Voters in Sierra Leone were deciding Saturday whether to give President Julius Maada Bio a second term amid high unemployment and growing concern about the state of the West African nation’s economy.
A dozen candidates hoped to unseat Bio, though experts predicted his main competition likely would be Samura Kamara, the head of the All People’s Congress Party.
In the 2018 presidential election, Bio beat Kamara in a runoff by a margin of less than 5 percentage points. To win in the first round of voting and avoid a runoff, the top contender must secure 55% of the vote.
Bio has faced increasing criticism because of debilitating economic conditions that Kamara pledged to improve. Nearly 60% of Sierra Leone’s population of more than 7 million are facing poverty, with youth unemployment being one of the highest in West Africa.
Deadly anti-government protests have rocked the country during Bio’s presidency. The most recent one, fueled by the high cost of living, left dozens of people dead in August 2022, including members of the security forces.
Margaret Ngegba, a trader in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, said she hoped for a winner “who feels for us and provides our children jobs.”
“Right now, things are so hard that if you buy something today for 25 leones, the next day you go it’s 50,” she said. “Imagine that. How can our businesses survive in this situation? I have to pay rent and I have six children to take care of.”
A former military head of state, Bio came to power promising to end rampant corruption. Analysts say he invested in improving education in the country and took steps to fight rampant corruption. At the beginning of this year, he signed a landmark women’s rights bill.
But the weak economy eventually propelled Sierra Leoneans into the streets to protest widespread poverty.
Kamara, Bio’s strongest challenger, has served in various government positions, including as foreign minister. On the eve of the election, he sharply criticized the incumbent government and called for voters to support him.
“We have one chance, the chance to drive away this difficult regime that has put us through suffering in the last five years and added to our misery,” he said in a video message released by his campaign team.
Saturday’s vote is the country’s fifth presidential election since the end of a brutal 11-year civil war more than two decades ago.
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