Sierra Leoneans began voting Saturday in fiercely contested presidential and parliamentary elections amid a cost-of-living crisis that helped spark deadly riots last year.
Voting, due to end at 5.00 pm GMT, got off to a late start at Wilberforce Barracks, a voting centre in the capital Freetown.
Some 3.4 million people are expected to choose between 13 candidates vying for the presidency, including incumbent Julius Maada Bio.
This general election is the 2018 rematch between the 59-year-old retired military officer and his technocrat rival Samura Kamara, 72, leader of the All People's Congress.
Mr. Bio, the candidate of the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP), had won in the second round with 51.8% of the votes.
Since then, Mr Bio has had to govern a country battling poverty, hard hit by Covid-19 then the war in Ukraine.
The mineral rich nation was already struggling to recover from a bloody civil war and the Ebola epidemic.
Inflation and exasperation with the government led to riots in August 2022 that killed 27 civilians and six police officers.
The risk of violence is quite present, although the campaign has been calmer than on previous occasions in Freetown.
Local authorities and celebrities have called for peaceful elections regardless of the results.
High cost of living
Mr Bio has championed education and women's rights. He told AFP that he would prioritise agriculture and reduce his country's dependence on food imports during a second term.
His main opponent, Samura Kamara, Minister of Finance and then of Foreign Affairs before Mr Bio took office in 2018, intends to restore confidence in the country's economic institutions and attract foreign investors, he told AFP.
A candidate needs 55% of valid votes to be elected in the first round.
Sierra Leoneans will elect their parliament and local councils at the same time. Under a new law, a third of the candidates must be women.
The high cost of living is a common concern for the vast majority of Sierra Leoneans. Prices of basic commodities such as rice have soared. In March, inflation stood at 41.5% year-on-year.
"People are finding it very difficult to afford even three meals a day", said a 19-year-old man from the Cockle Bay slum in Freetown, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"What's more, the government is violating our fundamental rights, starting with freedom of expression", he said.
After decades of unrest, coups and authoritarian rule, Sierra Leone has been electing its president since the late 1990s.
Mr. Bio himself was a member of a group of officers who seized power by force in 1992 and led a new putsch in 1996, following which he organised free elections before leaving for the United States.
Clashes in Freetown
Rights defenders denounced the persistence of serious abuses, including by or on behalf of the government. The opening in February of a corruption trial against Samura Kamara just after his nomination as APC candidate raised questions.
The outgoing mayor of the capital, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, a popular APC member and candidate for re-election, has also had a run-in with the law.
Analysts point out, however, that a large proportion of Sierra Leoneans are likely to make up their minds much more on regional allegiances than on the price of food or respect for rights, and will calculate that money and work will go to the regions whose representatives will be associated with the winner of the presidential election.
The risk of violence is one of the unknowns, although the campaign has been calmer than on previous occasions in Freetown, where clashes broke out on Wednesday between security forces and APC supporters.
Macksood Gibril Sesay, a former member of the Electoral Commission, said he was concerned that after the riots in August 2022, there had been "no healing process". "Everyone knows that elections are a time when all it takes is one spark for chaos to break out everywhere", he says.
Disinformation abounds on both sides, and social networks are the place to be.
Disinformation abounds on both sides, and social networks are expected to exert an influence they have never had before.
Around three million people now have access to the internet, compared with just 370,000 in 2018, according to Information Minister Mohamed Rahman Swaray.