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Sierra Leone: A failed coup

  Anu Maria Joseph

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Following the violence, a nine-hour curfew was imposed, which was revoked at a later stage.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

About the author
Anu Maria Joseph is a Research Assistant at NIAS. 

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