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Sierra Leone Hopes Election Can Move Nation Past Its Misfortunes

A deadly mudslide. A horrible Ebola virus that killed thousands. And a nation still in recovery from a civil war that killed more than 50,000 people.

As Sierra Leoneans go to the polls on Wednesday, they hope to elect a leader who can help them overcome these tragedies. More than a dozen candidates are vying for votes in Wednesday’s election in what officials hope will be a peaceful democratic transition more than five decades since Sierra Leone gained independence.

Though recent elections have been peaceful, several episodes of violence have occurred at political rallies this time, at least one death has been reported and several people have been seriously wounded. The Economic Community of West African States, the African Union and the European Union have all issued statements calling for a peaceful election, as have many of the candidates.

President Ernest Bai Koroma is stepping down after serving a second, five-year term during a decade punctuated by tragedy. He led the recovery from both the Ebola outbreak in 2014 and from a mudslide last year that killed hundreds.

But Mr. Koroma’s administration has been dogged by allegations of corruption and constitutional violations. During the Ebola outbreak, which killed nearly 4,000 people in Sierra Leone, the country’s auditor general reported that more than $14 million meant to help fight the deadly virus went unaccounted for. In 2015, Mr. Koroma fired his vice president, an action that a regional court ruled was illegal.

 

 

Despite having abundant natural resources, including diamonds, bauxite and gold, Sierra Leone is among the poorest countries in the world, with one of the world’s highest maternal and infant mortality rates.

Though poverty has decreased since the end of the war, which stretched from 1991 to 2002, it remains pervasive. Many adults work in hand-to-mouth jobs like selling clothes along the road, pushing loads in wheelbarrows for hire, and driving motorbike taxis.

Another candidate, Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella, with blue cap, walked with staff members and supporters in Freetown last year. Credit Jane Hahn for The New York Times
Last August, torrential rains set off the huge mudslide in Freetown, the capital. It was another setback for Mr. Koroma’s administration as residents and human rights organizations blamed officials for not heeding warnings to limit housing on the city’s hillside, which was suffering erosion.

The mudslide exposed the government’s lack of vision and refusal to act when illegal structures were sprouting all over the city, said Ibrahim Abdullah, a former professor of history and African studies at Fourah Bay College at the University of Sierra Leone.

Moreover, Mr. Abdullah said, rampant corruption has made it impossible for any meaningful transformation to take place. “Why are things not getting better even with incremental gains?” he asked.

The nation’s health system also is still in recovery mode after Ebola overwhelmed facilities.

“The ravages of Ebola cannot be limited to the health sector alone,” said Abdulai Bayraytay, a government spokesman. “Everything came to a standstill, including the economy, and employment opportunities were lost, especially those in the mining sector.”

Last month, the government introduced a universal social insurance health plan, as well as a network of emergency medical services that includes 163 ambulances and 600 paramedics.

Mr. Bayraytay said that the government was also providing training for more doctors and that, in February, a medical team performed the country’s first successful heart surgery.

“We want to have a health system strong enough to deal with emergencies and disease outbreaks,” Mr. Bayraytay said.

Rescue workers searched for bodies after heavy rains set off flooding and a major mudslide in Freetown last year. Credit Jane Hahn for The New York Times

Skeptics said the recent improvements were aimed at bolstering support for the president’s party in the election.

Mr. Bayraytay also credited the president with building roads, expanding existing ones and providing electricity throughout most parts of the country.

But critics said the nation needed a leader who would offer greater improvements to health care, especially for women and children, and better pay for the nation’s teachers.
Mr. Koroma has endorsed Samura Kamara of the governing party, the All People’s Congress party. Mr. Kamara has served in a number of government posts, and until recently was Sierra Leone’s minister of foreign affairs.

Mr. Kamara has promised to improve the nation’s rickety infrastructure and to finish projects already in the works, including the construction of an airport being built with loans from China.

Among his main rivals are Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella, a former director general of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, and Julius Maada Bio, the former leader of the military junta that ruled Sierra Leone after a 1996 coup.

Mr. Yumkella has pledged to reduce corruption and create more jobs for young people. His message has resonated among young voters in Sierra Leone, which is said to be the among most dangerous places in the world for people ages 15 to 29, according to the World Health Organization. Its mortality rate in 2015 was 671 deaths per 100,000 young people, the highest in the world, the agency reported.

The burial site of Isatu Sesay, an Ebola victim, in Freetown in 2014. Credit Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times

Mr. Yumkella has blamed a lack of jobs and schooling for many of the nation’s woes, including high pregnancy rates among teenagers.

He said that Sierra Leone needed to help young people make meaningful contributions to the country and to ensure that girls received the education necessary to empower them.

“It is time to change Sierra Leone’s narrative from what we are known for to what our people want to be,” Mr. Yumkella said.

Mr. Bio has promised to revamp the economy and provide free education for young people from primary school through college.

Ibrahim Polo Man Kamara, who lives in Freetown, said he planned to vote for Mr. Bio because of his education proposal.

“Even with the current poor education system, the majority of our people can’t afford it,” Mr. Kamara said. “So a free education means everyone will be given the opportunity to go to school.”

For all its tragedies, Sierra Leone has managed to ward off Islamist extremist groups, a feat that has eluded other nations in the region, said Toms Vens, the European Union’s ambassador to Sierra Leone.

“For the country, it is important to remember its history and keep its lessons at heart,” Mr. Vens said. “But it is also time that the world viewed Sierra Leone outside of the clichéd image of war, epidemics and natural disasters, and appreciated it for what it is and wants to be.”

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