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Sierra Leone's presidential election tests grip on peace

The root problems of a civil war in the 1990s still plague the West African nation.

Published August 12, 2007


FREETOWN, Sierra Leone - Sierra Leone held its first presidential elections Saturday since U.N. peacekeepers withdrew two years ago, a historic poll that many hope will show this country can transfer power peacefully after being ravaged by coups and a long, diamond-fueled civil war.

Voters arrived before dawn, weathering a light drizzle and long lines, for a chance to choose from seven candidates. Electoral officials said balloting had gone smoothly and vote counting began after the polls closed.

The most crucial period for the war-battered nation may come months down the road, when the public begins expecting real change from a new government. Despite progress since the 10-year war ended in 2002, analysts say many of the root problems that caused the conflict - corruption, poverty and unemployment - remain.

Sierra Leone has held two elections since the war ended: a presidential vote in 2002 and municipal elections two years later. President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, 75, is on the verge of completing his second five-year term and cannot run again.

Solomon Berewa, the 69-year-old ruling party candidate, is considered a front-runner to replace him. His toughest competition is considered to be 54-year-old opposition party chief and businessman Ernest Bai Koroma.

Saturday's victor must take more than 55 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff between the top two finishers. Final tallies are expected within 12 days of voting.

In other races, some 572 contenders vied for 112 parliamentary seats. About 2.6-million of the nation's 5-million people are registered to vote.

Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world, ranked 176th of 177 nations on the U.N. Human Development Index. Although its infrastructure has been restored to prewar levels and donors last year forgave $1.6-billion in crippling debt, the country has struggled to fight poverty and corruption, which is considered a serious drag on economic growth.

Civil war broke out in Sierra Leone in 1991 when a rebel group backed by Liberian warlord Charles Taylor launched fighting near the border of the two countries. Revolutionary United Front rebels were infamous for brutal tactics, and tens of thousands of civilians died. U.N. and British forces defeated the rebellion, with U.N. forces departing in December 2005.

[Last modified August 12, 2007, 02:01:21]

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