AUGUST 20, 2009 - AS THE PEOPLE OF AFGHANISTAN GO TO THE POLLS, WILL THE TALIBAN SUCCEED IN KEEPING THEM OFF THE BOOTHS? - ECHOES OF 1996 ELECTIONS IN SIERRA LEONE
The people of Afghanistan vote on August 20 - an opportunity for them to elect a President for the second time after the Taliban regime was toppled in 2001 by what has been described as a US-led invasion.
Laura King of the US-based Los Angeles Times reports that the Taliban have warned Afghans against voting in the election. The West however see the exercise as a crucial landmark for the country's young democracy.
Meanwhile on the eve of the elections the BBC has reported the eruption of fresh violence = explosions and gunfire were heard as troops battled and killed three attackers who raided a bank close to the Presidential compound.
In what has been seen as a blur on the country's march to democracy, watchers of the Afghan scene as well as journalists have condemned a government statement asking the media not to report any violence on the day for the polls.
Journalists have vowed to report exactly what is happening on the ground as it would not only be good for the voters and their safety, but for a free press to tell things as they occur.
This, despite a threat to foreign journalists that they would be deported.
Many who were in Freetown would recall that on January 26, 1996, despite threats from the RUF and sobels, the people went ahead to vote in General Elections that was designed to give them an opportunity to express their will at the polls.
Even as voters prepared for this important task, the RUF and their sobel colleagues in the national army went on an orgy of rape, abductions and amputations. This after the NPRC led by Maada Bio tried but failed to delay the elections.
Kindly recall that just as Sierra Leoneans were getting ready to defy the RUF and their operatives within and without the country, the man who had ousted his colleague in a palace coup told the nation that he had second thoughts about the pending elections and called for a national conference.
At that conference, dubbed Bintumani II, all stakeholders, apparently fed up with the excesses of the NPRC and military rule in general at that time again overwhelmingly voted for the planned General Elections to go ahead.
This did not go down well with those in the NPRC who wanted elections delayed. Even before Bintumani II, a new movement, thought to be sympathetic to the aims of the Maada Bio-led NPRC was born.
The Peace Before Elections movement claimed that elections are best held when peace is achieved throughout the land. That sounded like something reasonable, but voters were acutely aware that this new body was the brainchild of elements of the NPRC who were keen on holding on to power!!!
Roadblocks mounted on the way to the Bintumani Conference Centre and manned by the Maada Bio group filtered people and vehicles heading for the meeting.
Those thought to be in support of the elections were routinely harassed, beaten and prevented from darkening the doors of the meeting place.
On the day of the elections, as voters defied the RUF and sobels and went en masse to the polls, rumours started doing the rounds that the NPRC had plans to disrupt the polls using the RUF threat as an excuse.
And so it did not come as any surprise when at about a quarter past five in the evening what sounded like mortar fire was heard from the hills surrounding the capital.
Fear gripped the city, but voters stayed the course.
One military officer attached to the National Electoral Commission, NEC, headed by former UN diplomat Dr James Jonah and housed in the building that is now the SLPP headquarters, was heard telling people milling around that the RUF had entered the city using routes skirting Freetown.
He went as far as to say that his colleagues had seen RUF fighters in dark blue overalls making their way through the bushes towards army headquarters!!!
Voters were not moved and vowed to rally at the polling booths.
A very desperate and apparently panic-stricken NPRC Mk 2 headed by Maada Bio without warning went on national radio to announce a curfew that very evening to become effective at 10pm.
Many did not hear of this unexpected announcement on radio. They were caught out in the open as armed NPRC operatives went on a shoot to kill rampage, targeting civilians who were out in the streets.
Voters were not intimidated and in a show of defiance the civilian population rained such a torrent of abuse on Maadio Bio and his colleagues, (quite a chunk of the vocabulary must have been new to the ears of the "butta na mot" young Maada Bio) that he realised late in the day just how unpopular military rulers had become and extended voting for another day!!!!
It was a heavy price the civilians had to pay, but they succeeded in getting their way and voting in the candidate of their choice.
And that was how people power began to establish itself as a force to be reckoned with.
A power which the AFRC/RUF junta did not believe in but was given a bite of as Sierra Leoneans staged a national programme of civil disobedience that saw banks, schools, colleges and normal life becoming non-functional.
The first such in the country's political history.
And so as Afghans vote, these proud people have at the back of their minds that no one will stop them expressing their desire at the polls.
History has shown that the land mass known as Afghanistan will never be conquered - never.
The Russians tried it and failed.
The US and allies including the UK seem to have now realised that the best way to go about it is to win the hearts and minds of the people. The BBC's John Simpson has been speaking to the man on whose shoulders rest the military operations of the Allies the American commander of the Nato-led international force there, Gen Stan McChrystal and quotes him as saying
How to go about this is still the tough nut the Allied Forces in Afghanistan will have to crack.