Sierra Leone votes for new leader
Sierra Leoneans crowded polling stations to vote today, saying they wanted to elect leaders who would bring prosperity to the poor, conflict-scarred West African state after a decade of recovery from civil war.
The presidential and parliamentary polls, the third held since the end of the 1991-2002 conflict, pit President Ernest Bai Koroma and his ruling All People's Congress (APC) against challenger Julius Maada Bio, a former junta leader who represents the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP).
Voters clutching plastic electoral cards jostled outside polling stations set up in schools and other public buildings in the steamy seaside capital Freetown and across the nation.
"I want to vote early and go back to my house. I want to go and sit down and listen to what is happening in the country," said Mariama Khellah, an unemployed 37-year old, as she waited outside St Luke's Primary School in western Freetown.
The elections are being held amid rising expectations foreign-run iron ore mining and oil developments can start lifting Sierra Leone's 5.5 million people out of poverty and help the country shed its image as a "blood diamonds" battleground for rebels and child soldiers.
The vote is expected to be close. Former insurance executive Koroma (59), who wrested the presidency from the SLPP in a hotly disputed 2007 vote, is considered the narrow favourite, above Bio, a 48-year-old retired army brigadier who was involved in two military takeovers in the turbulent 1990s.
To win outright, a candidate must gain 55 per cent of the vote and the race may well go to a second round.
"I think the whole world is looking at Sierra Leone at the moment," said Jens Anders Toyberg-Frandzen, the United Nations envoy to the country.
He called the vote "a turning point in manifesting that Sierra Leone has graduated from a post-conflict country to one that is now on the path to development."
The elections in the former British colony will be one of the most closely observed in Africa this year by monitors from the European Union, the Commonwealth and the African Union.
With rivalry between the APC and the SLPP running high, there are concerns a close result could ignite violence, although the election campaign saw only minor scuffles.
"Compared with our worst fears, it's been pretty good," said the EU's chief election observer, Richard Howitt.
At stake is the opportunity to oversee millions of dollars of investment in the aid-dependent country's resources that include gold and diamonds, oil and iron ore.