Since he became president of the small West African nation of Sierra Leone in 2018, Julius Maada Bio has dedicated 22 percent of the country’s budget to education, a policy that has sent an additional one million children to school and received international praise.
As Sierra Leone goes to the polls on Saturday, he has made that education initiative a key argument for voters to give him a second five-year term.
But the education policy has fallen short for many. And voters have more urgent priorities: soaring inflation, youth unemployment, daily power cuts and relentless heat waves worsened by climate change.
What is at stake in the election?
Although it has only 8.4 million people and is one of the world’s poorest countries, Sierra Leone has gained attention for its new education policy, which if it succeeds, could inspire other countries in Africa and beyond.
But economic matters top most voters’ concerns: The war in Ukraine has driven up fuel and food prices, including for rice, fish and gas.
Year-on-year inflation is above 43 percent, the highest level in two decades. The national currency, the Leone, has had the worst depreciation in sub-Saharan Africa.
“When Sierra Leoneans think they’ve reached the bottom, it gets worse,” said Cyril Jengo, an economist based in Freetown, the capital.
The leading candidates say they plan to address the cost-of-living crisis, but Sierra Leone’s entire economy would need a revamp, analysts say, as it mostly relies on imports and is frequently hit by crises: the Ebola epidemic a decade ago, the coronavirus pandemic and now the ripple effects of the war in Ukraine.
Who are the candidates?
Out of 13 candidates, two have a credible chance of winning: Mr. Bio, the current president, and Samura Kamara, a former government minister.
The election is a rematch: Mr. Bio was elected in 2018 after beating Mr. Kamara by a tight margin.
Mr. Bio, 59, a former military officer who participated in two coups during Sierra Leone’s civil war in the 1990s, briefly ruled the country in 1996 as the head of a military junta. He handed power to a democratically elected president a few months later and went to study in the United States. He returned to Sierra Leone, and ran for president in 2018.
Mr. Bio has vowed to provide free health care to all children going to school, and to promote food self-sufficiency.
Mr. Kamara, 72, is an economist who served as minister of finance and then foreign affairs when his party was in power in the 2010s.
He has made broad promises about economic development, opportunities for youth and the fight against climate change.
In 2021, Mr. Kamara was charged with embezzlement in a case tied to the renovation of Sierra Leone’s consulate in New York while he was foreign minister. Mr. Kamara’s supporters say the case, which is being heard by the Supreme Court, is politically motivated to discredit him. The case was adjourned so that he could run, but a ruling is expected in July.
What is the president’s record?
Through its education reform, Mr. Bio’s government has sought to ban school fees and recruited thousands of new teachers. More than 3.1 million children are now officially in school, up from under two million in 2018.
But many parents still have to pay school fees, and teachers complain that they have not received the salary increase they were promised.
Mr. Bio’s government has also adopted a land-rights policy aimed at protecting local communities against foreign companies seeking to exploit their land. And a new gender-equality policy requires employers to hire women to at least 30 percent of their positions — a minimum that the current government has not reached.
But Mr. Bio has also been criticized for muzzling civil society groups and responding with violence to demonstrations last summer, resulting in more than 25 deaths. And his promises to address the economic crisis and develop agriculture sound hollow to many.
“The poverty is endemic and deepening,” said Jimmy Kandeh, a Sierra Leonean professor emeritus of political science at the University of Richmond in Virginia. “Whether the politics will deliver a change, I don’t think there’s much hope in that.”
When, where and how do people vote?
Some 3.4 million people are registered to vote on Saturday in Sierra Leone’s five administrative areas. They will also elect their members of Parliament, mayor or local chiefs, and local councilors.
Observers from the African Union, the West African economic bloc known as ECOWAS, the European Union and the Carter Center are monitoring the vote. There is no electronic voting.
What do polls predict, and when are results expected?
Polls have Mr. Bio as the favorite.
Presidential candidates must get 55 percent of the vote to win in the first round, and a runoff is likely, according to Mr. Kandeh. Results are expected to be announced by the electoral commission the following week. A runoff would be organized two weeks later.
For the first time, polling officials will send results to a database run by the electoral commission via a dedicated app. Nigeria tested a similar method for the presidential election in February, but the process was plagued with problems, and the results were delayed.
Joseph Johnson contributed research.