Polls open in Sierra Leone general elections amidst calls for fairness

Map showing Sierra Leone. [Photo credit: Africa Guide]

Sierra Leoneans have begun casting their ballots in presidential, parliamentary and local elections which would usher in a new set of leaders for the West African country for the next five years.

Voters across the country are using social media to report development from queues amidst rush to cast ballots.

Polls opened at 7:00 a.m. and is scheduled to close at 5:00 p.m. local time. Voters are required to be in the same place they registered and must present their voting credentials to the electoral officials at polling units before being allowed to cast ballots.

Over 3.1 million people are registered to vote, a figure analysts said is a record in the country’s elections.

Sixteen candidates are aiming to replace President Ernest Bai Koroma who is stepping down after completing his constitutionally-allowed two terms.

The country of 6.5 million is caught in a tight race that political analysts say is too close to call well into the election day. The candidates are promising to revive the economy in a country still reeling from the Ebola virus disaster four years ago.

The election is the fifth uninterrupted exercise since the country returned to multi–party democracy in 1996. It is, however, the third since its Civil War ended in 2002.

A former Foreign Affairs Minister, Samura Kamara, is favoured by Mr. Koroma as the ruling All People’s Congress candidate. He is up against Julius Maada Bio of the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party. The National Grand Coalition, a newly-formed political movement, is expected to shave off significant amount of votes from the major candidates, raising fears that a runoff might be necessary if none of the candidates scores 55 per cent of the votes in the first round.

Sierra Leone runs a bi-cameral legislature of 124 lawmakers. However, only 112 are elected through ballots. The other dozen lawmakers (paramount chiefs) are chosen indirectly.

Election officials say the exercise would be peaceful and sue for calm amongst candidates.

‘‘Voting is non–violent and yet it is a very powerful act. You do not have to be the biggest, the fastest or the strongest to determine the future of your country,” said National Electoral Commission (NEC) chairman, Mohamed Conteh.

Election observers have also joined in calling for a peaceful outcome of the exercise.

The Human Rights advancement, development and advocacy centre (HURIDAC) which seeks the mainstreaming of human rights protection into electoral processes, said the candidates must show respect for human rights and respect the will of the electorate.

“Candidates and their supporters should refrain from undemocratic activities to win the elections at all cost. Those who result to undemocratic means to win elections as well as those who are responsible for violation of the law must be made accountable in a timely and fair manner,” HURIDAC said in a statement signed by its executive director, Ayodele Ameen.

Mr. Ameen said Sierra Leonean authorities “should ensure that the prevailing atmosphere at this election is peaceful” and restriction of movements by the police could amount to a “violation of freedom of movement and disenfranchisement of some voters.”

“The security forces must ensure the protection of voters observers, journalists and human rights defenders” throughout the election, he added.

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