By Kemo Cham and/Kristin Palitza, DPA/Freetown
Sierra Leone’s general elections on March 7 will be a head-to-head race between two candidates, the one promising continuity and economic recovery, while the other pledges to end corruption and offer free education.
It is the first general election since the poverty-stricken West African nation emerged from two major crises: a 2014-16 Ebola outbreak that killed almost 4,000 people and deadly mudslides that buried hundreds of people in 2017.
A total of 16 candidates — including two women — are vying for the presidency.
But the poll is expected to be a tight race between Samura Kamara, 67, the candidate of the ruling All People’s Congress
(APC), and Julius Maada Bio, 53, from the main opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP).
Outgoing President Ernest Bai Koroma, whose two five-year terms in office have been marred by corruption allegations — auditors found that 30% of Ebola funds, or $5.7mn disappeared due to fraud — is constitutionally prohibited from running for a third term.
Koroma has hand-picked economist Kamara as the candidate of the ruling APC, which has been in power since Sierra Leone became independent in 1961.
Many voters trust Kamara, who governed the Central Bank between 2007 and 2009, managed a difficult debt cancellation process and boosted the struggling economy after a decade-long civil war (1991-2002) that killed an estimated 70,000 people.
But Kamara is facing a strong political rival in Bio, a military man who played a role in the nation’s 1992 coup and for three months led a junta government in 1996, before overseeing multi-party elections.
In later years, Bio made his mark in United Nations peacekeeping operations in the region, particularly during the bloody civil war in neighbouring Liberia.
Bio, who studied international affairs in the United States, is competing for the presidency for the second time after losing to Koroma in 2012.
His main election pledge is to curb corruption and revamp the country’s failing education system by making primary and secondary education free of charge.
A third candidate, Kandeh Yumkella, 58, could be the one to ultimately sway the poll, depending on how many votes he manages to steal from either of the two top candidates.
Yumkella, whose main campaign promise is to create jobs for young people, leads the National Grand Coalition (NGC), which he formed only three months ago, after breaking away from the SLPP.
The charismatic agricultural economist has been able to garner much support in a short period of time, particularly in the capital, Freetown.
Previously, Yumkella was Sierra Leone’s trade minister and held posts at the UN industrial development organisation and UN energy.
Analysts believe that a run-off between Kamara and Bio will be the most likely outcome of the poll.
“It will be difficult for one candidate to get 55% of the votes required to win in the first round,” independent analyst Mamoud Tarawallie told DPA from Freetown.
“The battle is between Kamara and Bio, with Kamara having a reasonable edge. Yumkella is possibly in a distant third position,” said Tarawallie.
Sierra Leone’s 3.18mn registered voters will also elect 132 parliamentarians.
An additional 12 seats are reserved for local chiefs, elected in separate polls.
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