- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 12, 2007

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — From jungle clearings to city slums, Sierra Leoneans voted in huge numbers yesterday in the first elections since U.N. peacekeepers left two years ago, hoping to speed their nation’s recovery from a 1991-2002 civil war.

Many arrived before dawn and patiently lined up for hours in the dilapidated capital, Freetown, to vote for a new president and 112 parliamentarians. Some were sheltered by umbrellas from the drizzle while others clasped radios to their ears.

“Maybe now things are going to get better,” Freetown resident Abubakar Kamara said before voting in the west of the city. “We must vote in peace and show the world that Sierra Leone is a peaceful country.”

Five years after the end of the diamond-fueled war, which killed 50,000 people, Sierra Leone remains the second least-developed nation on earth — ranked 176 on the U.N. Human Development Index, only above Niger. Most people earn less than a dollar a day and lack basic amenities.

In the presidential race, Ernest Bai Koroma of the opposition All People’s Congress is expected to mount a strong challenge to Vice President Solomon Berewa, 69, the candidate for the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party.

If no candidate wins more than 55 percent, a runoff will be held, probably in early September. The election commission will announce results as they come in but predicts a meaningful trend will take several days to emerge.

President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, re-elected on a wave of postwar euphoria in 2002, is stepping down as required by the constitution in the face of anger at corruption, which many voters say drained the country’s substantial foreign aid.

“We have diamonds, gold and even oil. We should be one of the richest countries in Africa, but where does the money go?” said Abdul Bassie, a 24-year-old student, after voting in Bo, the country’s second-largest city.

Days of torrential downpours eased yesterday, to the relief of officials who feared the rainy season could disrupt voting. The head of the national electoral commission said only one of 6,176 polling stations failed to open.

Ballots have been transported by trucks, canoes and porters to polling stations in savannah, jungles and mountains.

Some 2.6 million people are registered to vote — roughly half the population — and many arrived early to oversee the work of electoral staff out of concern over fraud. Aside from a few scuffles, voting was generally peaceful.

Long lines snaked around voting booths in settlements of corrugated iron roofs set deep in the sprawling jungle.

At one polling station in Bo, 155 miles southeast of Freetown, four-fifths of registered voters cast their ballots in the first three hours.

“There are long [lines] throughout the country, and the process seems to be well-organized and peaceful,” said Marie-Anne Isler, the chief European Union observer.

Sierra Leone’s war, funded by rebel sales of so-called “blood diamonds,” was infamous for child soldiers who hacked limbs off civilians. Now, young Sierra Leoneans can decide their country’s fate, with more than half of voters under 35.