FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) — Sierra Leoneans chose Saturday between keeping an incumbent president who has expanded health care and paved roads or electing an opposition candidate to lead this war-scarred nation still recovering a decade later despite its mineral riches.
The election marked the third presidential vote since the West African nation's 11-year conflict ended in 2002, a brutal war during which rebels tortured victims and conscripted child soldiers.
Voters said Saturday they wanted to demonstrate just how far Sierra Leone has come over the past decade by holding a transparent and peaceful vote.
"We've been through a lot in the last 20 years. Now we're trying to move forward," said Mannah Kpukumu, 36, a civil servant waiting in a line that snaked near a giant cotton tree long before dawn. "We the young guys want employment and to be able to take care of our families."
National election officials spread that message through posters afixed to tin shacks and traffic circles throughout the capital of Freetown: "The world is watching us. Let us don't disappoint them."
Election workers slept overnight at polling stations and some voters began lining up at 2 a.m. in the congested seaside capital, with chests pressed up against the people in front of them. Those not yet old enough to vote weaved through the crowds selling plastic bags of cold water stacked in buckets on their heads.
Richard Howitt, chief observer for the European Union election observation mission, said there were bound to be flaws in the process but that early reports indicated a high turnout Saturday.
"What we see is a very happy atmosphere with people enthusiastic to vote," he said.
President Ernest Bai Koroma later cast his vote before screaming fans chanting his name.
"We are also pleased that it has been a peaceful process up to this moment and we hope that it will continue," he told reporters afterward.
Leading opposition candidate and former military leader Julius Maada Bio told reporters at his polling station that he remained "very confident I am going to defeat the president in this very first round."
Koroma won office in 2007 on promises to help uplift the country and sought to reassure voters with campaign signs that read: "I Will Do More."
His supporters point to strides made in the country's health care system through a program offering free medical aid. And they also see hope for Sierra Leone because of several offshore oil discoveries made in the last three years.
Koroma's health care program has proved enormously popular in a country hard hit by cholera earlier this year and that has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world.
At a maternity clinic across the street from one downtown polling station, nurses were voting in shifts.
"I am not a politician, but many mothers are coming here," said midwife Kiptieu Tarawalai, adding that under Koroma's plan the women who come to her clinic only pay for their food and clothing.
Horatio Bundoo Williams, a 34-year-old landlord, said that while he wasn't a fan of the governing party it had earned his vote through their public policy improvements.
"He told us he was going to give us light — he gave us light," Williams said.
However, doubts remain about the long-term feasibility of the health program. The opposition also believes that more needs to be done to promote job creation, and some frustrated voters said they were backing Bio instead.
"The economy is down and people are straining. Thousands of people are jobless," said Alfred Coker, 27, as he waited outside a school to vote in downtown Freetown.
Most of the country's nearly 6 million people live on less than $1.25 a day, according to World Bank statistics, and life remains especially difficult for the estimated 2,000 people who were seriously maimed during the war.
Tens of thousands died during the 1991-2002 conflict famously depicted in the film "Blood Diamond."
Sierra Leone already has successfully held mostly peaceful votes since the end of the war. This time the country is bearing the sole responsibility for securing the vote, even though it is being organized with substantial foreign aid of some 46 percent of the election budget.
"Sierra Leone has experienced 11 years of war and now we want peace. So when the results are finally declared, if the elections are conducted in a free, fair and credible manner, everybody should accept it and cooperate with the government of the day," said Marian Faux, who was voting in Freetown.
Koroma's APC party 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. It's unclear, though, whether he can garner the 55 percent of ballots needed to win outright and avert a runoff.
He faces eight challengers including the leading opposition figure Bio, a retired brigadier-general from the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP). Bio calls himself the "father of democracy" after his brief three-month tenure as head of state in 1996 before handing over power to a democratically elected civilian government.
Bio and his supporters maintain the president has failed to deliver on his 2007 election promises and does not deserve a second term.
Edward Conteh said education is a key concern, especially for the children of war victims who have suffered economic hardships and few opportunities.
In 1999, rebels chopped off his left arm above the elbow with an ax when he tried to return home to collect food for his eight children.
Today, he is a 70-year-old grandfather and worries about a generation of young men without jobs.
"These are the rebels of tomorrow if we don't work to educate them," he says.
Associated Press writer Clarence Roy-Macaulay in Freetown, Sierra Leone contributed to this report.