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Sierra Leone Votes in First Local Elections in 30 Years - 2004-05-21

The West African nation of Sierra Leone, which is just starting to recover from a brutal 10-year civil war, is holding its first local elections in over 30 years Saturday.

Riding in an open vehicle in a poor neighborhood of the capital, independent candidate Jos Ayo Ganu campaigns under the banner, Rescue the perishing.

"I didn't want to be limited by party policies so I decided to stand as an independent candidate to satisfy my community," he said. "It's very important because after 32 years it's an opportunity for the grass roots people to have a say in their own community."

In another part of Freetown, a broken down van is being pushed by the supporters of another independent candidate, as loudspeaker blares out his electoral message.

Student Simeon Kurusa says he will vote for an independent candidate on Saturday.

"I love independent candidates because they are on their own and they don't rely on this government institution," he said.

The ruling Sierra Leone Peoples Party is expected to do well in its southeastern stronghold, while the main opposition All Peoples Congress party is running strong in northern areas. Elsewhere, analysts, such as Freetown-based good governance campaigner Zainab Bangura, say independent candidates, about one-third in all, could do well in the ballot.

"People have come to realize our basic problem in this country is two parties and the people who have hijacked the system, the political elite, the older generation," said Zainab Bangura. "Most of the younger people feel left out and the large number of independent candidates is a rebellion against existing political parties or structures."

There have been reports that independent candidates have been intimidated and harassed by ruling party officials and local chiefs. Both observers and the national election commission say they will be monitoring the polling stations closely on election day to ensure a free and fair vote.

More than 2.2 million Sierra Leoneans are registered to vote for regional and town councilors in 19 districts.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone has been helping with logistics, using its helicopters to transport ballot papers and boxes, while the European Union is footing about a third of the $8 million bill.