff Kamara, 14, was walking to school with classmates when rebels grabbed him, held him down and cut off his fingers, leaving only his thumbs.
Fourteen years later, he and other voters go to the polls Saturday to choose a leader they hope will assure continued peace and finally bring some measure of prosperity to this war-ravaged country that remains among the world's poorest.
"Life is very, very rough. Poverty is always at our door," Kamara says. "That's my prayer each day: God help me to survive and make a good future for my children."
After his horrible run-in with the rebels in 1998, Kamara survived for days without medical attention in the jungles of northern Sierra Leone. After years of rehabilitation, he learned to write again and became the most educated member of his family.
Now the married father of two young children works as a receptionist in the capital, but many of those wounded during Sierra Leone's 1991-2002 civil war have not been as successful.
Saturday's vote - the country's third presidential election since the end of the war - hinges on whether incumbent President Ernest Bai Koroma or one of his eight challengers can best uplift this West African country trying to shed its past and benefit from its diamond riches.
Sierra Leoneans rallied for peace on Friday in downtown Freetown, where political campaigning had ended the day before. While the campaign season has been mostly calm, it has only been a decade since the war ended.
The government has deployed military to maintain peace during the vote, and armed personnel, some with pointed guns at the ready, can be seen manning certain strategic areas and driving in police vehicles around the capital.
National election officials are spreading that message through posters on tin shacks and at traffic circles throughout the capital: "The world is watching us. Let us don't disappoint them."
Another poster reminds voters: "You have only one Sierra Leone - hold her like an egg."
Today, most of the country's nearly 6 million people live on less than $1.25 a day, according to the World Bank, and it remains among the deadliest places in the world for women to give birth.
An estimated 2,000 people suffered amputations or were seriously maimed during the war by rebels who conscripted child soldiers, a conflict depicted in the film "Blood Diamond." Many survivors face discrimination and few job prospects, and must resort to begging on the streets of the capital.
The incumbent president is pointing to his accomplishments during his first term, promising in his campaign signs that "I Will Do More." It's unclear, though, whether the leader of the All Peoples Congress (APC) party can garner the 55 percent of ballots needed to avert a runoff.
He faces eight opponents including leading opposition figure Julius Maada Bio, a retired brigadier general from the Sierra Leone People's Party, or SLPP. He calls himself the "father of democracy" after his brief three-month tenure at the country's helm in 1996.
Among the smaller party candidates is Joshua Carew, who spent nearly four decades in the American state of Iowa before deciding to make a run for national office in his native Sierra Leone.
Koroma was elected in 2007 on a ticket of change, and says he has visibly improved the country's quality of life. His supporters point to newly paved roads and a government health care reform program that has provided free medical treatment although there are serious concerns about its sustainability.
"There are those who in spite of the progress we are experiencing continue to preach sermons of doom," he said. "I am asking to be elected again so that I can scale up the gains we have made in just five years and bring prosperity to all Sierra Leoneans."
In addition to its diamond riches, Sierrra Leone also has had three offshore oil discoveries between 2009 and 2012 though the government says appraisals are still under way to determine their viability. Koroma said that "the prospects for Sierra Leone becoming an oil-exporting nation are very great," and is pledging that the country will develop its resources in a sustainable way that benefits the impoverished country's citizens.
But Bio and his supporters maintain the president has failed to deliver and does not deserve a second term.
"This is not a classroom when you are allowed to repeat after you have failed," he told reporters. "Today the economy of the country is in bad shape. The plight of our youths is very serious and it is not only a developmental issue but a security threat."
While Sierra Leone's economic growth has been good, analyst Tom Cargill says "youth unemployment and corruption remain dangerously high."
"The real issues facing Sierra Leone, particularly around youth unemployment, simply don't really appear to be being discussed in the way they should be if Sierra Leone is to escape its legacy of conflict," said Cargill, assistant head of the Africa program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.
Observers say the upcoming election will mark a critical test.
"Peaceful elections resulting in a credible outcome are critical for consolidating Sierra Leone's hard-won peace and for demonstrating that the tremendous progress the country has made since the end of the hostilities one decade ago is irreversible," said United Nations spokesman Martin Nesirky.
The run up to Saturday's vote has been mostly peaceful, though the two main candidates squared off last month when Bio was accused of obstructing the president's convoy.
The main opposition party's final political rally went ahead peacefully Thursday, with large boisterous crowds dressed in the party's color of green flocking to the streets of Freetown. Many carried palm leaves, the symbol of the Sierra Leone Peoples Party. On Friday morning, others marched through the capital as part of a peace march aimed at ensuring a successful vote.
Koroma is expected to draw strong support in the north and in the capital, though he also appears to be making some inroads in traditional opposition strongholds.
Near the provincial capital of Bo, Augustine Pujah, 23, sported a red T-shirt emblazoned with the president's image. The young man dreams of studying science at a university and leaving his small community of Bevehun. For the time being, though, he and his friends make small change alongside the highway by selling palm wine in a yellow plastic jug.
"It's all about development," he says. "The president who comes to our aid is our leader."
Associated Press writer Clarence Roy-Macaulay contributed to this report.