Sierra Leoneans are voting in a weekend election. Eleven years after the end of a civil war, the poll is a test of their country's democratic institutions as it faces huge challenges.
Freetown is a green city – at least for one day. Thousands of supporters for the main opposition SLPP party gather in front of its headquarters. Not only are their T-shirts green, their faces have been painted in the party's distinct color. Everywhere palm fronds, the insignia of the country's biggest opposition party, protrude from the sea of people. The message is clear, "for a new direction," one of the meter-high candidate posters reads, under it, the face of its top candidate, Julius Madaa Bio.
There is a party atmosphere. Bottles of whiskey and rum are being passed around, everywhere street-vendors offer alcohol in plastic cups. The air in the city is muggy, sweat beads roll down the brows of those dancing. "I'm voting for Madaa Bio," screeches a woman from behind a large pair of sunglasses. "We want the SLPP to control the economy. A bag of rice should be 60,000 Leones (10 euros, $12), just like before." A man next to her agrees, "this country has an abundance of natural resources. And our economy is going down the drain!"
More jobs for young people
SLPP general secretary Sulaiman Banja Teja-Sie sits at his desk in his office at the green painted headquarters making last minute preparations for the election rally. Behind him, on the wall, hang two posters from US President Barak Obama's 2008 campaign. "Yes, we can!" they proclaim. When asked to list the shortcomings of the current president Ernest Bai Koroma, the wiry man with fashionable black glasses leans forward.
"He made infrastructural development his first priority, at a time when it should have been youth employment," said Tejan-Sie. Around 60 percent of young adults in Sierra Leone are without work. The problem has huge consequences because this age group makes up the majority of the population. Observers see the high rate of youth unemployment as a looming security risk for Sierra Leone.
80 percent live below the poverty line
The SLPP promises more of everything, including more money for public schools and hospitals, Tejan-Sie said. The general secretary omits to mention that when his party was in power from 2002 to 2007, it, too, failed to solve Sierra Leone's problems.
The challenges the country faces just a decade after the end of the civil are daunting.. Four out of five live below the poverty line. Life expectancy averages just 48 years. Nearly 60 percent of the population cannot read or write.
It is still going to be a tight race. As the green sea of SLPP supporters leaves the square in front of the party headquarters, they head towards the central shopping area. Many of the hawkers there support President Ernest Bai Koroma's ruling APC party. Red is the dominant color here and the president is held in high esteem.
"We have electricity now and good roads. The president has worked hard for the country and that's why we like him," says one vendor seated next to a wooden table full of electric cables, light bulbs and sockets. "We are pleased with all the development projects across the country," says another.
Darling of the international community
President Ernest Bai Koroma is not only a favorite amongst street vendors, he is also a darling of the international community. His 'agenda for change' meets donor expectations. In the last five years, he has concentrated primarily on implementing a liberal economic policy. Investors are plentiful, natural resources like diamonds, bauxite and fertile farmland abound. Those who bring money into the country receive preferntial treatment. Overseas investors are exempt from tax for the first ten years.There is no ceiling on the profits they can transfer out of the country.
Yet the ruling party concedes it was too generous to foreign investors in some areas. The party now wants to ensure that more Sierra Leoneans are employed by the international firms, who, more often than not, bring their own labour with them when they arrive in the country. Nevertheless staff at APC party headquarters believe they have been pursuing the right policies, even though the unemployment rate remains stubbornly high.
'Private sector provides jobs for the people'
Cornelius Derveaux is the editor-in-chief of the APC party newspaper.
"No government in the world can create jobs," he says." That is the job of the private sector. We are trying to create a private sector environment that will attract foreign investors."
But it is not that easy. There are growing protests against foreign investors in some parts of the country, with demonstrators complaining about the expropriation of large tracts of land, or the poor wages paid to Sierra Leonean workers.
International observers say there are not expecting any great changes, irrespective of who wins the race, Maada Bio or Koroma .But the challenges the winning candidate faces are still enormous.