Julius Maada Bio, presidential candidate for the Sierra Leone People's Party, addresses his supporters during an election rally in the town of Moyamba in the southern province of Sierra Leone.

Freetown -

Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) is an ex-military leader who despite a slightly murky past has scored significant support in his bid to oust P1resident Ernest Koroma at the polls.

The 48-year-old presidential candidate is seen as somewhat aloof but describes himself as “cool and charismatic”, crediting himself with leading Sierra Leone to democracy during its troubled years of conflict.

Maada Bio was among group of young soldiers led by 25-year-old Valentine Strasser who in 1992 ousted Joseph Momoh's repressive regime, blamed with creating the conditions which led to the outbreak of the war a year earlier.

In 1996, as divisions rose within the junta, Bio staged a palace coup, ousting Strasser and winning kudos from the international community for relinquishing power to the democratically-elected government of Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.

Bio's detractors say his reputation was tarnished by events such as the 1992 massacre of 26 alleged coup plotters by the junta he was part of.

But the married father of four who describes himself as “mild mannered and soft-spoken” claims he helped turn the country around.

“Although he has a slightly murky past a lot of Sierra Leoneans generally believe he was a fundamental figure in the transfer to democracy,” said analyst Jonathan Bhalla of the London-based Africa Research Institute.

Observers say Bio's support has been underestimated.

In September 2011 while conducting a tour of the country, tens of thousands poured out in his support.

In the southern city of Bo, his visit prompted clashes with supporters of his Koroma's All People's Congress (APC) who stoned his convoy, a government inquiry found, prompting riots in which one was killed and 23 wounded including Bio himself who was hit with a rock to the head.

“Bio has significant support, mainly from the traditional strongholds of his party in the south and east of the country but also in the large urban areas of Freetown, Makeni and Kono,” said Lansana Gberie, author of 'A Dirty War in West Africa'.

The SLPP's 'New Direction for Sierra Leone' manifesto seeks to establish a special youth development fund, investment in quality education, universal health insurance and to reduce the country's heavy reliance on foreign aid.

“Where President Koroma fails to act to end corruption in this country, I shall act,” he vows.

He also wants to give women 30 percent representation in government.

Bio was born in 1964 in the Bonthe District. He joined the army, graduating in 1987 and later served in the west African bloc ECOWAS Peacekeeping Force (ECOMOG) in neighbouring Liberia.

After the 1992 coup he served as minister of information and broadcasting.

Following the transition to democracy in 1996 he left the country and earned a masters degree from the School of International Service at the American University in Washington in the United States.

According to his website Bio has the “youth, coolness, charisma, vibrancy, education, experience and hindsight to wrestle the presidency from the APC in 2012”. - Sapa-AFP