Re-elected Sierra Leone leader promises jobs

Credited with rebuilding infrastructure after a civil war, Ernest Bai Koroma won in the first round of voting.

On the day of the vote, queues formed at polling stations as early as 2:00 a.m. Travis Lupick photo.
The vote was considered mostly free and fair and results were announced Saturday [Travis Lupick/Al Jazeera]

Freetown, Sierra Leone – Ernest Bai Koroma generally appeared at ease during his campaign for a second term as the president of Sierra Leone. Even when pushing crowds breached his entourage of bodyguards, the 59-year-old maintained a smile.

That confidence proved well-founded. Late Saturday, it was announced Koroma won 58.7 per cent of the vote – enough to avoid a runoff many anticipated he would have to contest with opposition frontrunner Julius Maada Bio.

“You have given me and my party…the mandate to govern our country for the next five years,” Koroma said in a speech made shortly after results were released. “We will focus on creating jobs for youths and on training our youths to seize the immense employment opportunities we are creating.”

Koroma, a former insurance executive who entered politics in 2001, largely campaigned on the accomplishments of his first term in office.

His government is credited with rebuilding roads and restoring electricity to the capital and other cities after an 11-year civil war left infrastructure devastated. Foreign investors have started to return in recent years, promising much-needed tax revenue for the state and jobs for the country’s impoverished population of 5.5 million. And an initiative providing free healthcare for pregnant women, new mothers, and children under five has also proven popular.

Speaking at the State House, Koroma said that his government would continue with infrastructure projects and use his second term in office to bring paved roads and electricity to every region of the country. He also listed foreign investment and agriculture as priorities, and repeatedly emphasized a need to focus on youths.

Youth projects

“Five more years will mean very much for young people,” said David Sesay, president of the Sierra Leone Commercial Motor Bike Riders Union. The group boasts a membership of nearly 170,000 people, the vast majority of which are below the age of 35.

Sesay said that he’s watched foreign investment begin to return to Sierra Leone, and anticipates that those businesses will create jobs. “We are expecting a lot of young people to advance and prosper,” he added.

Nimata Majeks-Walker was a founding member of the 50/50 Group, which has promoted women’s rights in Sierra Leone since 2000. “President Koroma has made many promises saying that there will be improvements in gender equality,” she said. “We want to see results. He has made all kinds of promises and we have believed him. But we have not yet achieved what we have set out to.”

Majeks-Walker  wants to see a bill passed setting a quota for women to hold 30 per cent of decision-making roles in government. She said Koroma has voiced his support for the idea. “We now want him to work with us and actually deliver this,” she said.

The National Electoral Commission reported that voter turnout was just over 87 per cent.

The election – the third since the end of the conflict and the first held without international assistance – was viewed as a crucial test for Sierra Leone’s fragile democracy. It was also a winner-takes-all contest for the country’s natural resources, which include iron ore, gold, diamonds, timber, and oil.

‘Largely calm and peaceful’

International observers including a European Union mission and the Carter Centre praised the vote as fair and largely peaceful. The EU did note what it described as an “unequal playfield,” where the governing All People’s Congress (APC) “clearly benefited from the advantages of incumbency by making use of state resources.” And all 10 political parties were criticised for failing to enhance female participation in politics. However, the consensus among observers was that the vote on November 17 was a landmark moment in Sierra Leone’s transition to a stable democracy.

“There was a widespread fear of violence,” said EU chief observer Richard Howitt. “There were some small-scale isolated incidents. But the campaign and polling day itself were largely calm and peaceful.”

Kevin Lewis, managing editor of Sierra Leone’s Awoko newspaper, said that the electorate is thought to have voted along tribal and geographic lines, as it did in 2007.

The APC secured the votes of the Temne and Limba peoples in the north and west, and Maada Bio’s Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) took the support of the Mende in the south and east. Where the APC is understood to have picked up the swing votes that it needed to secure an absolute majority was Freetown, which has often shifted its allegiances, and the eastern region of Kono. The diamond-rich area has historically sided with the SLPP, but this year, is home to Koroma’s wife and vice president – connections that helped the APC overcome tribal loyalties.

“It worked well,” Lewis said. “It seems that Kono’s vote has taken the APC to a win.” But Lewis stressed that the vote should also be viewed as an endorsement of the last five years. People should therefore expect more of the same, he continued. Mainly, a continued push to provide basic services.

Wilfred Sam-King, an entrepreneur building a chain of six hotels, described roads and electricity as “the bedrock of economic development.” He cautioned that Sierra Leone is still years away from a real tourism industry, but maintained that the first steps are being taken.

The businessman said that he’s also observed progress in the mining sector, and expects foreign investors’ interest in Sierra Leone to increase now that a president they know has been elected for a second term.

“I’m looking forward to a stable government that will support such business,” he said. “I look forward to seeing conditions for greater prosperity for the private sector.”

Long-term goals

Koroma has said he will continue courting multinational corporations. But critics argue that the profits of such agreements are failing to find their way to the masses. People are increasingly-complaining about bread-and-butter issues, on which the APC’s record is not as strong.

“Look at the price of a bag of rice,” said Kindo Samura, a businesswoman who was disappointed with Koroma’s win. “Now we buy it for so much more. And it is the same for my children going to school. The cost of living is now exorbitantly high.”

“People only talk about Sierra Leone and the war…  The war done done

– Chernor Bah, political volunteer

The main challenge the Koroma government could face in the years ahead is keeping a young and idle population content. An estimated 73 per cent of Sierra Leone is under the age of 35. According to a 2010 government report, 70 per cent of that group is unemployed or underemployed, and 50 per cent is illiterate and unskilled.

One week before the election, Peter Penfold, former British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone, warned that unemployed youths are fueling a growing drug trade. “If, as one hopes, democracy has firmly taken root in Sierra Leone and the disaffected youth no longer consider taking up AK-47s and going into the bush a viable option, they may well increasingly turn to the drugs trade to fill the gap left by no alternative means of profitable employment,” Penfold wrote.

In the hours following the announcement of Koroma’s victory, any challenges ahead were the last thing on people’s minds. In the streets of Freetown, government supporters banged pots and pans, sang APC party anthems, and danced late into the night.

Chernor Bah, an 18-year-old who volunteered at a polling station the day of the vote, emphasized that this year’s contest marked the third democratic election since the end of the conflict. “People only talk about Sierra Leone and the war,” he remarked. Bah noted that with a winner officially declared, people’s worst fears of violence were proven unfounded.

“The war don don,” he said, referencing a popular Krio expression. “This shows it’s forever finished.”

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Source: Al Jazeera