While President Ernest Bai Koroma is campaigning on a platform of infrastructure building and foreign-investment-led growth, oppositionist Julius Maada Bio is calling for stricter measures against corruption. The economy is not set to take off for another couple of years, when the government will start to receive more revenue from two new mines in the north .
Billboards urging voters to pick up their new biometric voting cards have replaced posters displaying uplifting messages about Sierra Leone's 50th anniversary celebration in the streets of Freetown. Yet, four months away from elections in which President Ernest Bai Koroma will compete for a second term against Julius Maada Bio, a former military head of state turned opposition leader, politicians are dredging up the past and replaying familiar ethnic and regional rivalries in surges of invective that many observers say could encourage violence.
"We need peaceful elections to move forward," says Christiana Thorpe, a former nun who heads the National Electoral Commission (NEC). "We are coming from 11 years of war which has had a very detrimental influence on the development of the country. If we could have credible violence-free elections, it will be a real good springboard for the country." Politicians will not change reality by "harping on the past", she says.
In early July, Thorpe was in the midst of preparing for Sierra Leone's first elections with biometric registration, which will cost $14m. She admits there have been early hiccups in the exhibition stage – where voters must come to pick up their cards and check their names – with boxes of cards sent to the wrong locations. The NEC expects to distribute around 2.6m cards, up from 2.5m in the 2007 election. The campaign will begin some time after parliament closes on 25 September, with the first round of elections on 17 November.
Unofficial election campaigning is already dominated by a tense atmosphere marked by politicians and journalists airing views that information minister Ibrahim Ben Kargbo admits are "bordering on hate statements". The Independent Media Commission (IMC) has done nothing to stop them. Post-conflict, democratic Sierra Leone has seen an explosion of new newspapers, now more than 40, many of which are bankrolled by politicians. Mindful of events following Kenya's 2007 elections, Kargbo says the government is trying to pass legislation that would strengthen the IMC's ability to fine those who violate media laws. He does not believe there will be violence ahead of the polls.
In the past nine months, the Operational Service Division (OSD), the paramilitary wing of the police, has reacted to incidents in Bo – where assailants attacked Maada Bio in September 2011 – Bumbuna, Freetown and Goderich with heavy force. This led to four deaths, but only one policeman is now being prosecuted. A commission on the police's behaviour is still investigating.
Regional and ethnic rivalries have fuelled political views bordering on hate statements
A number of hastily retrained ex-combatants have boosted the OSD's ranks. "There is almost a complete lack of trust that the police have the independence and capacity to keep the peace," says Valnora Edwin, national coordinator of the Campaign for Good Governance.
Outside of Freetown, where neither of the candidates has a clear lead, voting is likely to be based on regional and ethnic lines. While Koroma's All People's Congress (APC) traditionally draws its votes from Northern Province and Western Area, Maada Bio's Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) is strong in the south and east. The recent revival of the Revolutionary United Front Party, the political movement of the wartime rebel group that is now seen as a proxy for the APC, could stir up trouble in Kailahun district in the east.
Going for a second term, President Koroma, a former insurance salesman who won the 2007 elections with 54.6% of the vote, has remained a popular figure due to a large road-building programme and the arrival of foreign investors in the mining industry. In 2010, his government introduced a free healthcare initiative covering pregnancy and childbirth in order to fight high morality rates. "More than 40% of the budget is providing subsidies on human development areas like health, education and subsistence agriculture," says finance minister Samura Kamara.
But as corruption cases mount, some voters have lost confidence in those in government. The results of a high-profile trial involving the APC's former mayor of Freetown, Herbert George-Williams, were due in mid-July. Meanwhile, the ongoing corruption trial of two close aides to vice president Samuel Sam-Sumana based on a 2011 Al Jazeera documentary on illegal logging is set to return to the courts in September.
In contrast, Maada Bio, a retired brigadier who was one of the six military officers from the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) junta that overthrew President Joseph Momoh in 1992, is seen by his supporters as a disciplinarian who could muscle miscreants into line. Elected as the presidential candidate for the SLPP in August 2011, he has questioned the commitment of the Koroma government to punish those convicted of corruption. Speaking to The Africa Report, he accused the government of paying the fines imposed on executives from the National Social Security and Insurance Trust for the mismanagement of funds used to buy two ferries in 2008. Finance minister Kamara dismissed the accusation as "not possible".
DREDGING UP THE PAST
The corruption accusations fly both ways. As well as reopening cases against two of Maada Bio's close aides, the APC government has dredged up the NPRC's extrajudicial execution of 29 people during its rule. While this may help shore up APC votes in the north and Freetown, the reminder may help Maada Bio's chances in the east and south among those who still feel aggrieved about the failures of Momoh's APC government.
Both parties accuse each other of having national executive committees skewed towards their home regions. But Koroma's national reach has been poor compared to his predecessor as president, the SLPP's Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.
The backdrop to the election will be a leap in gross domestic product as royalties begin flowing in from two long-awaited iron ore mines in the north (see box, and Mining, page 70). However, there appears to be little separating the policy positions of the APC and SLPP. Both Koroma and Maada Bio are supporters of the free market and see foreign direct investment as the best way to bring jobs to a country crippled by youth unemployment, which stood at 45.8% in 2008, according to the labour ministry.
Energy minister Oluniyi Robbin-Coker says the Koroma government had tried to "maintain a high level of integrity" in investor relations and was committed to reforms that would attract investors. "I can imagine some investment decisions might be made pending the outcome of the election, but certainly the confidence appears to be there," he explains.
Behind politicians' boasts of investors queuing up with investment proposals lie the challenges borne of doing business in a country with huge infrastructure gaps. Sierra Leone may have jumped nine places on the World Bank's Doing Business ranking in 2012, but it is still ranked 141st in the world. Passengers arriving at Lungi airport must travel by boat to Freetown, and there is little movement on plans for a Chinese company to build a new airport on the mainland.
Miners have been building their own roads and power stations. At the moment, Sierra Leone has just 95MW of grid-distributed power, but four mining companies have "as much as that, if not more", according to Robbin-Coker. US firm Joule Africa is working on a feasibility study for the second phase of the Bumbuna hydroelectric plant that would expand capacity from 50MW to 380MW at a cost of approximately $650m.
For businessman Wilfred Sam-King, who is building a network of six hotels, the lack of managers means that entrepreneurs are "taken hostage" by the businesses they create. In February, Sam-King signed a strategic partnership with South Africa's Savoy Hotels to manage his hotel chain. Training and education must be a priority, says Sam-King: "At some point, the donors will have to move away, and [the government] will have to depend on the private sector to pay their taxes"●