Sierra Leone voted Saturday in a fiercely contested general election, with President Julius Maada Bio seeking a second term amid a crippling economic crisis that sparked deadly riots last year.
The deeply poor West African nation was battered by a brutal 1991-2002 civil war and the Ebola epidemic a decade later, and further pummelled economically by the Covid pandemic and the fallout from the war in Ukraine.
Boubacar Conteh, 27, from Wellington in the east of Freetown, waited since four in the morning to cast his ballot.
“I want my country to change – I need change,” he said.
Twelve men and one woman are vying for the top job and incumbent Bio’s main challenger is Samura Kamara of the All People’s Congress (APC) party.
The two could face off for the second time in a row. Bio, 59, of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), narrowly beat Kamara, who is aged 72, in a runoff in 2018.
Rising food prices are a key issue for many voters in the import-dependent nation of eight million people.
Year-on-year inflation hit 43 percent in April, according to the latest official figures.
Both Bio and Kamara told AFP they would prioritise boosting agricultural production.
Polling stations opened later than the scheduled time of 7:00 am in the capital Freetown, AFP journalists said, including in the the central Wilberforce Barracks area. They were due to close at 5:00 pm (1700 GMT).
Some 3.4 million people are registered to vote, 52.4 percent of whom are under 35 years old, according to an electoral commission spokesman.
Presidential candidates must secure 55 percent of valid votes for a first-round win.
Turnout has ranged between 76 and 87 percent over the past three elections.
Voters will also elect members of parliament and local councils in a proportional representation system after a last-minute switch from a first-past-the-post system.
Under a recently passed gender act, one-third of all candidates must be women.
A new 11.9 percent vote threshold will make it difficult for independents and minority parties to secure seats in parliament.
Many Sierra Leoneans vote based on regional allegiances.
The majority of people in the south and east normally vote for the ruling SLPP while most people from the north and west normally vote for the opposition APC.
Jobs and benefits are commonly perceived to flow to regions whose politicians are in power.
Bio, a former coup leader in the 1990s, has championed education and women’s rights in his first civilian term.
Kamara, a former foreign and finance minister, has lambasted the electoral commission for alleged bias in favour of the ruling party.
He is facing a protracted trial over allegations that he misappropriated public funds as foreign minister, a case he says is politically motivated.
Bio Tipped To Win
A June 14 poll by Institute for Governance Reform (IGR), a partner of the pan-African survey group Afrobarometer, forecasts Bio will win 56 percent of the vote, with 43 percent for Kamara.
Another poll, conducted by the newspaper Sierra Eye and two local data groups, forecasts 38 percent for the incumbent and 25 percent for his main challenger.
The elections are being closely followed in West Africa, a region recently dominated by coups and turmoil.
A group of foreign ambassadors on Wednesday issued a joint statement calling for peace following reports of election-related “aggression”.
Security forces clashed with APC supporters Wednesday in the capital Freetown.
Last August, riots left at least 27 civilians and six police officers dead.
Online disinformation campaigns have contributed to the violence.