FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — Sierra Leone's new president in an interview with The Associated Press is pledging to avoid the "ethnic cleansing" of clearing out government posts for his supporters.
Julius Maada Bio spoke the day after winning the West African nation's runoff election. The former opposition candidate and military leader now faces the challenge of helping the country of 7 million people recover from the devastating Ebola epidemic of 2014-2016.
The election was the fourth since Sierra Leone's brutal civil war ended in 2002, and concerns about potential divisions along ethnic, political or regional lines remain fresh.
"No Sierra Leonean should feel threatened by my ascension to power," Bio said Thursday. "I am not going to discriminate. National cohesion is very much a part of my program."
Defeated candidate Samura Kamara has said the former ruling All Peoples Congress party intends to take "appropriate legal action" against the election results, saying they "did not reflect the will of the voters."
Any registered voter has seven days to petition the Supreme Court over the results. Bio was swiftly sworn into office before midnight Wednesday, minutes after results were announced.
Bio told the AP that Sierra Leone should proceed with life as normal.
"Attacking anybody is not necessarily ... is not going to change the result of this election," he said.
With his win, his Sierra Leone Peoples Party takes power for the first time in a decade.
The new president now faces a parliament that is dominated by the APC party. Outgoing leader Ernest Bai Koroma with the APC had served two terms and was barred by the constitution from running again.
The election had caused tensions in Sierra Leone as a member of the then-ruling party filed a legal challenge to the results of the first round of voting and a temporary injunction was issued, stalling preparations. The high court later lifted the injunction but the runoff vote was delayed by a few days. The opposition under Bio called the court challenge a delaying tactic.
"It has been a very difficult journey to get here," Bio said.
The way ahead won't be easy, either, he added. People will need to be convinced that he means what he says about unity and a lack of favoritism in government.
He acknowledged that his background as military leader also has caused some skepticism among Sierra Leoneans, but he remained optimistic.
"I remember when (former U.S. President John F.) Kennedy said he will land a human being on the moon, everybody said he was dreaming. When I said I will come back to the statehouse using the ballots, everybody said, 'You only know bullets.' So, it's a dream come true."