FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) — A decade after Sierra Leone's brutal civil war, voters on Saturday chose between an incumbent president who has provided new roads and free health care and a field of opposition candidates who decry the poverty and pace of economic recovery.
Many voters rose before dawn to line up at polling stations in the congested seaside capital of this bustling West African nation, where motorcycles dart between bumper-to-bumper traffic on sodden, gutted roads.
President Ernest Bai Koroma won office in 2007 on promises to battle corruption and help the diamond-rich West African nation develop and is reassuring voters with signs that say: "I Will Do More."
His supporters especially point to strides made in the country's health care system through a program offering free medical aid. They also see hope for Sierra Leone in several offshore oil discoveries made in the last three years.
Yet many abroad still associate the nation with the images of double amputees attacked by rebels during a war that ultimately left tens of thousands dead before its end in 2002.
And today there are an estimated 2,000 people throughout the country who were seriously maimed during the vicious conflict famously depicted in the film "Blood Diamond."
Most of the country's nearly 6 million people live on less than $1.25 a day, according to World Bank statistics, and the country's war wounded especially face discrimination and few work prospects.
"Peaceful elections resulting in a credible outcome are critical for consolidating Sierra Leone's hard-won peace and for demonstrating that the tremendous progress the country has made since the end of the hostilities one decade ago is irreversible," said U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky.
Koroma's APC party is expected to draw strong support in the north and in the capital, though he also appears to be making some inroads in traditonal opposition strongholds. It's unclear, though, whether he can garner the 55 percent of ballots needed to win outright and avert a runoff.
He faces eight challengers including leading opposition figure Julius Maada Bio, a retired brigadier-general from the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) who calls himself the "father of democracy" after his brief three-month tenure as head of state in 1996 before handing over power to a democratically elected civilian government.
"There are those who in spite of the progress we are experiencing continue to preach sermons of doom," Koroma said. "I am asking to be elected again so that I can scale up the gains we have made in just five years and bring prosperity to all Sierra Leoneans."
Bio and his supporters maintain the president has failed to deliver on his 2007 election promises and does not deserve a second term.
"This is not a classroom when you are allowed to repeat after you have failed," he told reporters. "Today the economy of the country is in bad shape. The plight of our youths is very serious and it is not only a developmental issue but a security threat."
Sierra Leone already has successfully held several mostly peaceful votes since the end of the war, which left tens of thousands dead. Observers say the upcoming election, though, will mark a critical test as the country seeks to solidify its democratic credentials.
The country is bearing the sole responsiblity for securing the vote this time, even though it is being organized with substantial foreign aid of some 46 percent of the election budget.
National election officials are spreading a message of nonviolence through posters afixed to tin shacks and traffic circles throughout the capital: "The world is watching us. Let us don't disappoint them."
Another poster reminds voters: "You have only one Sierra Leone — hold her like an egg."