Freetown - Tens of thousands of opposition supporters gathered in Freetown on Thursday as campaigning wrapped up ahead of weekend elections which are seen as a key test of Sierra Leone's post-war recovery.
Wearing party colours of green and white, supporters of former military leader Julius Maada Bio from the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) weaved through the streets blaring vuvuzelas from the backs of motorcycles, on foot or in overloaded cars.
Over 50 000 people crammed into the city's main stadium for an address by President Ernest Koroma's main adversary, who vowed that his party would not accept “another dirty election”.
In 2007 the party cried foul when the national electoral body invalidated results from 477 polling stations where more ballots were cast than there were registered voters. Observers said this would not have altered the outcome.
“In 2007 we lost a very controversial election... The SLPP in 2012 is back stronger than ever,” Bio told a fervent crowd of mostly youth supporters.
“I want to assure you, a clean election is going to bring victory to the SLPP.”
The incumbent is seen as the favourite to win, but analysts warn Bio's support has been underestimated and that it could be a tight race, likely to go to a run-off.
Bio has campaigned hard on the slogan of “One Country, One People”, as both leading parties bid to cut across a traditionally factionalised political system where voting is very much along regional and ethnic lines.
His manifesto promises free education, gender equity and universal healthcare insurance.
The ruling All People's Congress (APC) held its final rally on Sunday, and is equally positive of victory. Government communications director Unisa Sesay told AFP in an interview that the party foresees a first round victory of 65 percent.
Koroma who is seeking a second term in office after the APC ousted the SLPP at the polls in 2007 is credited with ushering in investment, overseeing a construction boom, road resurfacing and improving electricity.
However his detractors say life in the mineral-rich, but deeply poor nation, has not improved for many a decade after the end of an 11-year civil war known for the brutality of rebels fuelled by sales of “blood diamonds”.
“The majority of the people in this country are suffering,” said Mohamed Jango, 43, who works in an advertising agency.
“It's not only roads that we are going to eat in the country... not everyone is going to gain from electricity or roads, not everyone has vehicles.”
Ibrahima Ba, 28, said the improvements under Koroma were “just cosmetic things”.
Rather, he and other SLPP supporters praise Bio, 48 as the country's “father of democracy” for leading a peaceful transition to democratic power during a brief stint at the head of a military junta in 1996.
In the football-mad nation, opposition supporters blew whistles while holding up red cards indicating it was time for Koroma to get off the field, saying Bio was “the coach come to coach Sierra Leone politics”.
Sesay told AFP that through its infrastructure drive and investments, the state was “creating the environment for people to earn their living”.
“Resources have increased significantly in this country - they are going to increase even more with oil and gas coming,” he said, adding that these additional funds would enable government to “finish its projects”.
Rich in diamonds, gold, iron-ore and rutile, Sierra Leone is expecting a massive windfall from its resources in coming years, raising the stakes for whoever lands in government and concerns for the management of this wealth.
Some 2.6 million people have registered to vote in the presidential, parliamentary and local elections on Saturday. Eight parties are competing for the presidency and ten will take part in parliamentary polls.
Its violent past still fresh in the minds of many, both parties are at pains to encourage peace amongst their supporters, and the campaign has largely been peaceful. - Sapa-AFP