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Thursday, 16 May, 2002, 13:39 GMT 14:39 UK
Sierra Leone expectant
Supporters of Ahmed Tejan Kabbah listen to the radio as the first results come in
Initial results put Ahmed Tejan Kabbah in the lead
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By Mark Doyle
BBC West Africa correspondent
"Twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four."

In the conference centre of the eight-storey Youyi Building in central Freetown, vote counting is underway a day after the election.

Party agents watch while the long ballot papers with thumbprints or crosses are counted into piles for the various candidates.

The election was as free and fair as it could be

European observer

Outside, United Nations trucks deliver full plastic ballot boxes and then take away the empties.

Most of the counting of ballots has been taking place in the polling stations themselves.

These were the boxes from "Special Voting Day", a few days before the main election, for police and army personnel who would be on election duty on the big day.

Election observers present at the counting of security forces' ballots said the former military ruler turned Born Again Christian, Johnny Paul Koroma, appeared to be doing well with the police and army.

Two front-runners

The general pattern of early results, according to local radio reports of a few hundred polling stations out of a total of over 5,000, and sources close to the National Electoral Commission, was that there were two clear front runners - President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and the candidate of the former ruling All Peoples' Congress, Ernest Koroma.

A police officer brings two ballot boxes to be handed over to the National Election Commission in Freetown
Official results of the poll are expected on Friday

As expected, President Kabbah is doing very well in the ethnic Mende heartland of the south-east.

Mr Koroma is doing better in the ethnic Temne and Limba north.

But politics is not as tribally influenced in Sierra Leone as some other African countries, and the politically cosmopolitan capital region could swing the final result.

A source close to the Electoral Commission said the former rebels of the Revolutionary United Front Party were getting "respectable" results in some isolated areas of the north and the east.

Mental arithmetic

There is a general feeling here that it could create tension if the RUFP suffer a complete electoral wipeout since one aim of the peace process is to integrate the former rebel group as a political actor, while isolating them as a military phenomenon.

"Hopefully, they'll win a few parliamentary seats," said my source, who was no fan of the RUFP.

It was very good. No fighting... no funny business


The early unofficial indications are that Johnny Paul Koroma may be a strong contender for third place after either Mr Kabbah or Ernest Koroma.

It may take several more days before the official results are declared because logistics, despite considerable assistance to the Electoral Commission from the United Nations, are stretched.

At the Yuoyi Building, where some district results were being collated, I saw hard-pressed officials juggling piles of paper and doing arithmetic by hand.

The largest group of international election observers, the EU team, has pronounced the election fair.

Johann Van Hecke, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, said: "The election was as fair and as free and as transparent as it could be".

Peaceful election

The UN peacekeeping mission here was fulsome in its praise of the peaceful nature of the election - although the UN would not comment publically on the fairness of the poll because they had helped organise it.

"We can't be judge and jury at the same time," as one senior UN official said, speaking in the lobby of the converted seaside hotel that is their headquarters.

A supporter of All Peoples' Congress candidate Ernest Koroma
APC supporters hope their candidate will be in the second round

Local observers seemed hardly to believe how well the elections had gone: "It was very good," said a businessman. "No fighting, no nothing. No-one crying foul, no funny business."

I can hardly believe it myself.

As I drive around Freetown I keep on having flashbacks from the war years.

This bridge, I tell a colleague in my car, was as far as the RUF fought their way in January 1999; another bridge was where rebel suspects were shot by the West African peace force, ECOMOG.

In another part of town, this barracks was where I learnt that a friend had been killed; that roundabout was where I was almost killed myself.

But I should not bore readers with any more of those stories. It is all history. Sierra Leone has held a peaceful, democratic election and the war is over.

The next hurdle is for all of the candidates to accept the result, whatever it may be.

See also:

11 May 02 | Africa
S Leone campaign ends in riots
28 Mar 02 | Africa
Sankoh barred from poll
13 Mar 02 | Africa
In pictures: Foday Sankoh emerges
12 May 00 | Africa
Foday Sankoh: Rebel leader
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