President Julius Maada Bio is seeking a second term amid a crippling cost-of-living crisis that sparked deadly riots last year.
Twelve men and one woman are vying for the top job, though Bio’s main challenger is Samura Kamara of the All People’s Congress (APC).
Bio, 59, of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), narrowly beat Kamara, who is aged 72, in a runoff in 2018.
Polling stations were scheduled to open at 7:00 am and close at 5:00 pm (1700 GMT), but many stations in the capital Freetown opened late, AFP journalists saw.
By 5:40 pm (1740 GMT), tallying had begun at the Aberdeen Police Station in Freetown, AFP journalists saw.
Many stations were likely to remain open longer, after the electoral commission confirmed in a statement that all voters in queue at 5:00 pm would be allowed to vote.
“Polling is going on in a relatively peaceful manner,” the commission said in a statement. “There were logistical challenges in some polling centres relating to the late arrival of materials.”
After casting his ballot at the Wilberforce Barracks in Freetown on Saturday morning, Bio encouraged citizens to participate peacefully.
“Go out and vote — it’s your right,” he said. “Vote safely. If you win, celebrate safely.”
Kamara voted in the Freetown neighbourhood of Lumley, telling reporters that “This election is about the future of Sierra Leone”.
But he said the polling station — which opened more than two hours late, an AFP journalist saw — was “congested”.
“Don’t be surprised if there is confusion,” he said.
Kamara has for weeks lambasted the electoral commission for alleged bias in favour of the governing party.
National Election Watch, a coalition of civil society groups, said 84% of the polling stations it was observing had opened by 8:00 am.
However, only 59% of stations in the Freetown area had opened by that time.
Two AFP journalists arrived at a polling station in central Freetown on Saturday afternoon where voting was just getting underway. A soldier present told AFP voting had started at 2:00 pm.
“I am so impressed by the resilience and fortitude of… voters — many of whom stood in line for hours in the hot sun to exercise their right to vote,” US Ambassador David Reimer said on Twitter.
Sierra Leone, still recovering from the West Africa Ebola epidemic of 2014-2016, was again hit hard by the Covid pandemic and the fallout of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Year-on-year inflation in the country hit 43% in April.
In the Kroo Bay slum, a long queue of voters snaked along a rubbish-filled stream toward a polling station that had only partially opened by 9:00 am.
“There is too much hardship, not enough to eat, inflation is too high,” said Issa Bangura, a 48-year-old commercial driver queueing to vote there. “We are suffering, so I want change.”
Mohamed Waritay, a 27-year-old security guard, said he was voting for Bio because of his investments in education and healthcare.
Bio “built a hospital in my village with 100 beds”, Waritay said.
Bio tipped to win
Some 3.4 million people are registered to vote, 52.4% of whom are under 35 years old, according to an electoral commission spokesman.
Candidates must secure 55% of valid votes for a first-round win.
Voters will also elect members of parliament and local councils. Under a recently passed gender act, a third of all candidates must be women.
Many Sierra Leoneans vote based on regional allegiances, as 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, is facing a protracted trial over allegations that he misappropriated public funds as foreign minister, a case he says is politically motivated.
A June 14 poll by the Institute for Governance Reform (IGR) forecast that Bio would win 56% of the vote, with 43% for Kamara.
Another poll, conducted by the newspaper Sierra Eye and two local data groups, forecasts 38% for the incumbent and 25% for Kamara.
The elections are being closely followed in West Africa, a region recently dominated by coups and turmoil.
Last August, riots left at least 27 civilians and six police officers dead.
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