Sierra Leoneans will vote on Saturday in fiercely contested presidential and parliamentary elections, amid international calls for peace and a cost-of-living crisis that helped fuel last year’s deadly unrest.
The West African country, which has not yet fully recovered economically from a 1991-2002 civil war and the Ebola epidemic a decade ago, has been hit hard by the Covid pandemic and fallout from the war in Ukraine.
Twelve men and one woman are running for the top job, but the main challenger to incumbent President Julius Maada Bio is Samura Kamara of the All People’s Congress (APC) party.
The two will face each other for the second time in a row after Bio, of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), defeated Kamara in a runoff in 2018.
Rising food prices are a key issue for many voters in the import-dependent West African country of eight million people.
Year-on-year inflation hit 43 percent in April, according to the latest official figures.
Bio and Kamara told AFP that they will prioritize increasing agricultural production.
About 3.4 million people are registered to vote, 52.4 percent of whom are under 35 years of age, according to a spokesman for the election commission.
Polls will open at 7:00 am and close at 5:00 pm (1700 GMT).
Presidential candidates must get 55 percent of valid votes for a first-round victory.
Turnout has been between 76 and 87 percent in the last 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 the recently passed gender act, one third of all candidates must be women.
A new 11.9 percent vote threshold will make it harder for independents and minority parties to gain seats in parliament.
Many Sierra Leoneans voted based on regional allegations.
The majority of people in the south and east usually vote for the ruling SLPP. The majority of people from the north and west usually vote for the opposition APC.
Jobs and benefits are often seen as flowing to regions whose politicians are in power.
Bio, 59, a former coup leader in the 1990s, promoted education and women’s rights in his first civilian term.
Kamara, 72, a minister of foreign affairs and finance, criticized the election commission for alleged bias in favor of the ruling party.
He faces a protracted trial over allegations he embezzled public funds as foreign minister, a case he says was politically motivated.
Call for peaceful polls
A June 14 poll by the Institute for Governance Reform (IGR), a partner of the pan-African survey group Afrobarometer, predicted that Bio would win 56 percent of the vote, with 43 percent for the Chamber.
Another poll, conducted by the newspaper Sierra Eye and two local data groups, predicted 38 percent for the incumbent and 25 percent for his primary challenger.
Both candidates on Thursday night urged their supporters to vote peacefully and responsibly.
The elections are closely followed in West Africa, a region recently dominated by coups and unrest.
A group of foreign ambassadors on Wednesday issued a joint statement calling for calm following reports of election-related “aggression”.
Security forces clashed with APC supporters on Wednesday in the capital Freetown.
Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders called on the authorities to protect freedom of expression and freedom of the press during the election.
Last August, riots left at least 27 civilians and six police dead.
Online disinformation campaigns contribute to violence.