Rappers blast out their message of peace

The Times of London
Freetown, Sierra Leone

In his spotless trainers, baggy jeans and tight white T-shirt, Haroun Dumbuya, aka Wahid, is every inch a modern rap star. But rather than rapping about drugs and violence Wahid is drawing the crowds with his message of peace and democracy in the run-up to crucial elections today.

Flanked by his musical partners Ishmael “Daddy Ish” Suma and Hassan “Cee Jay” Daramy, Wahid said: “So much violence has been reported [during the election campaign], so we have a duty to fight for peace.” In central Freetown a crowd braved showers to hear the local hit-makers as they took turns with the microphone belting out Go Vote, No Violence.

Sierra Leone’s future hangs in the balance this weekend as voters go to the polls to choose a new president and members of parliament five years after the end of a brutal civil war in which drugged-up child soldiers raped, looted, mutilated and murdered their way across the country.

That there is an election at all is in part thanks to Tony Blair. Britain’s intervention in 2000 helped to end the war and remains one of Mr Blair’s proudest foreign policy achievements.

A British Army training force remains in the capital, Freetown, but the 17,000-strong international peacekeeping force is gone, raising fears of election-related violence. The early campaign period was marred by violence in some regions, where opposing supporters fought in the streets. More recently political leaders have responded to calls from the United Nations for a nonviolent election.

“The problem we have is that people may be violent. We need to teach them to realise that in a democracy we do not need to resort to fighting,” said Josephine Koroma of the National Movement for Justice and Democracy.

In its early days the civil war that laid waste to Sierra Leone for 11-years was waged largely by unemployed youths whose anger at a corrupt political system was harnessed by the Revolutionary United Front rebels. The conflict was fuelled by Sierra Leone’s diamonds, which were traded for cash, drugs and arms.

Today the war is over but despite hundreds of millions of pounds of aid money poured into the country it remains the world’s second poorest. The legacy of the conflict is everywhere – a special decree allows those of the country’s 6,000 amputees without hands to use their feet to vote.

Unemployment is 80 per cent, corruption is rife, electricity is sporadic and clean drinking water hard to find. Young men on the streets of Freetown are once again angry. “We have no jobs, no money, nothing,” said Alusinu Elba, 27, to nods of agreement from his friends.”

It is angry young men such as this whom Wahid has been attracting to performances in some of the poorest areas of the country. Of the 2.6 million registered voters more than half are under the age of 32. Trying to ensure the peace is a 9,400-strong police force that will be hard stretched to man more than 6,100 polling stations across a country.

Seven contenders are vying for the presidency, including Solomon Berewa of the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party. His two main opponents are Ernest Koroma of the All People’s Congress and Charles Margai of the People’s Movement for Democratic Change.