Voters in Sierra Leone will go to the polls today to elect a successor to President Ernest Bai Koroma, who is constitutionally barred from contesting after serving maximum two terms.
Today's elections will be the fourth since the end of the civil war in 2002. Voters will also elect members of the parliament to fill 112 seats in the 124-seater legislature.
The other dozen seats are reserved for Paramount Chief Members of Parliament across the country.
Sixteen candidates, including two women, are standing for the top job but four of them are considered as the front-runners.
Sierra Leone's politics has been dominated by two ruling parties since independence from Britain in 1961. They are the ruling All People's Congress (APC) and Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP).
Ex-foreign minister Samura Kamara, who was anointed by President Koroma among other 28 plus challengers within the APC, will face a tough challenge from SLPP's Julius Maada Bio.
Bio, who briefly ruled as head of a military junta in 1996, is contesting his second election. He lost the 2012 elections to President Koroma.
But two new political parties upset the political dynamics and support bases of the SLPP and APC when they joined the 2018 presidential race.
Former head of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella of National Grand Coalition (NGC), broke away after the SLPP refused to part ways with Bio.
The Coalition for Change's (C4C) presidential aspirant, former vice president Samuel Sam-Sumana, took a large chunk of the APC's northeastern voters after he was sacked by Koroma in 2015.
Although Kamara and Bio stand a realistic chance of winning the election than other contenders, analysts believe that disenchanted young voters, who crave a sharp departure from Koroma's 10-year stint, may look elsewhere.
This raises the possibility that the polls may go to a second round. To win in the first round, a candidate must garner over 55% of valid votes cast.
Election rallies have been loud with reported cases of violence. Major campaign issues include poor state of the economy, chronic youth unemployment, corruption scandals and allegations of dual citizenship. These topics were discussed during a presidential debate on February 15.
A civil war in the 1990s, which killed tens of thousands of people, wrecked the country's economy. An iron ore boom this millennium enabled years of double digit growth after the war, but this was cut short by a 2014 Ebola outbreak and a sharp drop in the price of its vast iron reserves.
The epidemic and the global commodities downturn shrank the country's economy by a fifth in 2015. Since then growth has been slow.
Another campaign issue haunting the ruling APC is extremely high levels of corruption. Audit of the funds set up to fight Ebola, which killed almost 4,000 people between 2014 and 2016, revealed that 5.7 million dollars had not been accounted for.
Some other mega projects of the government, such as the new airport and a toll road linking Freetown to the provinces, were heavily criticized for being too costly.
President Koroma evoked a hidden clause in the constitution that bars Sierra Leoneans holding citizenship of another country from taking public offices.
Critics said this was a bid to get Yumkella off the ballot. The UN diplomat held US citizenship when he registered as a presidential candidate. He had since renounced his American citizenship but still faces a court challenge lodged by the APC.
ECOWAS, AU, UN, EU make joint peace call
Four international election observer missions in Sierra Leone have tasked stakeholders to work towards a peaceful process in today's general elections.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union (AU), the United Nations (UN), and the European Union (EU) in a joint statement said they were following closely and with much interest the upcoming vote.
The statement issued by the four organizations also welcomed the efforts made by the National Electoral Commission for the preparation of the polls and also welcomed the deployment of short- and long-term national and international observer missions.
"We also welcome the commitment expressed by Sierra Leonean stakeholders for the holding of democratic, transparent and credible polls, in line with national and international frameworks", the statement said.
They, however, expressed concerns over the recent incidents of election-related violence and called on all political parties and their leaders to exercise restraint, desist from inflammatory statements, and urge their supporters to refrain from violence.