FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) — Riot police put down skirmishes Wednesday in Sierra Leone’s capital as political tensions mounted after authorities visited the office of the leading opposition candidate.
At least one person was treated for stab wounds following the melee that erupted after an SLPP opposition spokesman said police had come to search the party’s offices without a warrant.
Their candidate, Julius Maada Bio, the man who was defeated in the 2012 election, later went on live television to criticize the move.
“Counting has started and I have phones and laptops which I am using to tally the results of the counting,” he said. “I have established a tallying center in my office which is not against the law of this country. This is a legitimate affair.”
A spokesman for the current president from the ruling APC party denied that authorities were trying to foment unrest.
“The police and the rule of law stay in place,” Abdulai Bayratay later said on the same network. “The APC is not trying to compromise the peace of this country.”
Wednesday’s vote is the fourth since Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war ended in 2002, and the last election in 2012 was largely peaceful.
The presidential field was a crowded one with 16 candidates. The winner will be tasked with helping the country to continue to rebuild after the devastating 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic. The capital also was battered by a deadly mudslide in August that claimed about 1,000 lives.
“I have come to vote for a president who I believe will make a difference to the progress of the country in every aspect of its development,” said Dr. John Konteh, who waited more than hours in line to cast his ballot Wednesday. “I have come to vote for the continuation of what the present government has done,” he said.
Aminata Lukulay, a school teacher who waited in line for three hours, said “as a Sierra Leonean it is my right to vote and I am voting for change in terms of the educational system, job opportunities, and development of the country as a whole.”
Outgoing President Ernest Bai Koroma has said “this is the time for people to vote responsibly and I am willing to hand over to whoever is elected to succeed me.”
The front-runners are Samura Kamara, the incumbent’s pick as successor, and Julius Maada Bio, the man who was defeated in the 2012 election.
The race most likely will go to a second round later in March as observers say it’s unlikely any one candidate will receive 55 percent of the vote.
The incumbent Koroma has served two terms and is barred by the constitution from running again.
Kamara, his hand-picked successor, is largely seen as a favorite after emerging from a crowded field of more than two dozen seeking the ruling APC party’s nomination. He has served as Sierra Leone’s foreign minister, finance minister, as well as governor of the Central Bank of Sierra Leone.
His main challenger is expected to be 53-year-old Bio of the SLPP, a former military leader who received 38 percent of the vote in 2012. Bio ruled Sierra Leone for three months in 1996 after having overthrown his former boss and friend before returning the country to civilian rule.
Some say that divisions within the party over Bio’s running mate and some of the parliamentary candidates could affect his chances.
A third candidate who has emerged with a strong following is Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella, a serious contender to break Sierra Leone’s two-party hegemony. Although his party was launched only three months ago, he has been able to mobilize a disgruntled base as a result of current economic hardship and austerity.
Yumkella, the former director-general of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), has been attracting significant crowds especially in Freetown.
In a bid to get him off the ballot, the ruling party has been trying to enforce a previously ignored citizenship provision of the 1991 constitution. The provision purports to bar Sierra Leoneans with dual citizenship from contesting for parliament and therefore the presidency.
The petition maintains that Yumkella also holds American citizenship.
Other plaintiffs led by presidential candidate Charles Francis Margai, are now challenging the ruling party candidate and maintaining he is ineligible for holding dual British-Sierra Leonean nationality.
The cases have been postponed until later in the month after the election.
Sierra Leone has 3 million registered voters in a population of 7 million.
The youth vote, including those who have turned 18 since the 2012 general elections, are expected to make an impact in this election, with 800,000 voters.
Results are expected within 10 days. If there is a runoff, it is expected two weeks after the declaration of the results.