Close Sierra Leone vote carries high hopes for growth
* President bids for re-election against ex-military rival
* Corruption, ethnic friction still plague W. African state
* Fast-growing economy looks to iron ore, oil development
By Simon Akam and Pascal Fletcher
FREETOWN, Nov 17 (Reuters) - Sierra Leoneans vote on Saturday in elections they hope can propel the small West African state into an era of prosperity based on mining and oil after a decade of difficult recovery from civil war.
The presidential and parliamentary polls, the third held since the end of the 1991-2002 conflict, pit President Ernest Bai Koroma and his ruling All People's Congress (APC) against challenger Julius Maada Bio, a former junta leader who represents the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP).
In an election expected to be close, former insurance executive Koroma, 59, who wrested the presidency from the SLPP in a hotly disputed 2007 vote, is considered the narrow favourite, above Bio, a 48-year-old retired army brigadier who was involved in two military takeovers in the turbulent 1990s.
To win outright, a candidate must gain 55 percent of the vote and the race may well go to a second round.
The elections are being held amid rising expectations that large foreign-run iron ore mining projects and promising oil discoveries can help lift Sierra Leone's 5.5 million people out of still widespread poverty.
"If they get through this successfully, I think it will mark the tipping point from a post-conflict country to a democratically developing one," John Stremlau of the Atlanta-based Carter Center's election observer mission told Reuters.
The vote in the former British colony, whose name signifying "Lion Mountains" was given by Portuguese explorers describing its coastal outline, will be one of the most closely observed in Africa this year by monitors from the European Union, the Commonwealth and the African Union.
More than 2.6 million people are registered to vote in some 9,000 polling stations across the country, from the scruffy, humid coastal capital Freetown to bush-ringed upcountry hamlets.
With rivalry between the APC and the SLPP running high, there are concerns that a close result could ignite violence, although the election campaign saw only minor scuffles.
"Compared with our worst fears, it's been pretty good," said the EU's chief election observer, Richard Howitt.
At stake is the opportunity to oversee millions of dollars of investment in the aid-dependent country's resources that include gold and diamonds, oil and iron ore.
Iron ore shipments by British companies African Minerals and London Mining are expected to buoy the economy to 20 percent growth this year - below original forecasts of over 50 percent but still one of the highest growth rates on the planet.
The projects are seen yielding royalty revenues of between $125 million and $250 million per year by the end of the next administration.
But doubts remain over whether the election winner can root out the graft from Sierra Leone's patronage-driven politics, fairly distribute the mineral wealth and unite the war-scarred society over tribal and political divisions.
In the electoral propaganda battle waged in Freetown's pot-holed streets, APC billboards have sought to emphasise Koroma's performance over the last five years in building new roads, improving the power supply and bringing in foreign investors.
"De Pa Dea Woke (The Father is working)" proclaims one pro-Koroma billboard in the local Krio language, while another assures voters the president's "Action Pass Intention".
Koroma, who promised in 2007 to run the country "like a business", is hoping the momentum of incumbency can give him the edge in Saturday's first round vote.
SLPP posters hail Bio as a "Father of Democracy". His supporters point to his role in handing over to civilian rule more than a decade ago and rebuff accusations from critics who question his military past and democratic credentials.
Although ethnic allegiances still shape Sierra Leone's electoral landscape - Koroma's APC draws support from the Temne and Limba peoples of the north, while the Mende of the south and east traditionally vote SLPP - both candidates face pressure to convert the mineral riches into jobs and improved livelihoods.
"You are seeing a lot more political awareness, people want to know what you can do for them, for the country," said Kelvin Lewis, editor of the independent Awoko daily.
But a strong consensus also exists among voters that Sierra Leone must never be allowed to fall back into the violence of the 1991-2002 war, when the existence of child soldiers, the amputation of captive civilians' limbs, and the role played by 'blood diamonds' in fuelling the conflict gave Sierra Leone unwanted international notoriety.
"The war is finished, no war in this country. We are all brothers and sisters," Tamba Emmerson Ngenda, 46, a disabled polio victim, told Reuters as he watched a noisy march by green-clad Bio supporters through the streets of central Freetown.
British-trained Sierra Leonean soldiers - issued only days before with new camouflage outfits and bush hats - are being deployed to help police keep the peace during Saturday's voting.
In St. George's Cathedral in downtown Freetown, a handwritten sign on the notice-board carries the hopes for a vote unmarred by conflict: "Come One, Come All and join us to pray for successful, non-violent, free, fair, transparent and peaceful general elections ... Amen!!