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Sierra Leone heads into hotly contested election runoff

Abu-Bakarr Jalloh
March 30, 2018

The country will choose a new president on Saturday in a final runoff between Samura Kamara and Julius Maada Bio following a delay instigated by fraud allegations from the ruling party.

Election posters in Freetown
Image: DW/Abu-Bakarr Jalloh

Sierra Leone is heading to the polls on Saturday to choose a new president in the final election runoff as the second term of President Ernest Bai Koroma's constitutional mandate comes to an end.

The ruling All People's Congress (APC) candidate, Samura Kamara, and Julius Maada Bio from the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) will participate in the runoff. The election was originally scheduled for Tuesday March 27, however was delayed by an interim injunction by the Supreme Court following allegations of voter fraud from the APC. 

Kamara said he was "satisfied" with the court's decision to move ahead with the runoff and has reiterated calls for a peaceful voting process. 

Bio won the initial March 7 election by a thin margin, securing 43.4 percent of the vote compared to Kamara's 42.7 percent. However, a runoff election was subsequently called because neither candidate secured the 55 percent of the votes needed to govern outright. 

Read more: Sierra Leone: Temporary ban on runoff election lifted

Interview with Goodluck Jonathan on Sierra Leone elections

The APC party and the SLPP have continued to dominate politics since Sierra Leone gained independence from Britain in 1961. But two new political parties upset the political dynamics and support bases of the SLPP and APC when they joined the first round of the 2018 presidential race.

Former head of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella, broke away after the SLPP refused to part ways with Bio, who had lost the 2012 elections to President Koroma. 

The Coalition for Change's (C4C) presidential aspirant, former vice president Samuel Sam-Sumana, meanwhile took a large chunk of the APC's northeastern voters after he was sacked by President Koroma in 2015. 

Sierra Leone presidential candidate, Julius Maada Bio
SLPP candidate Julius Maada Bio won the first round of elections by a narrow margin Image: Getty Images/AFP/I. Sanogo

Electoral violence remains rife

In the lead up to the first round of voting on March 7, several incidents of violence were reported in three districts during political rallies. The campaign motorcade of Bio allegedly came under attack in Kamalo, the home village of the ruling party's candidate, Kamara.

Several people were also injured in the ruling APC party's rally in the capital Freetown, when supporters claiming allegiance to the SLPP clashed with APC supporters. The tensions were so high that Commonwealth chief observer, former Ghanaian president John Mahama, was invited to mediate a "peace talk" in Freetown's posh Radisson-Blu hotel resort.  

"[Mahama] will lead the discussions in a closed-door high level breakfast meeting between the presidential candidates and their running mates," said Mahama's aide Bawah Mogtari. Mahama arrived in Freetown on Monday.

However, it is odd to have peace talks now after nearly 17 years of peace and three successful general elections, where power also changed hands between the two bitter rivals, APC and SLPP.

"The battle line has been drawn, it's now time to show them what we are made of," wrote an SLPP supporter on Bio's Facebook page after the alleged attack.

Police have continued to report attacks on candidates and supporters on both sides since the end of the first round, making voters nervous ahead of Saturday's runoff. 

First televised presidential debate

This is also Sierra Leone's first election where several key issues were discussed in a live television debate, during which six of the original 16 candidates faced off on February 15.

The candidates discussed issues related to unemployment, lack of water and electricity, fighting corruption, etc. Although their ideas weren't as radical as some had hoped, many Sierra Leoneans saw the debate as a success because it's the first time that party candidates met to discuss real issues on television. 

A campaign poster for Samura Kamara during the 2018 Sierra Leone election
The ALP's Samura Kamara ran on a campaign of continuity and stabilityImage: DW/Abu-Bakarr Jalloh

Key issues in the elections

The choice between change or continuity was a major topic during the campaign. The ruling APC is advocating for re-election whereas the SLPP are calling for change. 

Extremely high levels of corruption — especially in connection with the funds set up to fight Ebola, which killed almost 4,000 people between 2014 and 2016 — was another campaign issue haunting the ruling APC.

The Accountant General had found that 5.7 million dollars had not been accounted for after an audit on the Ebola fund. This issue also came up in the presidential debate and the other presidential aspirants went on the offensive against the APC's Kamara.    

The government has also banned initiation ceremonies during the election period by the traditional "Bondo societies." These ceremonies often include the cutting of the clitoris in young girls, also known as female genital mutilation (FGM) or female circumcision. The Sierra Leone police, which issued the ban, claimed that candidates were paying for the traditional ceremonies in return for votes.

But supporters of the practice said the ban targets southeastern regions, where the practice is very common and where the opposition SLPP has its main support base. 

The APC's two main government projects are funded by Chinese companies and include the new airport and a toll road project linking Freetown to the provinces. They were heavily criticized for being too costly. However, APC candidate Mamara shrugged off the criticism, highlighting the party's decade of experience in power.