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NIAS Africa Weekly #91 | Failed coup in Sierra Leone

  NIAS Africa Team

Africa Weekly #91 Vol. 2, No.45
5 December

Sierra Leone: A failed coup
Anu Maria Joseph

On 27 November, BBC Africa reported that at least 19 people including 13 soldiers were killed during the violence that happened on 26 November, A group of armed men attacked military barracks and prisons releasing several inmates. 

On 26 November, a Reuters journalist who witnessed the violence heard one of the perpetrators chanting: "We'll clean this society. We know what we are up to. We are not after any ordinary civilians who should go about their normal business." 

On 28 November, Minister of Information and Civic Education Chernoh Bah stated: "The incident was a failed attempted coup. The intention was to illegally subvert and overthrow a democratically elected government.” He claimed that several current and former security officials who were involved in the violence were arrested. Sierra Leone President Julius Maada Bio stated: "We will ensure that those responsible are held accountable. As your commander-in-chief, I want to assure everybody who is resident in Sierra Leone that we have overcome this challenge." 

Following the violence, a nine-hour curfew was imposed, which was revoked at a later stage.

The US, the EU, the UK and ECOWAS condemned the violence. ECOWAS described the violence as an attempt by certain individuals to "acquire arms and disturb constitutional order" and emphasised “its zero tolerance for unconstitutional change of government.” The bloc further stated: "ECOWAS further underscores its commitment to supporting the government and people of Sierra Leone to deepen democracy and good governance, consolidate peace and security as well as foster socio-economic development.”
The US embassy in Sierra Leone condemning the violence, asserted its support for “a peaceful, democratic, and prosperous Sierra Leone.”

Sierra Leone’s political crisis
Sierra Leone became independent in 1961. However, the post-independence period was challenged by a series of coups and a civil war. The civil war which started in 1991 was between the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) led by army corporal Foday Sankoh and several military and democratic regimes that came in between. In 2003, the civil war ended with the assistance of a UN peacekeeping mission. The country continues to struggle with the effects of civil war.

Major triggers behind the coup attempt
1. The controversial elections. Since the controversial elections in June, Sierra Leone has been challenged by a series of political drawbacks. President Julius Maada Bio was re-elected for a second term in June after securing 56 per cent of votes, narrowly avoiding a run-off. International observers including the European Union Election Observation Mission Sierra Leone 2023 (EUEOM) had raised concerns regarding the transparency of the elections. The head of the US-based Carter Centre’s election observer team, Cameron Hume, also confirmed inconsistencies during the ballot count. The main opposition All People’s Congress (APC) party boycotted the presidential, legislative and local elections citing similar accusations. APC alleged that their electoral agents were not allowed to verify the vote counting. Instances of intimidation and violence were reported during the elections. One of the APC supporters was killed in a clash when security forces tried to disband the crowd at the APC headquarters in Freetown. Besides, there was a coup attempt in August. Several people including senior military officials and a former chief of police were arrested following the coup plot which the government described as an attempt to “undermine the peace and tranquillity of the state.” 

2. The political divide within and between. Socially, multiple ethnic and tribal groups co-exist peacefully in the country. However, politics is deeply divided socially and institutionally. Ethnic identities are often leveraged for political power. The northern-based APC often ties with the Temne community which represents 35 per cent of the population and the southern-based Sierra Leone’s People Party (SLPP) is associated with the Mende community which is 31 per cent of the population. The divide is in such a way that the population supporting the ruling party tends to have access to more influence and opportunities. Even the military forces are politically divided within, wherein promotions, retirement and transfer depend on whether they are affiliated with the ruling or the opposition party. Although Sierra Leone has a constitutionally de jure judiciary, there is hardly any case was judged against the ruling government and its political interests.

3. Economic discontent. Julius Maada came to power in 2018 promising to address the economic crisis and corruption. However, according to the UNDP, nearly 60 per cent of the population lives in poverty. According to Trading Economics, in September, the inflation in the country was recorded to be nearly 58 per cent, the highest recorded since 1998. An economy that depends on imports for consumer goods has a higher inflation rate often caused by external economic shocks. Economic instability is coupled with vast unemployment. At least 20 people were killed in anti-government protests in August 2022 that were against the worsening economic crisis and the failure of the government to address the rising cost of living.

A popular narrative is that the coup attempt was influenced by the series of coups in the region. Other West African countries including Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Gabon recently witnessed coups owing to multifaceted insurgency and insecurity issues and the military upper hand. Unlike them, the coup attempt in Sierra Leone was merely politically motivated. It implies how Sierra Leone’s state institutions are politically divided. And, how elections represent a shift of influence and opportunities rather than a political shift. While half of the population is discontent with Bio’s administration, more similar attempts for a coup are likely to happen considering the fact that last year Sierra Leone had three failed coup attempts. 

(This commentary has been previously published as part of the NIAS-IPRI-KAS Conflict Weekly.)

28 November - 4 December
Anu Maria Joseph and Narmatha S

United Arab Emirates is accused of providing support to RSF
On 28 November, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) accused the United Arab Emirates (UAE) of providing support to the Rapid Support Forces (RAF). It stated that the UAE was involved in the war, supplying war materials to the RSF. In a video circulated by Reuters, General Yaasir al- Attah stated that they have information from military intelligence that the UAE is sending planes to support the militants. He added that the UAE is supplying RSF through Uganda, Central African Republic, Chad and then to Sudan. The UAE responded: "UAE has consistently called for de-escalation, a ceasefire and the initiation of diplomatic dialogue in Sudan.” ("Sudanese general accuses UAE of supplying paramilitary RSF," Reuters, 28 November 2023)

UN terminates mission in Sudan
On 1 December, the UN Security Council voted to end its mission, UNITMAS, in the war-torn Sudan. 14 members voted to end the mission while Russia abstained. The mission would come to an end on 3 December. The Sudan military government stated that the mission failed to reach its objectives. DiCarlo, UN Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, stated: “The Security Council just voted to close down UNITAMS, but the UN is not abandoning the Sudanese people.” UNITAMS was established in June 2020 to support the country in a 12-month transition towards a civilian government. Its mandate was extended in 2021 and 2022. (“Security Council agrees to terminate UN mission in Sudan,” The United Nations, 1 December 2023)

Authorities blame the armed group for the casualties
On 2 December, Ethiopian officials accused Oromia of being attacked by the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) which resulted in the death of many civilians. The largest and the populous Oromia region of Ethiopia was under attack 11 days after the peace talks in Tanzania. Tanzania served as the buffer zone for the peaceful talks between Ethiopian officials and the OLA. However, this peace talk ended without agreement. At least 36 people were killed after unidentified attackers struck three villages in Oromia's Shirka district on November 24 and 27. (“Ethiopia's Oromiya region accuses Ola rebels of killing 'many' people,” Time of India, 2 December 2023)

Death toll due to floods rises to 110
On 4 August, BBC Africa quoted the UN OCHA that the death toll due to the ongoing floods in Somalia has risen to 110. According to OCHA, more than one million people have been displaced and nearly 2.4 million people are affected due to the calamity. The agency has warned of the risk of the spread of several diseases including cholera in the states of Hirshabelle and Galmudug. Somalia and neighbouring countries of Kenya and Ethiopia have been experiencing heavy rains for the past week causing widespread casualties and displacement. According to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), the floods are caused by the El Niño weather phenomenon causing extreme weather patterns. (“Somalia floods death toll rises to 110 - UN,” BBC, 4 August 2023)

11 workers die in a platinum mine accident
On 28 November, BBC reported that a dozen workers died and around 75 members were injured as a lift collided in a Platinum mine. Impala Platinum Chief Executive, Nico Muller, described it as the "darkest day" in the company's history. South Africa has several deepest mines in the world. The accident took place when the winding rope connected to the cage-like lift carrying workers up and down to the mine started to move downwards unexpectedly. Impala Platinum stated that operations at the mine have been suspended. The officials added that it will extend its support to the families of their workers who died in service. In 2023, a South African mine accident resulted in the death of 60 People. (“Sudden lift plunge at South African mine kills 11,” BBC, 28 November 2023)

Another coup attempt says Guinea-Bissau’s President
On 2 December, Guinea-Bissau's President, Umaro Sissoco Embalo, who arrived in the country after attending the COP28 in UAE, stated the violence in the country during the week was a coup attempt. The unrest between members of the National Guard and special forces of the presidential guard on Thursday night in the capital Bissau left at least two people dead. Guinea-Bissau has suffered a series of coups and attempted coups since its independence from Portugal in 1974. (“Guinea-Bissau: Soldier detained after gunfire in capital,” BBC, 2 December 2023) 

Accidental army drone strikes kill many civilians
On 4 December, BBC reported that Nigeria's Armed Forces accidentally fired a drone strike on a village in its North-western part killing dozens of civilians celebrating a Muslim festival. They were killed by drones targeting terrorists and bandits in the air strike that took place in Tudun Biri village in the state of Kaduna. Nigeria's National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) stated that “Eighty-five dead bodies have so far been buried while search is still ongoing,” listing children, women and the elderly among the victims. Nigeria's military often conducts air raids as it fights the extremist violence and rebel attacks that have destabilised Nigeria's north for more than a decade, often leaving civilian casualties in its wake. (“Nigeria air strike 'mistakenly' kills worshippers at religious festival,” BBC, 4 December 2023)

Junta overturns anti-migrant smuggling law
On 28 November, the Niger junta overturned an eight-year-old law that criminalised migrant smuggling. The junta stated that the law “did not take into account the interests of Niger and its citizens.”  The law was passed in 2015 after a million asylum seekers and migrants tried to reach Europe through illegal and dangerous means. The implementation of the law resulted in a decrease in illegal people smuggling. The easing of the law is likely to cause a reemergence of trafficking gangs. (“Niger coup leaders repeal law against migrant smuggling,” BBC, 28 November 2023)

40 civilians killed in militant attack
On 28 November, BBC Africa reported that at least 40 civilians were killed in an Islamist militant attack in northern Burkina Faso. The Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), an Islamist militant group active in West Africa has attacked the city of Djibo. The country has been battling insurgency since 2015. (“Islamists kill at least 40 civilians in Burkina Faso,” BBC, 28 November 2023)

Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso to create a federation
On 1 December, a two-day meeting was held in Malian capital Bamako, where the foreign ministers of Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso met. During the meeting, they proposed establishing a confederation uniting the West African countries. In September, the military leaders of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger established the Alliance of Sahel States, a mutual defence pact. The latest meeting aimed at elaborating the functions of the defence alliance. Africanews quoted foreign ministers of the West African countries stating the “great potential for peace, stability, diplomatic strength and economic development that a strengthened political alliance offers." (“Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger look to form a federation,” Africanews, 1 December 2023)

About the authors
Anu Maria Joseph is a Research Assistant at NIAS. Narmatha S is a Postgraduate Scholar at the University of Madras.

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