FREETOWN—Hopes are high and the pressure is on as Sierra Leoneans get ready to elect a new president and parliament on Saturday.
The country's third national election since the end of its decade-long civil war in 2002—and its first independently organized election since that conflict—many hope the contest will cement the country's democratic standing and stability.
Ahead of the polls, officials of all political parties pledged to urge supporters to refrain from the violence that marred elections in 2007, in which President Ernest Bai Koroma claimed a run-off victory. Koroma, whose All People's Congress (APC) currently holds a parliamentary majority, faces eight challengers, including main opposition candidate Julius Maada Bio of Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP).
As nationwide campaigning wrapped up Thursday, analysts said that although they expect a tight race, the incumbent has a good chance of being re-elected to a second five-year term
In the capital, Freetown's main stadium was awash in SLPP green as tens of thousands of supporters sang and cheered their candidate to the stage.
"President Ernest Bai Koroma done fail," the former military leader declared before the arena, reiterating his belief that the incumbent has come up short on promises to the nation. "He done fail willfully. One country. Statehouse is not a classroom where we allow failures to repeat."
Bio, who is running on a platform of change that SLPP supporters call "New Direction," is celebrated by constituents as the "father of democracy" for stepping down in 1996, just three months after seizing power in a coup.
The 48-year-old candidate's promise to improve the quality of education and make it free is resonating with supporters such as Ishamel Sama, a 2007 university graduate who has yet to find a job in his field.
"There are a lot of guys that are on the streets begging," he said, touching on just one of several hot issues in this year's election: high youth unemployment, how best to use the country's substantial mineral wealth, and corruption.
"They want to work," he added. "We have a lot of resources, [and] there are people with [lots of] knowledge but don't have the opportunity to express themselves. We are really tired of this government."
'I Will Do More'
APC campaign billboards around the capital feature the incumbent president, arms outstretched, under the slogan, "I Will Do More."
Koroma, whose backers held their last campaign rally in Freetown on Sunday — part of a carefully plotted rotation of political rallies aimed at preventing clashes between riled-up, rival parties — defends his track record on corruption and the economy.
"It has been quite a difficult period, a very difficult navigation to do, but we have succeeded: stabilizing the Leone, restoring confidence in the economy, attracting international investment," the president told reporters on Monday. "And with all of what we have been doing that is positive, I am asking for re-election so that we can continue with this process."
Koroma supporters point to improved roads, electrical infrastructure and a free healthcare initiative for pregnant women, new mothers and young children.
"He took up the bold step, the strides, despite party affiliation, despite tribal affiliation," said Oumo Mayama Sanko, an APC supporter who emphasized progress in the country's less-developed interior. "So he is a man who is not tribalistic. He works for everybody. He's the president of Sierra Leone."
A fierce rivalry
In a place where political allegiance is often based on ethnic and regional identity — often referred to here as "tribalism" — the fierce rivalry between the two main political parties dates back to independence.
It has erupted during previous elections.
Gregory Houel, who leads election observers from the U.S.-based Carter Center, said this year's anti-violence pledge appears to be working.
"We can say with a certain amount of confidence that the campaign period has been much more peaceful across the country, with fewer incidents of violence, fewer clashes between the ruling APC party and the opposition, mainly the SLPP," he said.
Sierra Leone's electoral commission says it has taken steps to ensure the polls are credible, including the training of staff and distribution of posters with drawings and text that illustrate how to vote. Commission spokesman Albert Massaquoi said results will be more announced quickly than in the past.
"These results at local levels, at constituent levels, and at district levels would be announced no sooner than [when] polls are closed," he said. "So, in a couple of days we would expect to have all the results finalized and announced, which would be the final results."
Regardless of educating people how to vote, however, the process, which involves multiple ballots and nearly a dozen steps, worries civil society groups that say it could trip up voters and lead to elevated numbers of null or void votes.
Joe Pemagbi, Sierra Leone director for the Open Society Initiative, said voter education started late.
"It could have started earlier — I wish it had started earlier. That would have really helped the situation," he said, citing the nation's unusually high illiteracy rate. "Unfortunately, sometimes the educated ones also make some of these mistakes."
But for Voters like Sainkudu Mbuya, it's most critical to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
"The ten-year rebel war has affected us so much — the transformation is coming out bit by bit, [so] it will take us time to remove that violence out of us, to love one another," he said. "That is what we are preaching now."
Hoping to pre-empt a worst-case scenario, government officials have taken precautions: Military, police and election-related officials and observers are the only ones allowed on the roads on election
The real test will come with the results, expected by Nov. 26th., when losers must decide whether to accept defeat.
If none of the nine presidential candidates wins a clear majority, a run-off is planned for Dec. 8th.