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Sierra Leone Electorate Centers on Economy, Safety

FILE - Electoral campaign posters are seen ahead of presidential election in Freetown, Sierra Leone June 22, 2023.

FREETOWN — As Sierra Leone's presidential election draws near, the capital Freetown is heavy with both anticipation and trepidation.

Voting will take place on Saturday, with incumbent President Julius Maada Bio seen as the front-runner, despite a tough challenge from Samura Kamara of the opposition All People's Congress​.

Tensions have been unusually high leading up to the election, with violence erupting near the main opposition party's headquarters earlier this week, resulting in at least one death​. The APC party office in the country's second largest city, Bo, was burned down last week by unknown assailants.

Supporters of the ruling Sierra Leone People's Party remain resolute. Agetha Martin, a campaigner for the party, expressed her hope for a peaceful voting day in the face of what she described as opposition provocation.

"We will go into Saturday calmly, we will vote calmly, we will leave calmly, and we’ll return home calmly. That’s the number one thing I want," she said.

Recent violence has had a chilling effect on political discourse. Most self-identified APC voters contacted by Reuters declined to speak on the record, citing fears for their safety. Those who did speak, however, shared a universal concerns for the economy and free speech.

Usman Kargbo, a shopkeeper in central Freetown, voiced his hope for change.

"What I’m thinking and hoping for most is economic change. The economy has to improve - you can’t let it decline," he said.

Kargbo also indicated his willingness to give a chance to the opposition, saying, "I believe I will test Samura Kamara. If he himself isn’t able to fix things, then I will vote against him in the next five years."

These sentiments resonate with the backdrop of frustration over growing economic hardship in one of the world's poorest countries​.

Two days ahead of the poll, Information Minister Mohamed Rahman Swaray encouraged resilience from the business community.

"We understand times are hard. Things are challenging... But we are getting out of the woods. Our currency has started appreciating against the dollar, and in our president’s next term, we are going to embark aggressively on agriculture... We will do a lot more things to ensure people like you are comfortable," he said.

Swaray encouraged APC voters to "not allow themselves to be misused by self-serving and desperate politicians."

Despite ruling party optimism, there's a palpable sense of disillusionment among some citizens. Day labourer Tieh Robert expressed regret for not registering to vote.

"I pledge my vote for somebody who will protect me and give me security. I don’t give you my vote to come and beat me... So for that reason, I thought I would not vote. I didn’t register. But I regret it, because... I’m supposed to be registered so I can vote them out," he said.