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Friday, 10 May, 2002, 00:48 GMT 01:48 UK
S Leone president confident of victory
President Kabbah
Kenema is also Kabbah-country
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By Mark Doyle
BBC West Africa correspondent
Ahead of presidential elections on 14 May, Mark Doyle keeps a diary from the campaign trail.

Day 3 - In Kenema with President Kabbah

When I used to watch old black and white movies about the American Gold Rush, I never imagined that I would one day see it for real.

But the diamond mining town of Kenema, in south-eastern Sierra Leone, is about as close to those frontier days as you can get.

The main street in Kenema is lined with diamond merchants. As well as buying the gemstones, they sell shovels and wire mesh for making the big round sieves that the diamond-bearing gravel is shaken through in search of that elusive fortune.

The signboards outside the shops bear a picture of a huge blue diamond - and the name (usually Lebanese) of the buying agent.

These days of course the Lebanese shop owners have moved on from only selling "Wild West" goods.

Their shelves are stacked with ghetto-blasters that a lucky miner might buy, and water pumps that the larger concessions might use for accessing the precious river-bottom gravel.

And, in another sign of modernity, the diamond shops are built alongside hi-tech mobile phone dealerships that look strangely out of place next to the piles of old-fashioned picks and shovels.

Kenema, diamond town, is also Kabbah-country.

As with most of the south-east of Sierra Leone it has been a stronghold of the ruling party Sierra Leone Peoples' Party (SLPP) for many years, and the incumbent President, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, chose it as the first major town to visit in his re-election campaign.

Party colour

Politics in Sierra Leone is less tribally-based than in most African countries, but tribe is still a factor. The SLPP is predominantly ethnic Mende.

Everyone was waving a palm leaf - the palm tree is the SLPP symbol - or dressed in the party colour, green

As is often the case elsewhere - for the purpose of denying the tribal bias and appealing across the country - the party leader himself, in this case President Kabbah, is not Mende but from the north.

That certainly did not stop him getting a rousing welcome in Kenema.

I watched him arrive in town from the balcony of a friendly businessman - a Sierra Leonean of Lebanese descent - who had kindly offered to put me up for the night (all the decent guesthouses were full of foreign election observers and aid workers).

Crowds lined the streets to cheer Mr Kabbah into town. Everyone was waving a palm leaf - the palm tree is the SLPP symbol - or dressed in the party colour, green.

Headmasterly tone

After lunch and meetings with party officials Kabbah drove a cavalcade around town (more crowds, more cheering) and ended up at a parade field nestling below a hill covered in deep green forest.

The forest is protected - most other trees in this country have long ago been chopped down for firewood.

The message from most of the speakers was pretty simple: "Welcome President Kabbah," and We're going to win", sometimes followed by bitter attacks on rival politicians.

Star turns at the rally included a former rebel who had now joined the SLPP and a stout lady from the Women's Wing whose every utterance was followed by a chorus of ululating female voices.

Mr Kabbah himself has a quieter, almost headmasterly tone.

Now in his 70s, the president portrays himself - and to some extent is seen by the people - as the Father of the Nation.

'Easy win'

Dressed casually in slacks and a striped T-shirt, the president made a blissfully short speech (dark was looming and the mosquitoes were beginning to gather).

We'll win in the first round - easily - just you watch

Vice-President Albert Demby
He seemed relaxed and to be enjoying himself.

President Kabbah repeated his now-famous phrase, first uttered in January when the war was officially declared over: "War Dun Dun" - "the war is over".

He peppered his address with rhetorical questions: "After the election we must work together to develop this nation. Do you agree with me?"

The crowd did.

"War Dun Dun. I hope you are happy about that?"

The crowd was.

To win in the first round of the election Mr Kabbah must pocket 55% of the votes, otherwise there will be a runoff between the two leading candidates and, of course, a lot of horse-trading between the parties.

The Vice-President, Albert Demby, told me confidently that Mr Kabbah would get - at the very least - 70% of votes cast, but it was more likely he would get over 80%.

"And what," I asked, "if it goes to a second round?"

"Impossible", said Mr Demby. "We'll win in the first round. Easily. Just you watch."

See also:

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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