With Sierra Leone still recovering from a long and bloody civil war, citizens will vote in presidential and parliamentary elections on Saturday.
The elections are viewed as a test of the country's democratic institutions.
After the 11-year-long civil war, which ended in 2002, "political, social and commercial institutions have been rebuilt from virtually nothing", an analyst of the London-based think tank Chatham House says.
Authors of the Pan-African Pambazuka News concur with the importance of progress made, especially "in the area of electoral management," but warn that "legacies of identity politics, violence, corruption and inequality have been – and will continue to be – harder to overcome."
Candidates from eight political parties are running against incumbent President Ernest Bai Koroma, who was elected in 2007. The United Democratic Movement's candidate pulled out from the race with just days to go, reportedly to support Koroma.
Contenders include 58-year-old Julius Madda Bio, the main opposition Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) candidate, who led a military coup that won widespread support in 1996.
If elected, Bio says he will cut rising food prices, invest in the agriculture sector, and undertake a review of Sierra Leone's mining industry. Several international mining companies have sites in the West African country, which has reserves of gold, diamonds, bauxite and iron ore.
Allegations of corruption
Bio is expected to win the youth vote, while Koroma – whose All People's Congress party has its roots in the northern Limba ethnic group – is likely to retain a large body of support, analysts say, despite allegations of corruption surrounding his running mate, Samuel Sam-Sumana.
About 15 000 security personnel will be on duty throughout the country on voting day, and vehicle movements will be severely restricted in the capital Freetown in an effort to secure peace.
Election observers report that the campaign period has taken place without serious incident so far, although 10 people were injured in the north of the country at the end of October, when campaigners clashed with police.
"The campaign period has been generally peaceful," the US-based Carter Centre, which is monitoring the vote alongside observers from the European Union and African Union, said in a statement.
"Sierra Leone emerged from its post-war phase, the role of the security sector as an impartial guarantor of peaceful elections remains essential," it said.
"The elections represent a critical test ... but there are a number of developments that may undermine confidence, including unclaimed voter cards ... and troubling cases of intimidation of women candidates during the parties' primary and nomination periods," the statement said.
There are no women contesting the presidency in the country of 2.5-million voters, although Sierra Leone sees its first female vice presidential candidate, the SLPP's Kadi Sesay, running for office.
Sierra Leone reached a milestone earlier this year in its effort to move on from the brutal civil war, when former Liberian president Charles Taylor was convicted of aiding and abetting war crimes in the country.
Taylor was sentenced to 50 years behind bars by a UN-backed tribunal in The Hague for his part in masterminding the atrocities.
If no candidate wins more than 50% of the votes on Saturday, a second round will be held on December 8.
This year's elections will be the third since Sierra Leone emerged from a civil war that left at least 50 000 people dead and forced 270 000 others to flee. Despite the availability of precious mineral deposits, two-thirds of the nearly 6-million population live on less than one US dollar per day. Transparency International ranks Sierra Leone 134 on its corruption index of 181 countries. – Sapa-dpa