In Sierra Leone, a presidential election is under tension

The incumbent President of Sierra Leone and former retired soldier, Julius Maada Bio, candidate of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) will on Saturday seek re-election for a second term against his technocrat rival Samura Kamara, leader of the All People’s Congress (APC).

Sierra Leoneans go to the polls on Saturday, June 24, to elect their president, with outgoing head of state Julius Maada Bio seeking a second term in difficult economic times.

Around 3.4 million people are invited to choose between 13 candidates. The offices opened at 7.00 (local and GMT) and closes at 17.00.

This presidential election is the 2018 rematch between the 59-year-old retired soldier and his technocrat rival Samura Kamara, 72, leader of the All People’s Congress (APC). Julius Maada Bio, candidate of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), won in the second round with 51.8% of the vote.

Since then he has had to rule one of the poorest countries on the planet, hard hit by Covid-19 and then the war in Ukraine. The former British colony was already struggling to recover from a bloody civil war (1991-2002) and the Ebola epidemic (2014-2016).

Inflation and irritation with the government sparked riots in August 2022 that left 27 civilians and six police officers dead.

Julius Maada Bio has fought for education and women’s rights. He told AFP he would prioritize agriculture and reduce his country’s dependence on food imports for a second term.

Cost of living

His main opponent, Samura Kamara, finance minister and then foreign minister before the arrival of Julius Maada Bio in 2018, intends to restore confidence in national economic institutions and attract foreign investors, he told AFP.

Sierra Leoneans will elect their parliament and local councils at the same time. According to a new law, one third of the candidates must be women.

The high cost of living is the common concern of a very large majority of Sierra Leoneans. The prices of raw materials such as rice have risen sharply. Inflation in March was 41.5% over a year.

“People are struggling even to afford three meals a day,” said a 19-year-old from the Cockle Bay slum in Freetown, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “In addition, the government is violating our basic rights, starting with freedom of speech,” he adds.

After decades of unrest, coups and authoritarian rule, Sierra Leone has elected its president since the late 1990s.

Julius Maada Bio was himself a member of a group of officers who took power by force in 1992 and in 1996 led a new putsch, after which he organized free elections before leaving for the United States.

Risk of violence

Rights defenders continue to condemn serious abuses, including by the government or on behalf of the government. The opening in February of a corruption trial against Samura Kamara just after his nomination as the APC candidate has raised questions.

The outgoing mayor of the capital, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, a popular member of the APC and candidate for re-election, has also had a run-in with the law.

However, analysts point out that a large part of Sierra Leoneans should be determined much more by regional affiliations than by the price of food or respect for rights, and will calculate that money and work will go to the regions whose representatives will be associated with the winner of ​the presidential election.

The risk of violence is one of the unknowns, although the landscape was calmer than on previous occasions in Freetown, where clashes between security forces and APC supporters broke out on Wednesday.

Macksood Gibril Sesay, a former member of the electoral commission, said he was concerned that after the August 2022 riots there was “no healing process”. “Everybody knows that elections are a time when all it takes is a spark for chaos everywhere,” he said.

Misinformation abounds on both sides, and social networks should exert an influence like they never had before. About three million people now have Internet access, up from just 370,000 in 2018, Information Minister Mohamed Rahman Swaray said.

With AFP

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