Sierra Leone Now Calm After Coordinated Series of Attacks

Ernest Koroma, former president of Sierra Leone (file photo).
27 November 2023

Active and retired soldiers allegedly participated in Sunday's attacks in Freetown, but the government says it's too early to tell if it was an attempted coup.

The streets of Sierra Leone's capital Freetown were nearly empty on Monday, with most shops shuttered and school children staying home after a series of attacks, including on a military barrack and an armory.

Security forces were still patroling Freetown's streets and controlling traffic at checkpoints.

"Monday is usually a very busy day," said DW correspondent Murtala Kamara, "but people are still in fear of what will happen next, so they aren't venturing out."

This is despite the government easing a curfew imposed nationwide on Sunday and replacing it with an overnight curfew from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.

In the early hours of Sunday, gunmen tried to break into an armory located at the Wilberforce military barracks, the country's largest, located near the presidential villa. They exchanged fire for several hours with forces loyal to the government.

They also targeted several jails, freeing hundreds of prisoners in what the country's information minister, Chernoh Bah, called a "coordinated set of attacks on major sensitive security and other national installations."

Residents, including DW correspondent Kamara, reported being woken by the noise of sustained gunfire and explosions.

Not yet clear if coup attempt

Information Minister Bah told DW's Africalink program that government forces were able to "repel the assailants," some of whom have been "apprehended and are currently helping our police and security forces with investigations."

President Julius Maada Bio "is in full and complete control of our country," Bah said. "Our security apparatus is functioning, we are increasing our vigilance and the security situation across the country."

The minister declined to say how many people have been detained or to name those who may have been behind the attacks as investigations are carried out.

Active and former military soldiers were among those allegedly involved, the army said in a statement, adding that 13 soldiers loyal to the government had died in the attacks.

While local media is full of conjecture about whether the attacks were a coup attempt, the information minister said there was currently insufficient information to determine whether the intent was to overthrow President Julius Maada Bio.

"It's still a pretty evolving situation, so we're careful not to use a word that we'll may have to walk back on," he said.

Surge of coups in West Africa

In an address to the nation on Sunday, President Bio called on the West African country's political and traditional leaders, as well as civil society, to work to preserve peace.

Echoing language used to condemn past coup attempts, the West Africa bloc ECOWAS spoke of its "utter disgust" over a "plot by certain individuals to acquire arms and disturb the peace and constitutional order."

In a post on X, formerly Twitter, the US embassy in Sierra Leone condemned "the attempted overnight forceful seizure of Wilberforce Barracks and armory. Such actions have no justification."

The attacks deepened political tensions in West and Central Africa, where coups have surged, with eight military takeovers since 2020, including in Niger and Gabon this year, and in Guinea, which borders Sierra Leone.

Opposition, government deal

Only last month, Sierra Leone's main opposition party, the All People's Congress (APC), signed an agreement to end its boycott of the government. The APC had refused to take part in any level of government after contested June elections, which saw Bio reelected for a second term.

"We were all excited when the government was able to reach out to the opposition and the two political parties were able to come together and create a stable parliament," said Ezekiel Duramany-Lakkoh, a public administration expert and a dean at the University of Sierra Leone.

"It means that outside the normal political structure of government and opposition, there are also other stakeholders that we might be dealing with who are not happy with what we are doing," he said.

As to the question of who these other stakeholders might be, Duramany-Lakkoh said it had to be someone capable of a "major security breach," but "it wasn't good to jump to a quick conclusion."

However, he pointed out, having so many coups in the region "gives a lot of incentive or motivation to people who've seen it succeed everywhere, to begin to try and see if it can succeed."

In August, the police arrested a number of soldiers, including senior officers, who were accused of planning to use protests to launch a violent attack against the president.

Soaring cost of living

The political situation in Sierra Leone has been tense since elections held in June. International observers criticized the ballot count for its inconsistencies and lack of transparency following the vote.

In addition, Sierra Leone is suffering from a rapid rise in the cost of living, which has triggered public frustration with Bio and his government.

"It's really tough in Sierra Leone," said Kamara. "People are bitter, life is very, very expensive and people are becoming angry."

Edited by: Louisa Schaefer

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