By Umaru Fofana
FREETOWN (Reuters) – Voters across Sierra Leone stayed glued to their radios and TVs deep into the night as candidates vying for the presidency of the West African nation faced off in the first ever debate to feature all the main candidates.
Hundreds packed into a conference centre in the capital Freetown where six candidates answered questions for three hours about the direction of a country still trying to bounce back from years of civil war and a devastating Ebola outbreak.
“I am happy I attended this history-making event. I did not have a candidate coming here today, but I think I now know who to vote for,” said an audience member and university student who gave her name only as Isata.
The first round of the presidential poll is scheduled for March 7.
Candidates from the parties of the outgoing presidents have historically declined to participate in debates. But this year’s race is considered wide-open with term-limited President Ernest Bai Koroma due to step down following a 10-year tenure that left many Sierra Leoneans dissatisfied with the country’s progress.
The debate was broadcast by dozens of television and radio networks and carried on until nearly 1 a.m. (0100 GMT) Friday. Samura Kamara, the candidate of the ruling APC party, attempted to distance himself from parts of Koroma’s record on corruption and education.
Six of the 16 candidates in the election met the minimum requirement – that their parties’ field parliamentary candidates in 25 percent of constituencies – to participate in the debate.
Along with Kamara, front-runners include former U.N. Under-Secretary-General Kandeh Yumkella and Julius Maada Bio, who ruled Sierra Leone at the head of a military junta in 1996.
“What is lacking is the political will. I will bring in discipline, which forms part of my background,” Bio said during one exchange about rampant corruption.
After it was engulfed by a brutal civil war for much of the 1990s, the country’s dreams of an economic boom fuelled by mining proceeds were dashed by a 2008 commodities crash.
It was then hit by the deadliest Ebola epidemic in history, which killed some 4,000 Sierra Leoneans in 2014 and 2015.
Many citizens complain that not enough has been done to revive the country’s fortunes in the wake of the duel crises and have high expectations for the new president.
“We pray that God will give us the right leader that will help the country,” said voter Edna Johnson after the debate.
(Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Aaron Ross)