Guinea: Junta-ruled Guinea held its first free election Sunday since independence more than half a century ago, a historic vote laden with hope the bedraggled West African nation will finally end decades of harsh military rule and launch a new democratic era.
Millions of people made their way to polling stations across the country by bicycle, by foot, by wheelchair.
"A lot of people said this would never happen," said Ouma Kankou Diallo, a 39-year-old teacher whose index finger was stained dark purple after casting her ballot at a seaside primary school. "But it has happened and we will forever be grateful. For us, this is a kind of dream."
The ballot marks a spectacular turnaround for a country that just months ago was full of despair, terrorized by a military that rampaged through the capital with impunity — courtesy of Moussa "Dadis" Camara, an erratic army captain who seized power in a December 2008 coup hours after the nation`s previous despot, Lansana Conte, died.
Sekouba Konate — the powerful general who took control after Camara was shot in the head by his presidential guard chief in December — praised the poll and said Guinea had kept its word in holding it.
"After 50 years, this is the first time Guinea is holding free and transparent elections," he told reporters, shortly after dropping his vote in a clear plastic urn at the unoccupied presidential palace.
Konate, along with all members of his junta and a transitional governing council comprised of civilians, are barred from running.
Among the top contenders: two ex-premiers, Cellou Dalein Diallo and Sidya Toure, and a longtime government opponent, Alpha Conde.
If no candidate wins a simple majority, a runoff between the top two finishers is due July 18.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Guinea authorities to ensure the vote is peaceful and form "a government that fully reflects the will of Guineans."
Analysts say the greatest risk is that violence could break out if any of the losers fail to accept the results or contest them peacefully.
Speaking late Saturday, Konate warned a roomful of presidential hopefuls they must help avert violence or risk casting the West African nation back to its volatile past.
"We can no longer continue to live like we are in a jungle, as if we are in a state without authority," he said. "Too many Guineans have perished and suffered."
"Starting from now, it`s up to you to make it happen," he said. The choice, he added, is between "peace, freedom and democracy, or chaos and instability."
Campaigning was largely been calm except for an isolated spate of clashes Thursday north of Conakry between supporters of two rival candidates that left at least four people dead and dozens injured. Konate condemned the violence vowed to bring the culprits to justice.
Guinea reached a low point last September when the military opened fire at a crowd of protesters who rallied at a Conakry stadium to insist Camara step down. In broad daylight, more than 150 people were massacred, 1,000 wounded and more than 100 women raped.
A UN investigation into the tragedy fueled tensions within the junta over who would take the blame, and Camara was shot in the head by his presidential guard chief and ultimately removed from the political stage.
Although Camara survived, he remains in Burkina Faso as part of a January peace deal meant to allow the country to hold the crucial ballot without him.
"It`s true that only one candidate will be elected," Konate said. "But the goal we all share is to fight for an open democracy."
"This time, it`s not just about delivering a single candidate or one group to power. No, no," he said. "It`s about creating a better future for all Guineans to realize their dream of freedom and progress ... victory and glory awaits us all."
Some 16,000 security forces are deployed at about 8,000 polling stations to boost security for an expected 4 million registered voters.
Corinne Dufka, a Guinea expert for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said security forces and the political elite had committed "egregious crimes" over the years, "including torture, murder, rape, and embezzlement — without fear of being held accountable."
"Dismantling the architecture of impunity and building a society based on the rule of law will take time, but must top the agenda of both the incoming administration and Guinea`s international partners," she said.
International donors have invested at least $41 million into Sunday`s vote, and hundreds of foreign observers, along with thousands more from local civil society groups, are monitoring the poll.