Ahead of Sierra Leone's presidential elections on June 24th, supporters of the main opposition party, the All People's Congress (APC) gathered in the capital Freetown to protest the country's dire economic situation.
The West African country is preparing for its fifth presidential elections since the end of a brutal civil war there two decades ago. Thirteen people are vying for the top job, however, experts say it will most likely be a tight race between incumbent President Julius Maada Bio and the APC's Samura Kamara.
Bio, who was elected for a first term in 2018, has faced increasing criticism for the country's debilitating economic conditions, with several violent anti-government protests taking place in recent months.
As of April, Sierra Leone, which has one of the world's weakest currencies, saw inflation rise to more than 43% from a high of more than 41% in March. With nearly 60% of the country's population of more than seven million facing poverty and one of the highest rates of youth unemployment in West Africa, public frustration is growing.
The election also comes during a surge of regional political upheaval, with deadly clashes in Senegal as well as military coups in Burkina Faso and Mali. A peaceful vote in Sierra Leone is therefore of even greater importance, say analysts.
“We’ve seen this democratic backsliding in the region. So if Sierra Leone's [presidential] election is free, fair and credible, it could be a bellwether for regional democracy,” says Jamie Hitchen, a political analyst focused on Sierra Leone and an honorary research fellow at the University of Birmingham.
This week's vote will be a reverse of the 2018 presidential elections, when Bio - at the time representing the opposition - faced Kamara - from the then-ruling party. Bio narrowly beat Kamara in a runoff by a margin of less than 5%.
Analysts say that Bio, a former military head of state, has invested in improving education and taken steps to fight rampant corruption in the country. The country ranked 110 on Transparency International's index in 2022, having moved up from 129 when Bio took office. However, the weak economy has eroded trust in the current leader.
Bio's opponent, Kamara, a seasoned politician who served in various government positions including as foreign minister, is currently facing corruption charges of allegedly embezzling public funds from a renovation project in New York during his time as minister. His case is set to be heard in court by mid-July. Kamara is hoping to catapult support by promising to fix the country’s economic woes.
Regardless of who wins the election, the new government will face the same macroeconomic challenges and so "the risk of social unrest" is likely to continue over the near-term, according to Rukmini Sanyal, an analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, a research and analysis division of the Economist Group.
Economic growth is expected to remain slow, bogged down by sluggish global expansion and a rise in domestic inflation, says Sanyal. The mix of soaring inflation, widespread poverty and high unemployment have turned many away from Bio.
“We need someone who can manage the economy because clearly [the president] is unable to, and we are suffering,” said Alpha Kamara, a taxi driver in the capital, Freetown.
Some people, however, say the ruling party has a proven track record, and they are willing to give it more time. “I want to see more development, which is why I am going to vote for Bio," said Mohamed Lamin, a local, “He provided us with free education, built roads, a new airport and many other [projects].”