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Thursday, 9 May, 2002, 12:42 GMT 13:42 UK
Election boom in Freetown
Supporters of Sierra Leone presidential candidate Johnny Paul Koroma
After years of war, there is new hope in Sierra Leone
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By Mark Doyle
BBC West Africa correspondent
Ahead of presidential elections on 14 May, Mark Doyle is keeping an election diary from the campaign trail around Sierra Leone.

Day 1 - Freetown.

Forget your images of "Freetown - War Torn Capital".

Start believing in "Freetown - Boom City".

As I drove around this seaside capital today I saw no war, only commerce. The tightly-packed market road alongside the quaintly named Victoria Park (a patch of green and flowers next to the foreign ministry building) hummed with cassette-vendors and water-sellers.

Hundreds of market stalls did satisfactory business. It was the same all over town.

War is over

Most Sierra Leoneans may still be very poor, but the end of the war has given them a chance to change this state of affairs. They are hard at it.

The war has been over for more than a year now (officially it ended in February) and every Sierra Leonean is holding his or her breath hoping that this is real.

Street scene of Freetown
With the historic election a week away, Freetown seems to be booming

At the headquarters of the National Electoral Commission (NEC), a three storey building on the water's edge, last minute preparations for next week's historic election are taking place.

I drive to the NEC building but learn that Electoral Commissioner Walter Nicol, a compact and owlish man who started his senior government career as a police commissioner, is busy.

Mr Nicol gives me an appointment later, apparently happy to speak openly to the BBC.

I make a note, mentally, that if the guy in charge is open to the likes of us, this might be an open election.

We shall see.

Mr Nicol has a phalanx of expatriate advisors and helpers at his side. Their four-wheel-drive Toyotas crowd the small parking space outside the electoral commission building.

Beyond the compound gates, dozens of men in slacks and shirts scan long printed lists of election officials; this poll, on top of all the razzmatazz, is also a chance for a few days' pay for the vast unemployed masses of Freetown.

Rebels contest election

Up a small dark staircase in another narrow street is the presidential candidate of the former rebels - now the Revolutionary United Front Party (RUFP).

The initials "RUF" are more familiar to me - and to most Sierra Leoneans - than "RUFP". But the fact is that the former rebels are now contesting democratic elections.

The party may be old but I am its new face

Ernest Koroma, All People's Congress

They are no longer chopping off peoples' hands, as was their signature tactic a few years ago.

Progress indeed.

The RUFP presidential candidate, Pallo Bangura, tells me that the RUFP may have an "image problem" but that they do have mass support. But all the rank and file are not completely satisfied with Mr Bangura.

Some of them made it clear that their loyalty still lies with the jailed rebel leader, Foday Sankoh. They said "The Lion", as Mr Sankoh is often called, would rise again.

The candidate

Up another stairway - this time a well-lit one leading to a wood-panelled conference room - was the candidate of the All People's Congress (APC), Ernest Koroma.

Smiling and smooth, the articulate politician Mr Koroma told me he was the new changed face of a party which once ruled Sierra Leone as a single party state.

Ernest's father was once a big-wig in the old APC Party but he dismisses this: "The party may be old", he says, "but I am its new face".

Sierra Leone President, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah
President Kabbah is standing for re-election

My main task for the day is to get a promise of access to the incumbent candidate, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah,

I ring his election campaign manager at the Sierra Leone People's Party, SLPP.

"What are the chances," I ask - a bit playfully I admit - "of an interview with your candidate?"

Slightly taken aback, the campaign manager replies "What do you mean - 'The candidate' - You must surely mean His Excellency, the president?"

I know, as he does, that "His Excellency" or "HE" as his entourage call him for short, is very much the man in charge.

But this is democracy. He is just one of the candidates, surely?

I agree to drive several hundred miles in search of the candidate Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, on the campaign trail. So we set off for the provinces.

See also:

28 Mar 02 | Africa
Sankoh barred from poll
13 Mar 02 | Africa
In pictures: Foday Sankoh emerges
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