KONO, 13 November 2012 (IRIN) - On 17 November Sierra Leone will head to the polls as President Ernest Bai Koroma of the All People’s Congress (APC) and his main rival Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) face off in what will be the country’s third election since the end of an 11-year civil war.
The current government has received praise in some quarters for attracting foreign investment, particularly in the mining sector, as well as for improving the country’s infrastructure, and notably introducing free health care to certain vulnerable groups.
But the president also faces criticism for failing to tackle extreme levels of poverty - 66 percent, according to the most recent World Bank statistics, and high unemployment rates across much of the country. His term in office has been marred by accusations of corruption levelled against members of his government, including Vice-President Sam Sumana.
In the diamond-mining town of Kono in eastern Sierra Leone previous elections have been contested fiercely, partly because of the ethnic mix in the town: all of the country’s ethnic groups are represented in Kono after decades of migration driven by the lure of the area’s diamond deposits.
Income from these diamonds helped fuel Sierra Leone’s civil war, benefiting mainly Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels but also soldiers with the national army.
In a small café on the dusty main road, young men sit sipping sweet tea and discussing the upcoming elections and the state of the country. Along with around 70 percent of youths in Sierra Leone, Rabieu Amedou is unemployed. “The worst problem here is that there are no jobs for us. That is why these people are causing trouble in the streets,” he said. Last month clashes between the two main parties left several wounded in the town [there are no specific, unpoliticized figures on this].
The government has introduced measures to reduce youth unemployment, including creating a national youth commission, set up in 2009 to improve youth skill sets, job opportunities and engagement in local governance, but these initiatives have not solved any problems on a wide scale.
Even for those with steady employment, poverty is a fact of life for most of Kono’s residents despite rapid economic growth. This year the country’s economy will grow by up to 21.3 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund, yet this wealth has yet to be felt by most ordinary Sierra Leoneans.
Sia and her niece Tenema work in a small corrugated-iron shelter beside the main road, selling small bags of groundnuts for 10 US cents, and peppermint sweets for two US cents. “The government has done nothing for us,” said Sia, who plans to vote for the opposition on Saturday . “There is so much inflation, and we have to pay a lot of tax.”
Another common criticism of the current APC government is that they have no time for supporters of opposition parties and members of alternative ethnic groups, including Mendes and Konos. “We are governed by Temnes and Limbas,” complains Sia. In past elections the two main political parties have relied heavily on ethnic support bases, with the Mendes from the south and east voting for the SLPP and the largely northern Temnes voting for the incumbent APC.
“The APC just look out for themselves,” said Jatu Kanu, who owns a restaurant opposite a large mosque in the centre of town. She says her brother was removed from his job as a registrar for the national Pharmacy Board because he was a Mende, and a supporter of the SLPP.
“Koroma is tribalistic,” says another bystander, Francis Biango, who feels the government has not paid enough attention to Kono District.
Francis, like many here, points out that while thousands of kilometres of smooth new tarmac roads have been laid all over the country, the east has been excluded and the main road to Kono remains rutted and chronically pot-holed, becoming almost impassable without a 4WD during the rainy season.
Some opposition supporters believe politicians are becoming rich off the proceeds of Sierra Leone’s extensive mineral resources, while the country continues to languish in 180th place out of 187 in the 2011 UN Human Development Index. Most notably, Vice-President Sam Sumana has been faced with a string of allegations of corruption around illicit timber deals. “The politicians enrich themselves to the detriment of us impoverished people. We will never, ever tolerate that,” said another resident of Kono, Mohammed Bangura.
Yet despite the challenges of everyday life in Kono, many here argue that development cannot be achieved overnight and point to the economic growth achieved during the last five years.
Hasan works in the diamond mines around the outskirts of town. He does not like digging for diamonds as it does not pay well, and he hopes to get another job soon but he says he will vote for President Koroma on the basis of his performance so far.
Perhaps the most of visible of the government’s achievements are the improvements in infrastructure, including what the APC refers to as “the largest road rehabilitation, reconstruction and construction ever [in Sierra Leone]”. Ibrahim Kamara, 38, left Sierra Leone during the civil war, returning to the country in 2011 after 18 years away. He now builds roads, “Ernest [Koromo] is bringing development to this country,” he told IRIN.
In 2007 many Kono residents had no electricity, “Now we have power… So I will vote for the president,” said Kumba, sitting in front of a small shop in the village of Yengema, a few kilometres outside Kono.
Under APC’s current term, a large hydro-electric dam has been built at Bumbuna in the north of the country. Several other smaller power plants have also been built, significantly improving electricity access.
The president has also earned acclaim over health sector reforms, including introducing free health care for children under five, pregnant women and lactating mothers.
Despite shortages of drugs and trained medical personnel, the initiative has contributed to the reduction of child and maternal mortality rates. In 2006 Sierra Leone had the world’s worst under-five mortality rates, at 283 out of 1,000 children dying, and has now improved to fourth worst, with 174 deaths per 1,000.
Sierra Leone’s recovery has been slow and painstaking, yet progress has been made. Adorning the APC’s headquarters in Freetown in large red and white print is President Koroma’s campaign slogan, which appeals for patience from the Sierra Leonean electorate as they prepare to cast their votes. “Monkey Still Working” it reads, “Let Baboon Wait”.