, FREETOWN, Nov 17 – Sierra Leoneans cast their votes on Saturday in the country’s third poll since the end of a brutal civil war, a high-stakes race which will hand the victorious party stewardship of a lucrative mining boom.
The elections are being closely watched by the international community which has helped the west African nation rebuild after a devastating 11-year conflict ended a decade ago.
In the tropical seaside capital Freetown, hundreds of voters queued up to choose a president, lawmakers and local officials after a largely peaceful campaign. Some 2.6 million voters have registered to vote.
“I have queued up since 11 pm (2300GMT) last night and I am very excited about the polls,@ said 26-year-old carpenter Joseph Lamin, the first to vote at the Christ Church polling station in the centre of the city.
“I am voting for more investment to come to Sierra Leone and for a good leader to be elected.”
“I am so excited, we want a good leader who would provide jobs for the young,” said Aminata Toure, 19, voting for the first time in the eastern city of Kenema.
Youth unemployment, estimated between 60 and 65 percent, is one of the major challenges facing the west African nation.
While still one of the world’s poorest countries, Sierra Leone is rich in mineral resources and massive iron-ore stores are expected to add 21 percent growth in 2012 to its $2.2 billion (1.7 billion euro) gross domestic product, the International Monetary Fund estimates.
The impending windfall raises the stakes for the government who will be in office for the next five years.
In the capital Freetown, a hodge-podge of new construction, newly paved roads and slums recently ravaged by a cholera outbreak, the stakes are equally high for citizens for whom life is still a daily struggle.
President Ernest Koroma, 59, of the All People’s Congress (APC) is seen as favourite to win, but only by a thin margin. He has been praised for the infrastructure boom, although his detractors say it has been marred by rampant corruption.
His main challenger is ex-military leader Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP).
Despite a somewhat murky past as a putschist who briefly held power in 1996, Bio, 48, has amassed significant support and is expected to force the incumbent to a run-off.
Bio sells himself as the father of Sierra Leone’s democracy and has promised free education and gender equality.
Both parties have pushed hard for a peaceful election, however Bio has warned he will not accept a “dirty election.”
Both parties have also tried to cut across a traditionally factionalised political system in which voting tendencies split along regional and ethnic lines.
Bio’s SLPP is typically supported by the Mende – one of the country’s main tribes – and other southern tribes. Koroma’s APC is favoured by his Temne tribe and others in the north and west.