Sierra Leone prepares to choose Koroma successor

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Sierra Leone’s President Ernest Bai Koroma

On Wednesday, Sierra Leone decides who will succeed President Ernest Bai Koroma in an election dominated by an economic crisis caused by a collapse in iron ore prices and an Ebola epidemic.

Sixteen candidates are vying for the top job but only four are seen as having a realistic chance of winning.

Among them, All Peoples Congress (APC) candidate Samuel Kamara. An economist by training, Kamara is President Koroma’s hand-picked successor.

Kamara served as the country’s foreign minister until last year when he stepped down to pursue his bid for the presidency under the flag of the ruling party.

Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) briefly led a junta government in 1996. He is running for a second time after losing to Koroma in 2012.

Bio apologized for the conduct of troops who executed more than 20 people after a coup he joined as a young soldier in 1992, and has successfully rehabilitated his image.

The retired brigadier spent time studying in the United States and is known for his outspokenness, calling Chinese infrastructural projects “a sham with no economic and development benefits to the people”.

A civil war in the 1990s, fuelled by conflict diamonds and fought in part by child soldiers, killed tens of thousands of people and wrecked the West African 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 lackluster and many crave a sharp departure from Koroma’s 10-year stint that they say did little to improve ordinary lives.

Former United Nations Under-Secretary Kandeh Yumkella is gaining ground with many of Sierra Leone’s younger voters who seek a break from both the APC and the SLPP

“The country lacks so many things. We need somebody who is going … to prepare for the future, but as for now we are not anywhere (able) to compete with the next phase of the world,” said 28-year-old Jeremiah Bangura.

He spoke at a rally for the newly formed National Grand Coalition where thousands blew whistles and held up pictures of their Yumkella.

Other disenchanted young voters may look elsewhere, raising the possibility that the polls may go to a second round.

Apart from Yumkella, the Coalition for Change (C4C) party, whose candidate is Samuel Sam-Sumana, has also garnered strong support for denouncing both major parties’ records on corruption.

Sierra Leone stands at 179th out of 188 countries on the U.N.’s Human Development Index. A mudslide in the capital Freetown last year killed 500, restarting a debate over unsafe housing in crowded cities.

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