FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) — It was 9 a.m. on May 25, 1998. Borboh Jeff Kamara, 14, was walking to school with classmates when rebels grabbed him, held him down and cut off his fingers, leaving only his thumbs.
Fourteen years later, he and other voters go to the polls Saturday to choose a leader they hope will assure continued peace and finally bring some measure of prosperity to this war-ravaged country that remains among the world’s poorest.
“Life is very, very rough. Poverty is always at our door,” Kamara says. “That’s my prayer each day: God help me to survive and make a good future for my children.”
After his horrible run-in with the rebels in the jungles of northern Sierra Leone in 1998, Kamara survived for days without medical attention. After years of rehabilitation, he learned to write again and became the most educated member of his family.
Now the married father of two young children works as a receptionist in the capital, but many of those wounded during Sierra Leone’s 1991-2002 civil war have not been as successful.
Saturday’s vote – the country’s third presidential election since the end of the war – hinges on which candidate can best uplift this West African country trying to shed its past and benefit from its diamond riches.
A decade after the war’s end, Sierra Leone remains one of the world’s poorest countries. Most of the country’s nearly 6 million people live on less than $1.25 a day, according to the World Bank, and it remains among the deadliest places in the world for women to give birth.
An estimated 2,000 people suffered amputations or were seriously maimed during the war depicted in the film “Blood Diamond.” Many survivors face discrimination and few job prospects, and must resort to begging on the streets of the capital.
Incumbent Ernest Bai Koroma is pointing to his accomplishments during his first term, promising in his campaign signs that “I Will Do More.” It’s unclear, though, whether the leader of the All Peoples Congress (APC) party can garner the 55 percent of ballots needed to avert a runoff.
He faces eight opponents including leading opposition figure Julius Maada Bio, a retired brigadier general from the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP. He calls himself the “father of democracy” after his brief three-month tenure at the country’s helm in 1996.
Among the smaller party candidates is Joshua Carew, who spent nearly four decades in the American state of Iowa before deciding to make a run for national office in his native Sierra Leone.
Koroma was elected in 2007 on a ticket of change, and says he has visibly improved the country’s quality of life. His supporters point to newly paved roads and a government health care reform program that has provided free medical treatment although there are serious concerns about its sustainability.
“There are those who in spite of the progress we are experiencing continue to preach sermons of doom,” he said. “I am asking to be elected again so that I can scale up the gains we have made in just five years and bring prosperity to all Sierra Leoneans.”
But Bio and his supporters maintain the president has failed to deliver and does not deserve a second term.
“This is not a classroom when you are allowed to repeat after you have failed,” he told reporters. “Today the economy of the country is in bad shape. The plight of our youths is very serious and it is not only a developmental issue but a security threat.”
While Sierra Leone’s economic growth has been good, analyst Tom Cargill says “youth unemployment and corruption remain dangerously high.”
“The real issues facing Sierra Leone, particularly around youth unemployment, simply don’t really appear to be being discussed in the way they should be if Sierra Leone is to escape its legacy of conflict,” said Cargill, assistant head of the Africa program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.
Observers say the upcoming election will mark a critical test.
“Peaceful elections resulting in a credible outcome are critical for consolidating Sierra Leone’s hard-won peace and for demonstrating that the tremendous progress the country has made since the end of the hostilities one decade ago is irreversible,” said United Nations spokesman Martin Nesirky.
National election officials are spreading that message through posters on tin shacks and at traffic circles throughout the capital: “The world is watching us. Let us don’t disappoint them.”
Another poster reminds voters: “You have only one Sierra Leone – hold her like an egg.”
The run up to Saturday’s vote has been mostly peaceful, though the two main candidates squared off last month when Bio was accused of obstructing the president’s convoy.
Koroma is expected to draw strong support in the north and in the capital, though he also appears to be making some inroads in traditional opposition strongholds.
Near the provincial capital of Bo, Augustine Pujah, 23, sported a red T-shirt emblazoned with the president’s image. The young man dreams of studying science at a university and leaving his small community of Bevehun. For the time being, though, he and his friends make small change alongside the highway by selling palm wine in a yellow plastic jug.
“It’s all about development,” he says. “The president who comes to our aid is our leader.”
Associated Press writer Clarence Roy-Macaulay contributed to this report.