Sierra Leone’s battle-weary citizens chose an opposition leader as their next president, voting against the party that ushered the country out of a devastating war in 2002 and for the promise of less corruption and more jobs.
Ernest Bai Koroma was sworn in Monday hours after election officials declared him the winner of a tense run-off vote with 55 percent of 1.7 million ballots cast, compared with 45 percent for the ruling party candidate, Vice President Solomon Berewa.
“I inherited a bankrupt, war-torn and failing state. Today, I am handing over to you a fully stable and functional state,” outgoing president Ahmed Tejan Kabbah told Koroma in front of a crowd of cheering and clapping supporters.
Thousands of Koroma’s supporters wearing red T-shirts and hats clogged the streets of the capital city of Freetown, singing and dancing through a heavy midday downpour.
Although ruling party officials had earlier decried the outcome on local radio, Berewa said he called Koroma with congratulations soon after the release of the results.
Both parties had complained of localized fraud and misconduct at some polling stations, but international observers said the vote went off generally smoothly and without major problems that would have invalidated the outcome.
Vote seen as peace test
The election, the first presidential vote since U.N. peacekeepers withdrew two years ago, was seen as a test of whether the West African country has emerged from the chaos wrought by a decade-long war. Tens of thousands of civilians died in the fighting, and rebels hacked off the limbs of countless others.
Peace was re-established in diamond-rich Sierra Leone with the help of U.N. forces in 2002, but most of its residents remain poor and unemployed, and corruption is rampant.
Koroma, 54, promised to root out corruption and create economic opportunities. A former insurance company executive, he also promised to run the government with the efficiency of a business, quickly rebuilding roads and infrastructure.
“My government will spare no effort to adopt zero tolerance on corruption and mismanagement of state resources. We know how high your expectations are and that you have suffered for too long,” Koroma told the crowd of military officials, dignitaries and supporters at the ceremony.
Alieu Mansaray, an accountant and Koroma supporter, said in Freetown that he was looking forward “to having good roads, regular electricity and water supply, quality and affordable education for our children.”
About 2.6 million of Sierra Leone’s 5 million people registered to vote in the election. Kabbah was barred by term limits from running for a third five-year term.
A return to power
The governing party candidate was considered the front-runner before the first round of voting on Aug. 11. But Koroma won 44 percent of the vote in the first round, compared with 38 percent for Berewa. The margin was not large enough for him to win outright, forcing a runoff.
Koroma’s win solidifies the return of his All People’s Congress to power for the first time since being ousted in a 1992 coup. The APC also won the majority of legislative seats in last month’s vote.
Some in the country still see the party that ruled Sierra Leone from 1967 to 1992 as symbolic of the strong-arm statesmanship that helped foment discontent and fuel rebellion. The APC instituted a one-party state in 1978, banning all other political parties for more than a decade until shortly before it was overthrown.
The coup was led by a group of young military officers who promised to rein in abuses of power and put down a growing rebellion in the east. Instead, the fighting worsened and Sierra Leone was plunged into years of civil war.
U.N. and British forces defeated the rebellion, and a U.N. force stayed on, swelling to 17,500 troops before departing in December 2005. British troops have helped train a new 17,500-strong army, which, together with 9,500 police, is responsible for national security.