People wait to cast their vote during Sierra Leone's presidential election in Freetown. Picture: Olivia Acland/Reuters

Freetown - Polls opened in Sierra Leone's elections Wednesday, with long queues of voters waiting to cast their ballots for a new president as Ernest Bai Koroma bows out after a decade.

People turned out early and the atmosphere was calm and peaceful in the capital Freetown.

It is the poverty-stricken West African nation's first general election since it emerged from two major crises: a 2014-16 Ebola outbreak that killed almost 4 000 people and deadly mudslides that buried hundreds of people in 2017.

A total of 16 candidates - including two women - are vying for the presidency. But the poll is expected to be a tight race between Samura Kamara, 67, the candidate of the ruling All People's Congress (APC), and Julius Maada Bio, 53, from the main opposition Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP).

One voter, Musa Kargbo, a recent university graduate who is currently unemployed, told dpa the government should focus on the youth.

"We struggle to get education and on completion we sit without a job. This is not good, I'd like to see the government do something about this," he said.

Another voter and rights activist, Sympsohn Bakayrri Abou Yajoh, said he hopes a new government will "apply robust strategies in the education, health, and agriculture sectors, and engage in civic education."

Kamara is promising continuity and economic recovery, while Bio pledges to end corruption and offer free education.

Koroma, whose two five-year terms in office have been marred by corruption allegations - auditors found that 30 per cent of Ebola funds, or 5.7 million dollars disappeared due to fraud - is constitutionally prohibited from running for a third term.

A candidate needs to receive 55 per cent of the votes to win the election in the first round.

Analysts believe that a run-off between Kamara and Bio will be the most likely outcome, to be held within two weeks after the result of the first round is announced in the coming days.

Sierra Leone's 3.18 million registered voters will also elect 132 parliamentarians between at nearly 15 000 polling stations across the country.

An additional 12 seats are reserved for local chiefs, elected in separate polls.