The recent Sierra Leone protests

The recent Sierra Leone protests
August 26
20:58 2022

They seemed to happen in a flash. In a matter of hours, as against weeks or months or even years feared by some watchers, the protests that erupted in parts of Sierra Leone two week ago have fizzled out. Some relief and good news for Sierra Leoneans and other lovers of the country, no doubt. There are, however, no justifiable reasons to beats the drums of jubilation immediately as the violence, injuries, destruction of property anddeath of dozens of security personnel and civilians have been replaced by uncertainty andapprehension in many circles.

The demonstrations had innocuous beginnings. Hundreds of female shop owners went out to express their frustrations about the worsening economic conditions in the country and the inability of the government of President Julius Maada Bio to arrest the astronomic inflation that seeks to completely cripple the people’s socio-economic wellbeing. As if waiting for that chance all along to vent their own angst, the crowd swelled spontaneously around the country, a place known for relative peace since the end of the civil war that lasted from 1991 to 2002. Calls for government change were soon added to the list of demands.

Itpromptly became convenient for government officials to frame the resultant mayhem as terrorism. As the nation’s Youth Minister, Mohamed Orman Bangura, put it,“Those people aren’t protesters. There is a difference between protests and riots and acts of terrorism. Protesting is different from acting as a terrorist… going against the state, killing young police officers.”Those conversant with real terrorism would easily dismiss Bangura’s categorisation. From experience,in countries ruled by outright despots and pseudo democrats, where weak institutions are saddled with the maintenance of law and order, government officials often voice such misjudgements as a prelude to crackdown on political opponents. There are now allegations of ethnic cleansingand existence of government-backed killer squads in Sierra Leone. Proving the truth between these claims and the rebuttal that the accusations are politically-motivated is a matter of time.

Without doubt, the nationwide curfew imposed by the government which checkmated this month’s potentially combustible conflicts is a masterstroke but it is doubtful if President Bio’s attempts afterwards to reassure his compatriots of responsible leadership have struck the right chord. Consider these lines from his interview with BBC World News the other day: “We have been conscious of our obligations…human rights, protection for everyone in the country. I have a duty to provide security; to deliver development to the country and I pay attention to that. Little braggarts who attack me on the social media, I never care about them.” That was his direct response to the poser on what he knew about a popular critic of his who was murdered in questionable circumstances. The tone of that television outing revealed someone struggling to supress his hatred for dissent.


It is interesting to note that agitations against deteriorating conditions of living, occasioned largely by disasters with global dimensions like the Covid19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war, have been recorded on various continents and, therefore, not peculiar to Sierra Leone. Sri Lanka, Ecuador, Ghana and others have witnessed violent ones too. Yet, Sierra Leone’s instance cannot be explained away as merely another episode in anear-universal drama of hopelessness and pain. Here is why. In May this year, the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS) and the Economic Community for West African States (ECOWAS) sent a high-powered delegation to Sierra Leone as part of their mandate to prevent crises and also prepare for the general election there next year. Most ofthe findings are enough signals that point to bumpy times ahead.

“The security situation in Sierra Leone is characterised by incidents of criminality, violence, intra and inter party clashes, which are fuelled by the high number of unemployed youths – 70 per cent of the population – who have easy access to cheap drugs,” the report reads in part.“The increased cost of living in Sierra Leone, which has been worsened by the Russia-Ukraine Crisis, has resulted in increased hardship for the population, and there is a likelihood that crime rates, violence and protests might also increase leading up to the 2023 elections.” Not a surprising summation, actually. According to the United Nations Human Development Index, Sierra Leone ranks 182th among the comity of nations, sitting in the midst of the world’s poorest countries. The setback that Ebola brought to it between 2014 and 2016, dwindling commodity prices, trade, investments, not to mention corona virus and the war in Europe, have all conspired to perpetuate this despondent profile.Political brinksmanship in this situation is, clearly, not a luxury but mandatory.

The best place to start from is for the present national administration to win the confidence of all the people of Sierra Leone,citizens of,arguably, one of Africa’s most scenic and naturally endowed countries. That is not happening at the moment, unfortunately. Again, the UNOWAS-ECOWAS paper is unambiguous in its remarks about the nation’s jaundiced pursuit of social justice: “The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) is increasingly perceived as partisan due to persecution of the allegations of corruption mainly concerned with opposition politicians… lack of trust and confidence in the police and security services…. lacking the required competence and training to de-escalate and fairly handle incidences of civil unrest.”


Regrettably, intense, sometimes acrimonious, incumbent-opposition party rivalries are not new to this part of the globe. In Sierra Leone, efforts that appear to give the current government edge over its opponents in the forthcoming polls are underway. For two decades, power has been rotated between the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) and the All People’s Congress (APC). The latter, led by former President Ernest Bai Koroma at the time, gracefully passed the baton to Bio in 2018, an action welcomed in Africa and elsewhere as exemplary. Remarkably, Koroma’s democratic credentials have given him an enviable, well-earned seat among the African Union (AU) and ECOWAS’ heads of delegation to elections in member states and other critical assignments. His latest duty is in Kenya. Bio’s efforts to investigate his predecessor and team as soon as he assumed powerare viewed by many analysts as witch-hunting. The revocation of mining licences, cancellation of the new airport project and halting of other developmental steps taken by Koromaare also regarded as vindictive. Members of the APC have continued to accuse the SLPP-led government of nepotism, undue harassment, biased allocation of resourcesand weaponisation of the judiciary and security agencies.

This sad picture is corroborated by the UNOWAS-ECOWAS viewpoint:“The 2023 general elections are expected to take place in a highly volatile atmosphere with a strong likelihood of clashes between the ruling party, SLPP, using the power of incumbency to secure its position in the presidency, and the opposition APC, which aims to reclaim its control over the government.” Satisfaction with the Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone (ECSL) and the Political Parties Registration Commission (PPRC) is now at its lowest. To compound an already charged atmosphere, the government conducted national census in December last year, contrary to the provisions of relevant statutes, allegedly for constituency re-mapping to favour the SLPP strongholds. International organisations, some of which initially endorsed the scheme, have since withdrawn their support. The world is now presented with arecipe for chaos. The least President Bio should do now isto show true statesmanship and impartiality andalso achieve national tranquillity – Koroma’s loudest legacies- as his country marches towards a critical transition.

Dr Ekpe is a member of THISDAY Editorial Board.


Views expressed by contributors are strictly personal and not of TheCable.


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