Voters in Sierra Leone flocked to the polls on Wednesday to pick a new president, with many craving economic change and a boost to living standards in one of the world's poorest countries.
By midday long queues had formed under the boiling sun in the capital, Freetown, as party leaders cast their votes and one party complained of irregularities in the northern provinces.
"So far voting has been peaceful and I'm satisfied with the process," said Julius Maada Bio, presidential candidate for the main opposition Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP).
"I will only accept a free, fair and credible election," he told journalists at the barracks where the former military leader voted.
President Ernest Bai Koroma, who cannot run again after consecutive five-year terms, has anointed former foreign minister Samura Kamara as his successor for the ruling All Peoples Party (APC).
Kamara's running mate Chernor Maju Bah said the vote seemed "well organised" and reports were "all good" as he voted in the capital.
The APC and SLPP have dominated Sierra Leone's politics since independence in 1961.
The export-dependent economy of the mineral-rich but impoverished country is in a dire state following the 2014-16 Ebola crisis and a commodity price slump that has driven away foreign investors.
More than 3.1 million voters are registered for the polls, which were set to close at 6 pm (1800 GMT). Partial tallies are expected within 48 hours and complete results within two weeks.
First-time voter Joseph Kargbo, 18, said his mother had ordered him to vote for the SLPP, which has promised free universal education -- a key campaign issue.
"I just want to have change in our community and government," he told AFP.
"My mum can't pay the school fees, and the SLPP said when they come to power they will make primary and secondary education free," he added, showing off an index finger marked with ink -- proof he had cast his ballot.
The National Grand Coalition (NGC), headed by former UN diplomat Kandeh Yumkella, is challenging the two-party system by appealing to young and better-educated urban voters deemed less likely to vote along regional and ethnic lines.
Its communications chief told AFP around midday it had reported some irregularities to the National Election Commission (NEC).
"So far things are going OK but we are receiving a few reports of incidents," said Julius Spencer.
"There are some areas where there are attempts at double voting and ballot papers missing, notably in Port Loko and Tonkolili," two northern areas known for APC support, he added.
Sierra Leone, battered by a horrific 1991-2002 civil war, is sharply divided along regional lines that overlap with ethnicity.
The APC broadly relies on the Temne and Limba people in its northern strongholds, while the SLPP is more popular in the south with the Mende ethnic group.
"They have huge resources compared to us but we have connected to the people better," Spencer said earlier.
The Institute for Governance Reform (IGR), a Freetown-based think tank, said in a report that voters were showing a "growing willingness... to consider policy proposals over ethnic considerations."
Observers from the African Union, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the European Union and the British Commonwealth are all overseeing voting.
In a joint statement they urged security forces "to demonstrate professionalism and to enforce the law in a neutral and proportional manner," in a country where the police are frequently accused of brutality.
Isolated clashes have been reported between APC and SLPP supporters during the month-long campaign, with minor injuries and material damage.
Some fear a lack of transport to polling stations in rural areas, as Sierra Leone's high court this week upheld a ban on private vehicles circulating on election day, citing national security concerns.
The issue of corruption has dominated the campaign, as Bio is accused of stealing $18 million while heading a junta government in 1996 and Kamara is nicknamed "Mr 10 percent" for allegedly skimming his own fee off government contracts.
The current government is accused of misusing funds meant to rebuild the health system after Ebola, and of failing to address the fallout from a mudslide in August that killed hundreds.
Date created : 2018-03-07