Democratic Feat Bodes Well: Just Five Years after a Brutal Civil War, Sierra Leone Has Changed Leadership Peacefully through the Ballot Box and Now Begins the Long Haul Back to Economic Growth. the Omens Are Good Says Katrina Mason, Reporting from Freetown

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Were it not for the dirty exhaust fumes and the rubbish you could almost smell it in the air. The roads look as bad as before, the electricity supply is just erratic. But change is afoot in Sierra Leone.

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When 54.5% of voters picked former insurance executive Ernest Bai Koroma as their leader in a second round presidential runoff, power in Sierra Leone--just five years from war--switched hands largely peacefully through the ballot box.

There were congratulations from all sides, including the outgoing president, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and the ruling party's candidate (then Vice President Solomon Berewa) who competed for the top job and failed. It has been a democratic feat.

Despite economic growth of 7% this year, debt clearance worth $1.6bn last year and likely record-busting diamond exports, voters wanted more. They wanted to taste the fruits of a slow, burdensome route out of a war-scarred economy.

The opposition All People's Congress (APC) party--held responsible for the small West African country's horrific 1991-2002 war--was elected on a ticket of anti-corruption and development.

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At the helm is Koroma, who flashes his gleaming white smile at anyone in his direction and wants a country run like a business

"A new dawn has broken on the horizon of our nation, bringing forth a new Sierra Leone, a new era of peace, security, stability and socioeconomic progress in our country," he said at the opening of his newly APC-dominated parliament in early October. The APC won a parliamentary majority with 59 seats of a total 112, to the ousted Sierra Leone People's Party's (SLPP) 43.

Although the party has a traditionally northern Muslim following, Sierra Leone-educated Koroma already somewhat breaks the mould as a Christian northerner. He thinks that can help him bring the country together.

The third-placed People's Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC), a breakaway from the ruling southern Christian-based party, threw its support behind Koroma after no candidate won the required 55% of the vote at the August 11 polls.

PMDC leader and firebrand Charles Margai, a son and nephew of two different prime ministers, said he supported Koroma in order to bridge growing tribal divides in the country.

The first-round polls showed a marked regional split in voting patterns that threatened to fracture the fragile state in two. The north and west went to APC, the south and east to SLPP and PMDC voters combined.

Appeal to citizens abroad

At the opening of parliament Koroma, who regularly hugged Margai during a joint campaign tour ahead of the September 8 second round run-off and has promised a government of national unity, looked to "a new Sierra Leone, where there are no ethnic or regional boundaries".

Already he has called one former presidential competitor into service, proving his determination to form an inclusive government. Zainab Bangura, a rival to Koroma in the 2002 presidential elections in which SLPP President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah was re-elected on a peace ticket, will be his minister for foreign affairs and international relations. She takes up the post from her current development job in Liberia, frequently hailed as a more successful story of post-war recovery despite its 14-year war ending later than Sierra Leone's, in 2003.

Just as Liberia President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has pressed educated and committed Liberians the world over into service, often with donor-backed salaries to sweeten the deal, so too has Koroma--who visited Johnson-Sirleaf shortly after being elected--called Sierra Leone's large and prestigious diaspora back to the fold.

"I appeal to all Sierra Leoneans at home and abroad to join me in making this difference," he said. "Come home and serve your country if you can, or find other ways to contribute from afar."

Koroma may be able to make a go of it. …