Sierra Leone votes amid rigging claims

Sierra Leone's People Party presidential candidate Julius Mada Bio holds his daughter while casting his ballot for the General Election next to his wife Tatima, on March 7, 2018 in Freetown. More than 3.1 million voters were registered for the polls across the West African nation. AFP | PHOTO 

Sierra Leone’s National Electoral Commission (NEC) announced the cancellation of several ballot papers amidst allegations of irregularities, as voting went on in Wednesday's landmark elections.

NEC said it was replacing the unspecified number of ballot papers for the presidential, parliamentary and local council elections in a particular ward in the eastern Kenema District after they were found to have been damaged in an incident that sparked allegations of attempted rigging.

The papers were part of a consignment of electoral materials transported to voting centers in the district when they went missing.

Kenema is considered a major support base of the main opposition, the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP). Supporters of the ruling All People’s Congress (APC) party accused elements of the opposition of stealing the ballot papers in connivance with local NEC officials.

But a NEC official was quoted saying the papers might have fallen off from the transporting vehicle, which was accompanied by an armed guard.

The eastern region police chief, Assistant Inspector General Alfred Karrow Kamara, confirmed the incident but said those who found the missing ballot papers had handed them over voluntarily. He also said the police were investigating the matter.

NEC did not say exactly how many ballot papers were involved, but pointed out that it cancelled the whole batch destined for the concerned ward because the box containing them was no longer in the correct, sealed state.

The poll commission, in its statement, said the move, which also included the nullification of all serial numbers on the missing ballot papers, was taken to safeguard the integrity of the process.

The incident served as a reminder of the 2007 elections, when hundreds of votes were cancelled in the Kailahun District, also in the east, over allegations of over-voting.
SLPP, to date, blames its loss in those elections on that controversial NEC decision.

The ballot papers saga added to an already tense situation. The preceding one month long campaigns had been marred by outburst of violence that sometimes claimed lives, with the destruction of properties worth millions.

On Tuesday, the High Court in Freetown ruled in favour of the controversial police proposal to restrict vehicular movement on election day, a day after the same court had slammed an injunction on the police’s decision following a suit by two prominent constitutional lawyers.

The government also upped the security alert level by invoking the Military Aid to Civil Power [MAC-P] security coding, paving the way for the deployment of the military in the streets.

There were calls, both locally and internationally, for Sierra Leoneans to conduct themselves in a peaceful manner.

In a nationwide address Tuesday night, probably his last before stepping down, President Ernest Bai Koroma urged fellow Sierra Leoneans to see one nation and shun violence. Elections, he said, are not a do-or-die event.

President Koroma also urged his eventual successor to prioritise unification of the nation as the only sure way of achieving the development goals.

President Koroma is barred from contesting by the constitution, after serving for two five-year terms.

His APC party is represented by his hand-picked successor, former Foreign minister Samura Kamara, who faces 15 others, including a former junta leader, Brig (Rtd) Julius Maada Bio of SLPP.

“Ultimately, the objective of coming forward for elective position is to stand in order to improve the lives of our compatriots, not to put them in arms way,” President Koroma said.

He added: “Everyone of us must therefore be guided by the fact that there is only one Sierra Leone and that in the end, only one person will be president at any given time.”

A group of international election observers, including the African Union, the Commonwealth, European Union, and the Carter Center, in a joint statement reiterated calls for the peaceful conduct of the polls.

Over 250 international observers have been deployed across the country to monitor the polls. About that same number of local observers is also monitoring the process.

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