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By Ibrahim Seaga Shaw, Paris, France - 16/04/2000 

Ten months after the Lome Peace Accord, Sierra Leoneans may be heading to the polls by November. Although elusive, the deputy secretary of the Interim National Electoral Commission (INEC), A. B. S. Samura hinted to New African: "We've not been officially informed but the talk is gaining momentum".

Some old-timers are already dusting their political garments and preparing for the time of reckoning, But the new generation of politicians, who blame the old politicians For the country's current sorry state (after nine years of rebel war), have promised to give the oldtimers a run for their money.

"Two new parties: The Revolutionary United Front Party (RUFP) led by former rebel leader Foday Sankoh and the Peoples Democratic Alliance (a splinter group of the Peoples Democratic Party) have already registered with INEC", revealed Samura.

Among the front runners are the country's two oldest parties - the ruling Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) and the All Peoples Congress (APC).

Despite the traditional support which the SLPP and APC enjoy, a growing number of Sierra Leoneans blame them for the current near parlous state of the country, and the political and social decay which ignited the RUF rebellion in 1991.

Many also believe the two parties should disband to avert a repeat of the bloody civil war, a view surprisingly shared by the country's high commissioner in London, Prof. Cyril Foray.

"It has always been my view that it is better to ban all the old parties, especially the major ones, in order to have a fresh start. I think the constitution provides for elections once every five years and I see nothing wrong in holding them before the deadline if the situation demands," the high commissioner, who is nursing presidential ambitions himself, told New African recently. "What cannot be constitutionally accepted is to hold elections beyond the deadline", he added.

"The deadline" is February 2001 when President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah's term ends. The distant sounds of the election bells are being reinforced by pressure from some Western governments who appear to be pushing for early polls. At the moment, the UN is happy bankrolling Sierra Leone's peace process, with some help from the US and Britain, apparently to underscore the West's determination to keep the country's fledgling democracy afloat.

But recent visits to Freetown by some US and British officials, have left analysts suggesting that there is more to the West's concern than mere democracy. They say the visits cannot be unconnected to the mad rush for access to the country's rich mineral resources.

But the delay in the disarmament process of some 45,000 ex-combatants is also clouding hopes for early elections. Latest statistics from the National Committee for Disarmament, Demobilization and Re integration (NCDDR) put disarmed combatants, so far, at 17,212. In the same period, 141,000 weapons have been surrendered.

Lack of trust among the former warring factions has generally been the main reason for the slow pace of the disarmament process. While Major Johnny Paul Koroma, leader of the former Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) junta, says his soldiers' reluctance to disarm is due to fears of being attacked by the RUF and the civil militias, Sankoh accuses the West African peacekeepers, Ecomog, AFRC soldiers and the civil militias of attacking his positions.

The UN Security Council recently voted for its peace monitoring force to be increased from 6000 to 11000, but as New African went to press, no additional troops had been sent in, dashing further hopes of an early completion of the disarmament process.

Speaking on Koroma's behalf, the former AFRC minister of information, Mohamed Bangura, still in exile in London, said recently: "Genuine democracy will only be assured when the nation becomes arms free. I don't think there is any need to worry about elections. If the period of President Kabbah's legitimate power draws to a close, he should be replaced by an interim leader of national unity to take the country through the elections."

Some Kabbah loyalists, however, argue that the government's mandate should be extended for a year to compensate for the lost nine months that the AFRC junta ruled the country while Kabbah's government was in exile.

The other problem is about the rebels. Foday Sankoh recently attacked the UN, accusing it of double standards. Sankoh was expelled from South Africa and Ivory Coast in February, allegedly as a result of the UN travel ban imposed in early 1998 on AFRC and RUF members . But before the February incident, Sankoh had gone on government-sponsored or approved foreign trips to Libya and elsewhere, in his new capacity as the vice president of Sierra Leone. But, in February, as he visited South Africa on medical grounds, he was suddenly accused of going to sell diamonds, and not for medical reasons as he claimed.

Sankoh, predictably, fired back. In a statement to the "moral guarantors" of the Lome Peace Accord, he attacked Kabbah's government for its failure to implement its side of the peace deal, and lashed at the UN for its "double standards".

But, as the mudslinging continues, most Sierra Leoneans are becoming impatient with the slow pace of the peace process and the lack of commitment by all the factions in pushing it forward.

While some say elections should be held only after the completion of the disarmament process and the attainment of lasting peace, some think otherwise. The controversy could spiral into a repeat of the 1996 referendum when people were asked to vote for peace before elections, or elections before peace.

Plus fa change (Nothing changes in Sierra Leone politics)