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.
Some voters began lining up at 2 a.m. in the congested seaside capital of this West African nation, with only bobbing flashlights visible in the darkness as people walked to the polling stations.
"We've been through a lot in the last 20 years. Now we're trying to move forward," said Mannah Kpukumu, 36, a civil servant waiting in a line that snaked around a giant cotton tree before dawn. "We the young guys want employment and to be able to take care of our families."
Early turnout was heavy in downtown Freetown, where voters stood in packed lines with their chests pressed up against the people in front of them. Those not yet old enough to vote weaved through the crowds selling plastic bags of cold water stacked in buckets on their heads.
President Ernest Bai Koroma won office in 2007 on promises to help uplift the diamond-rich nation and sought to reassure voters with campaign signs that read: "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. And they also see hope for Sierra Leone because of several offshore oil discoveries made in the last three years.
The opposition, though, says that more needs to be done and some frustrated voters said they were backing former military leader Julius Maada Bio.
"The economy is down and people are straining. Thousands of people are jobless," said Alfred Coker, 27, as he waited outside a school to vote in downtown Freetown.
Most of the country's nearly 6 million people live on less than $1.25 a day, according to World Bank statistics, and life remains especially difficult for the estimated 2,000 people who were seriously maimed during the war.
Tens of thousands died during the 1991-2002 conflict famously depicted in the film "Blood Diamond." Observers say the upcoming election, though, will mark a critical test as the country seeks to solidify its democratic credentials.
"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 the leading opposition figure 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. This time the country is bearing the sole responsiblity for securing the vote, 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."
Associated Press writer Clarence Roy-Macaulay in Freetown, Sierra Leone contributed to this report.