Sierra Leone’s voters choose new president in ‘great moment’ for democracy
Outgoing leader Ernest Bai Koroma said the African nation should back whichever of the 16 candidates wins.
Sierra Leone’s voters are choosing a new president from among 16 candidates in a race that has sparked debate over dual nationality and eligibility for the country’s highest office.
Poll workers said voting was peaceful after thousands lined up before the sun rose on Wednesday to cast their ballot.
“This is a great moment … where the people have transformed Sierra Leone and joined the great democratic countries of the world,” said outgoing President Ernest Bai Koroma after voting in the west end of Freetown.
“Whoever wins we must congratulate and rally round him for the progress and development of the country.”
Front-runners are Samura Kamara, the incumbent’s pick as successor, and Julius Maada Bio, the man who was defeated in the 2012 election.
The race most likely will go to a second round later in March as observers say it is unlikely any one candidate will receive 55% of the vote.
It marks the fourth time elections have been held since Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war ended in 2002.
The incumbent Mr Koroma has served two terms and is barred by the constitution from running again.
Mr Kamara, his hand-picked successor, is largely seen as a favourite after emerging from a crowded field of more than two dozen seeking the ruling APC party’s nomination.
He has served as Sierra Leone’s foreign minister, finance minister, as well as governor of the Central Bank of Sierra Leone.
His main challenger is expected to be 53-year old Mr Bio of the SLPP, a former military leader who received 38% of the vote in 2012.
Mr Bio ruled Sierra Leone for three months in 1996 after having overthrown his former boss and friend before returning the country to civilian rule.
Some say that divisions within the party over Mr Bio’s running mate and some of the parliamentary candidates could affect his chances.
A third candidate who has emerged with a strong following is Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella, a serious contender to break Sierra Leone’s two-party hegemony.
Although his party was launched only three months ago, he has been able to mobilise a disgruntled base as a result of current economic hardship and austerity.
This is a great moment ... where the people have transformed Sierra Leone and joined the great democratic countries of the world Outgoing President Ernest Bai Koroma
Mr Yumkella, the former director-general of the United Nations Industrial Development Organiation (Unido), has been attracting significant crowds especially in Freetown.
In a bid to get him off the ballot, the ruling party has been trying to enforce a previously ignored citizenship provision of the 1991 constitution
The provision purports to bar Sierra Leoneans with dual citizenship from contesting for parliament and therefore the presidency.
The petition maintains that Mr Yumkella also holds American citizenship.
Other plaintiffs led by presidential candidate Charles Francis Margai, are now challenging the ruling party candidate and maintaining he is ineligible for holding dual British-Sierra Leonean nationality.
The cases have been postponed until later in the month after the election.
Sierra Leone has three million registered voters in a population of seven million.
The youth vote, including those who have turned 18 since the 2012 general elections, are expected to make an impact in this election, with 800,000 voters.
Results are expected within 10 days.
If there is a run-off, it is expected two weeks after the declaration of the results.