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PoliticsSierra Leone

Sierra Leone presidential election marred by delays, chaos

June 24, 2023

Some polling stations opened several hours late, with local media reporting confusion among crowds of voters. A two-horse race for president emerged between incumbent Julius Maada Bio and opposition leader Samur Kamara.

An elderly woman casts her ballot in Freetown, Sierra Leone on June 24, 2023
Opponents of President Julius Maada Bio have promised to help the country exit its economic crisisImage: John Wessels/AFP/Getty Images

Sierra Leoneans voted on Saturday in a presidential election to decide whether to give incumbent Julius Maada Bio a second term.

Local media and opposition figures said that several stations had opened later than the scheduled 7:00 a.m local time (0700 GMT), leading to chaotic scenes among voters in some areas. Voting was scheduled to close at 5 p.m.

The AFP news agency's correspondents also said that they witnessed some polling stations in the capital Freetown opening later than scheduled.

Amid a crippling economic crisis that sparked deadly riots last year, Bio faced a dozen challengers — 12 men and one woman — though experts predicted a two-horse race between the president and his main rival, Samura Kamara, the head of the All People's Congress party.

A poll last week by the Institute for Governance Reform (IGR), a partner of the pan-African survey group Afrobarometer, forecast that Bio, from the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP), would win 56% of the vote, with 43% for Kamara.

Another poll, by the Sierra Eye magazine and two local research groups, forecast 38% for the incumbent and 25% for his main challenger.

The winner must secure 55% of the vote to avoid a runoff. If a second round is called, it will be the second time that the pair have faced off in a runoff, after a similar battle in 2018.

In Siera Leone, many people vote based on regional allegiances, with those in the south and east usually picking the ruling SLPP while most people from the north and west normally vote for the opposition APC.

During Saturday's poll, voters also elected members of parliament and local councils.

What happened on polling day?

Polling stations opened much later than the scheduled time of 7:00 am in the capital Freetown, AFP journalists said.

Local media said some stations were still yet to open four hours later, describing agitation among some voters, but no reports of violence.

The Cocorioko online newspaper said voting papers were also late to arrive in other areas of the country, especially the northwest.

It published videos showing alleged election malpractices, including ballot stuffing, and said several people were arrested.

SLPP lawmaker Chernor Ramadan Maju Bah complained on Twitter that some voters were being refused a chance to vote, despite carrying valid voter cards.

National Election Watch, a coalition of civil society groups, said in a statement that 84% of polling stations it observed had opened by 8:00 am. However, only 59% of stations in the Freetown area had opened by that time.

Election campaign turned ugly

The election campaign was marred by tensions that led to the cancellation of rallies in the final stages and clashes at an opposition gathering on Wednesday.

Bio and Kamara reported small-scale attacks on their supporters ahead of polling day, with both candidates urging calm.

A group of foreign ambassadors on Wednesday issued a joint statement calling for peace.

There are concerns the tensions could worsen, particularly if no candidate secures a clear majority.

On Friday, 72-year-old Kamara told the Reuters news agency he was concerned about the possibility of vote rigging.

Asked if he would accept the outcome of the vote, he said: "It's not me. The acceptance has to come from the people ... so it is the people we will listen to."

In the previous election, 59-year-old Bio beat Kamara in the runoff by a margin of less than five percentage points.

Voters queue outside a polling station in Freetown, Sierra Leone on June 24, 2023
Reports suggest the elections took place without the small bouts of violence of recent daysImage: John Wessels/AFP/Getty Images

Crippled economy top of voters' minds

Bio has faced increasing criticism over the country's longstanding economic crisis, which his opponent is pledging to fix.

Nearly 60% of Sierra Leone's population of more than 7 million are facing poverty, with youth unemployment being one of the highest in West Africa.

Multiple deadly anti-government protests have rocked the country during Bio's term.

Fueled by a rise in cost of living, the latest protests last August left dozens dead, including security forces.

Inflation soared to its highest level in over 20 years last year, while the national Leone currency slumped 60% in value against the US dollar.

Bio's supporters say the president has invested in improving education and taken steps to fight rampant corruption.

The president's camp blames the economic malaise on external factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

Sierra Leone was also battered by a brutal 1991-2002 civil war and the Ebola epidemic a decade later. 

mm/msh (AFP, AP, Reuters)