On 7th March, Sierra Leoneans went to the polls to elect their new president after 10 years of power for the All People’s Congress (APC) and Nai Koroma, the outgoing president. These elections were also to decide who would represent their constituents at a national level in parliament and on a local level. The failure of any candidate to secure at least 55 percent of the vote means a presidential runoff will take place on 27th March. 

The National Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone experienced server delays in the tallying of the ballots but the main opposition challenger Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) is in the lead with 43.3 percent of the vote, whilst Samura Kamara of the APC trailed Bio by just 0.6 percent with a second round run-off now confirmed. If Bio wins it will be the second time he has headed the country after a stint as a military leader in 1996.

A statement released by the National Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone stating that they are still counting votes (Source: @NECsalone)

The election was preceded by a scandal that saw the exiting President, Bai Karoma attempt to circumvent the democratic processes by barring a candidate from standing. Dr. Kandeh Yumkella holds dual nationality, and the President tried to introduce a law that would make it impossible for Yumkella to stand on this basis.

Not only did the courts throw the proposal out but the law of unintended consequences reigned and Koroma cut a scared figure desperate to hold onto power against a backdrop of an emerging third force in the country, the National Grand Coalition (NGC), which Yumkella represents.

Kandeh Yumkella, NGC candidate. Source: SL Telegraph

The international community has been watching this election with a keen eye, so much so that election observers from neighbouring African countries and the IMF had been deployed in the country to ensure that the election was conducted smoothly.

This appeared to be the case at first, in the world’s first election to be counted using blockchain technology. It was hoped that the use of blockchain would make the voting process incorruptible. Whether this is the case remains to be seen.

All over the country people had waited patiently, for up to five hours, in lines to cast their vote. When you consider that 3 million people (of a population of 7 million) registered to vote, the appetite of Sierra Leoneans to exercise their democratic rights is obvious to see.

SLPP candidate Maada Bio (Source: Standard Times Press)

However, some things are too good to be true and not long afterwards reports of one of the main opposition leaders’ houses being raided by police surfaced. Perhaps this was a prelude of what was to come. Videos have emerged on social media of violent skirmishes breaking out in the capital, Freetown.

The outbreak of violence is a testament to, if nothing else, the passion of the Sierra Leonean people, who wish for nothing more than to see their country fulfil the potential they know it has. That, however, does not make these incidents any less tragic.

Prior to the election, the newest party involved, the NGC, had held several rallies in Freetown that not only suggested the people were truly done with the APC but that they were ready for a change in the political status quo.

Past allegations of corruption aside, one can only hope that if the APC are elected they reach out across party lines to heal what may become a country (more) divided. Sierra Leone is already a nation that wrestles with high incidence of poverty, poor infrastructure, poor healthcare and an education system that is currently not fit for purpose; an injustice when you consider the level of mineral wealth that the country possesses.

Artisanal diamond mine workers in eastern Sierra Leone (Source: Reuters)

Right now, Sierra Leone could go one of two ways. The old model, where a corrupt, despotic and ultimately selfish leader plunders the country for resources whilst the rest of the people suffer, or a new way that seeks to share the natural wealth and create a society where individuals, businesses and civil society thrive. If this is to be the case then the Sierra Leonean people will have to learn that political participation does not begin and end at the ballot box and that they must demand accountability from elected officials.