CONAKRY, Guinea _ Masses of people crowded impatiently outside voting precincts in Guinea's capital on Tuesday, waiting for poll results two days after what could turn out to be the country's first democratic election.
Security forces wearing flak jackets surrounded the counting centers and pushed back the agitated crowd who said they were standing vigil over a vote that may mark the country's emergence from decades of dictatorship, or return it to chaos.
"We were here all of last night. We were here the night before. And we're willing to stay here until the year 2020 to make sure there is no fraud," said 22-year-old Daffe Bangaly, who voted for Alpha Conde, a 72-year-old Sorbonne professor, one of two civilians in the presidential race.
It's the first time in 26 years that Guineans are being allowed to choose a civilian leader instead of a military one. The nation of 10 million has been ruled since a 1984 coup by the military, which only agreed to hand over power to civilians this year following an army-led massacre so brutal it shocked even those familiar with Africa's worst civil wars.
"We want a civilian as president. Whether one or the other candidate wins, it will be Guinea that has won," said the 22 year old. "Because we are poor _ and no one will invest in a country that is ruled by the military."
Guinea's military leaders left behind one of the world's poorest countries that, despite its mineral wealth, ranked 14th from the bottom on the U.N.'s Human Development Index, poorer than even Afghanistan. As recently as last year, the country's military strongman ordered the central bank to send a truck full of cash each week to the barracks from which he ran the country.
Because successive rulers have treated the country's resources as their personal property, tension has escalated between supporters of the two candidates who are from the country's two largest ethnic groups. Malinke supporters of Conde _ a Malinke _ say that if Cellou Dalein Diallo, a Peul, comes to power, the Peul will look after their own at the expense of the nation's other communities.
Partial results released late Tuesday indicated the two candidates are neck-and-neck, with a mere 10,811 votes separating them in Diallo's favor. Only 324,569 ballots had been counted, representing 10 percent, or less, of the votes cast.
On the day of the ballot, election officials and representatives of the candidates said the vote was marked by calm and few irregularities were documented. Since then, Bah Oury, the vice president of Diallo's party, has said they have started preparing their court briefs after discovering fictitious voting precincts and evidence of ballot stuffing.
Many fear the real election will be fought in the streets once the results are proclaimed. Rioting between Malinke and Peul supporters of the two politicians broke out several times over the past few months, causing the vote to be rescheduled twice.
"This could be the calm before the storm," says Raphael Ouattara, the director of the local office of the National Democratic Institute. "There's been an ethnicization of the vote _ a polarization. Each side is convinced that it's in their interest for their ethnic group to be in power. We need to watch over it like you would watch a pot of milk on the stove ... And what no one has a handle on is the army. Will it stay out of this?"
Guinea took a turn for the worse on Dec. 23, 2008, when Capt. Moussa 'Dadis' Camara grabbed power in a coup following the death of dictator Lansana Conte. Unlike his predecessor _ a general who had long stopped wearing fatigues and who ran the country from the presidential palace _ the new ruler never left his barracks.
His soldiers ran amok, bursting into businesses and demanding money and stealing diplomats' cars at gunpoint.
When tens of thousands of protesters crowded into the national soccer stadium on Sept. 28, 2009 to demand an end to army rule, Camara's presidential guard opened fire at point-blank range, killing at least 150 people. Women were systematically gang raped by soldiers and dozens were seen running out of the stadium nude. Human Rights Watch documented the death of several rape victims, including one who was killed after the soldier that raped her placed his gun inside her sex and pulled the trigger.
Within months, Camara was forced into exile and his successor Gen. Sekouba Konate signed an accord in which he agreed to hand over power to civilians and hold elections.
Although the military under his supervision has received human rights training and his presidential guard wears green berets _ instead of the red ones worn by the soldiers at the stadium _ no one knows if the rank-and-file back him. The army is dominated by Malinke officers, which has made supporters of Peul candidate Diallo uneasy.
Results from several of Conakry's communes had already been tabulated by Tuesday morning, but the count was stalled in Matoto district, a sprawling neighborhood near Conakry's airport that accounts for 8 percent of the electorate.
Results from three of the 470 voting precincts were lost in the counting process, causing the compilation to be stopped over accusations of foul play between party officials, said poll workers. On Tuesday afternoon, Election Commission President Siaka Toumani Sangare arrived in a convoy of cars, and the masses outside burst into applause.
Inside the decrepit building of unfinished concrete that serves as the office of Matoto's mayor, Sangare scolded the election workers and party representatives and told them to hurry up. Through the bars of the windows, the chants of people could be heard.
"We want the truth," they screamed.
Associated Press writer Boubacar Diallo contributed to this report.