Millions of people lined up to vote in Sierra Leone in the first election since United Nations peacekeeping efforts ended two years ago, ready to choose the first new president since the country’s brutal civil war in 2002 and close a grim chapter in the country’s history.
Turnout appeared to be high as torrential rains that have drenched the country over the past few days eased, and voters waited in a light drizzle to cast their ballots for president and Parliament.
“The real significance of this election is in its conduct and not really in its outcome,” said Lansana Gberie, an analyst and author who has written extensively about the wars that have wracked his country. “If they are peaceful and there is transfer of power with no violence, it shows that Sierra Leone has turned a corner.”
The election is a bookend to a violent era that turned Sierra Leone, a hilly, palm-fringed country roughly the size of South Carolina on the southern coast of West Africa, into an indelible symbol of human brutality.
The war began in 1991, when a band of rebels led by a retired soldier and journalist named Foday Sankoh attacked from a jungle hideout in western Liberia. Trained in Libya’s insurgent camps and backed by the Liberian warlord Charles G. Taylor, Mr. Sankoh’s Revolutionary United Front unleashed a tide of death and misery that would leave hundreds of thousands of people homeless, maimed, raped or dead.
The war’s signature atrocity — the amputation of hands, feet and ears — arose in part as a bloody answer to a campaign slogan in the 1996 election, when Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, who was elected president that year and is to retire after this election, told his supporters that the future was in their hands.
Sierra Leone has made some strides since then. Its army and police force have been reformed from incubators of coup plots into instruments of order and public service. A few hundred miles of roads have been built, and 153 schools and 76 hospitals and clinics have been erected or rehabilitated. Special schools have been established to help students forced out of school by war, putting lanky teenagers into third-grade classrooms.
Some of the men most responsible for the war atrocities — recruiting child soldiers, rape, amputation and looting — have been convicted by the international tribunal set up in the capital, Freetown, after the war. Mr. Taylor, the war’s mastermind, is awaiting trial in The Hague after being arrested last year.
But many of the problems that led to the war persist. The vast gulf between the richest citizens — who control political power, and the country’s diamonds and other resources — and the poor masses remains larger than ever. Efforts to tackle endemic corruption have foundered as entrenched political elites have thwarted attempts to loosen their grip on the country’s purse strings.
Most troubling of all is the country’s huge generation gap. Unemployment among young people — more than half of Sierra Leone’s population is under the age of 35 — stands at 80 percent. Of the 71,043 combatants who were demobilized in a United Nations-sponsored program that gave them cash and job training, only 42 percent found work, according to a survey of combatants in 2004.
“The peace dividend had not been delivered, and that is a source of instability,” said Val Collier, former head of the country’s anticorruption commission, who says he was forced out after trying to prosecute senior government officials. “There is so much left undone, even now five years after the end of the war.”
Unlike many African presidential elections, this one is highly competitive and no one is sure what the outcome will be among the three major candidates. The main political parties tend to fracture along geographic and ethnic lines rather than ideological ones.
The incumbent, Mr. Kabbah, is stepping down, and his vice president, Solomon Berewa, is running as his chosen successor on the platform of the ruling party, the Sierra Leone People’s Party, which is largely supported by the Mende people. Charles Margai, the scion of a prominent political family, is hoping to win the presidency with a breakaway faction of the ruling party. Ernest Koroma, a respected businessman who lost to Mr. Kabbah in 2002, leads the All People’s Congress party, which is largely made up of the Temne ethnic group. The winning candidate must win 55 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff.
“For the first time there is serious competition between the ruling party and the main opposition parties,” said Victor Angelo, the top United Nations official in Sierra Leone. “It is very difficult to say who will win. This is a major test for democracy.”
Marie-Anne Isler, the chief European Union observer, told Reuters that the vote appeared to be going well.
“There are long queues throughout the country and the process seems to be well organized and peaceful,” she said.