Voting is underway in Sierra Leone’s tightly contested presidential and parliamentary elections amid a cost-of-living crisis.
Polling stations opened later than the scheduled time of 7am in the capital, Freetown, AFP journalists said on Saturday. They were due to close at 5pm (17:00 GMT).
Some 3.4 million people are registered to vote, 52.4 percent of whom are under 35 years old, according to an electoral commission spokesman.
Thirteen candidates are vying for the presidential post, including incumbent Julius Maada Bio, with a crippling economic crisis, which sparked deadly riots last year, on top of the poll agenda.
Presidential candidates must secure 55 percent of valid votes for a first-round win.
Incumbent Bio’s main challenger is Samura Kamara of the All People’s Congress (APC) party.
Bio, 59, of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), narrowly beat Kamara, who is aged 72, in a run-off in 2018.
Rising food prices
Rising food prices are a key issue for many voters in the import-dependent nation of eight million people.
Year on year inflation hit 43 percent in April, according to the latest official figures.
Both Bio and Kamara told AFP they would prioritise boosting agricultural production.
Boubacar Conteh, 27, from Wellington in the east of Freetown, waited since four in the morning to cast his ballot.
The deeply poor West African nation was battered by a brutal 1991-2002 civil war and the Ebola epidemic a decade later, and further pummelled economically by the COVID pandemic and fallout from the war in Ukraine.
Voters will also elect members of parliament and local councils in a proportional representation system after a last-minute switch from a first-past-the-post system.
Under a recently passed gender act, one-third of all candidates must be women.
A new 11.9 percent vote threshold will make it difficult for independents and minority parties to secure seats in the parliament.
Bio, a former coup leader in the 1990s, has championed education and women’s rights in his first civilian term.
Kamara, a former foreign and finance minister, has lambasted the electoral commission for alleged bias in favour of the ruling party.
He is facing a protracted trial over allegations that he misappropriated public funds as foreign minister, a case he says is politically motivated.
A June 14 poll by the Institute for Governance Reform (IGR), a partner of the pan-African survey group Afrobarometer, forecasts Bio will win 56 percent of the vote, with 43 percent for Kamara.
The elections are being closely followed in West Africa, a region recently dominated by coups and turmoil.
A group of foreign ambassadors on Wednesday issued a joint statement calling for peace following reports of election-related “aggression”.
Security forces clashed with APC supporters on Wednesday in the capital, Freetown.