Sierra Leone: will the lessons be learned from protest violence?
Protests sparked by high inflation turned deadly in Sierra Leone in August. Multiple civilians and police officers were killed in protest violence, with security forces reportedly using live ammunition. Rather than acknowledge protesters’ concerns, the government has repeatedly characterised protests as acts of terrorism aimed at overthrowing the government. As the cost of living soars, many countries are seeing protests to communicate economic anger. In Sierra Leone, more protests are inevitable ahead of 2023 elections. The government should learn the lessons and guarantee the independence of the inquiry set up to investigate the violence.
Calm of a kind has returned to the streets of Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone. Businesses have reopened their doors. But memories of the violence that erupted on 10 August linger, and many unanswered questions remain.
Violence and repression
Protests were sparked by soaring inflation. Protesters called on the government to do more to protect them from the impacts of rising prices of essential foods.
Demonstrations started peacefully in Freetown and other cities on 8 August. What happened two days later is a matter of dispute, but it’s clear that several deaths resulted. Initial reports were that at least 21 civilians and six police officers were killed.
Some protesters threw stones and burnt tyres to set up barricades, and several government offices and businesses were set ablaze. In response, video footage shows that security forces fired live ammunition.
In addition to the killings, over 100 protesters were arrested. A nationwide curfew was imposed, which continued in Freetown after it was lifted in other regions. Internet access was restricted. When a further protest was held in Freetown on 12 August, security forces reportedly again fired live ammunition.
The government’s verbal response to the protests was also alarming. Rather than acknowledge protesters’ genuine concerns, President Julius Maada Bio denied the protests were about the cost of living, insisting they were an attempt to violently overthrow the government. He called the protests ‘acts of terrorism’ and accused Sierra Leoneans living abroad of instigating them.
In a televised speech Vice-President Mohamed Juldeh Jalloh said similar, blaming the political opposition and claiming it had paid people to protest. Information Minister Mohamed Rahman Swarray called the protests a ‘failed coup’.
The government appears to think its claims justified because protests took place in the regions where the opposition has most support and protesters called for the president’s resignation. But in country after country, experience shows that when the prices of essentials go up, people protest, and when they feel their government isn’t addressing their concerns, they commonly connect calls for economic action with demands for political change.
People have a right to be unhappy about rising prices. In June inflation in Sierra Leone stood at almost 28 per cent. Food inflation is particularly high. The cost of agricultural fertilisers has more than doubled in the past year, driving up the price of all crops.
Rising prices are a global problem. Around the world, many are struggling to get by as food and fuel prices keep going up. The economic impacts of first the pandemic and now Russia’s war on Ukraine are having global repercussions, including by pushing up oil and gas prices. People are coming to the streets to demand governments protect them from the worst ravages. Often, protesters accuse governments of economic mismanagement that has worsened the impacts of economic shocks and weakened the ability of states to respond.
Voices from the frontline
Andrew Lavali is executive director of the Institute for Governance Reform, a civil society organisation that advocates for good governance in Sierra Leone.
Sierra Leone has many underlying issues that have greatly contributed to the recent protests. First, political polarisation has grown tremendously since the change of power in 2018. Fights over limited public sector jobs have made politics a zero-sum game.
For the past 15 years we have seen this happen as groups in power try to appease their support bases by employing people from a certain region, who then risk losing their jobs when the government changes. To an extent, preaching hate and stoking polarisation have become a political strategy used by parties to either stay in power or propel themselves to leadership.
It appears the opposition party has not fully embraced the result of the 2018 election and it may have fuelled the protests, judging by the fact that these broke out only in areas where the opposition have a strong presence and not throughout the country.
At the same time, there are genuine concerns about economic hardship. COVID-19 restrictions and the Russian-Ukraine war have resulted in rising prices of essential commodities, especially for people living in urban areas. Socio-economic issues such as high youth unemployment and poor access to essential services are real problems.
During the protests both civilians and police officers were attacked, and some were killed, revealing an ongoing tension between citizens and the police. Evidence shows that the protests were in no way peaceful. They were leaderless and faceless. Some Sierra Leoneans living abroad used social media to call for protest. According to the police, they only heard about the protest on social media. They did not receive any official request from an identifiable person for police clearance.
The response raised concerns about how police are trained to handle protests. The police have not sat down with interest groups to see how future protests can be organised. There are legitimate fears that given Sierra Leone’s recent history of violence, high youth unemployment and economic hardship, protests can easily get out of control and become very difficult to handle.
People will certainly be timid for a while, but I don’t think the police response will stop them mobilising in the long run. There are too many issues citizens want the government to address and if it fails to do so, protests will inevitably keep breaking out.
Protest restriction has a long history in Sierra Leone. For the past 15 years police have failed to grant permission to protest. This strained relationship with the police has culminated in a case against the police being brought to the Supreme Court by civil society. Civil society is currently documenting the events that are taking place and will then get together to discuss the situation and try to find a way to advocate for more open civic space in which people can protest without risking their lives.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Andrew. Read the full interview here.
Government needs to do better
As happens around the world, under economic pressure, protesters in Sierra Leone came to articulate a range of other concerns, including about corruption, human rights violations, political intimidation, political interference in the judiciary and abuses of the rule of law.
The August protests were not the first. But rather than acknowledge that protesters might have a point, the government tends to act with hostility. Under a colonial-era law, police permission must be granted before a protest, and permission is routinely refused for protests deemed political. This means that when people protest regardless, the authorities try to stop them with force.
In July, hundreds of women took part in a peaceful protest in Freetown against the government’s economic policies. Shops and markets closed in solidarity, making the city centre a ghost town. The state’s response was little different from its reaction to protest violence: police officers beat women, arrested over a dozen and reportedly sexually assaulted them in custody. Among those arrested were leaders of opposition parties. Journalists have also recently been subject to intimidation, threats and physical attacks.
A flare-up of violence in Sierra Leone inevitably brings worries, given the country’s experience of civil war, which tore it apart from 1991 to 2002. This makes it even more important that the government tone down its rhetoric.
The government has set up a committee to investigate the violence. Encouragingly it’s headed by a civil society activist and human rights lawyer, Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai. Other members come from civil society and the media.
The government should now guarantee the independence of this committee and ensure its investigation is impartial, with full access to all the information it needs. There’s a need to establish why some protesters turned violent and hold perpetrators of violence to account. But the investigation must extend to security force personnel, establish where excessive force was used and learn the lessons for future response.
There are too many issues citizens want the government to address and if it fails to do so, protests will inevitably keep breaking out.
The danger is that it’s now more likely future non-violent protests will be met with violence. Rather than repress protests, the government should accept that protest claims are legitimate and non-violent protest is a valid means of expressing dissent. It should acknowledge the deep lack of public trust in political institutions. It should refrain from seeing protests through a politically polarised lens where to criticise the government is assumed to be an act of opposition.
The economic anger that motivated protests hasn’t been assuaged. A general election is less than a year away, and more protests are inevitable in the run-up. The government must accept this and urgently learn the lessons.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The government must ensure that the investigation into the violence is independent, impartial and has full access to information, and act on its findings.
The government should stop using inflammatory language about protests and accept them as a legitimate form of dissent.
The government should commit to allowing protests to take place in the run-up to the election.
Cover photo by Reuters/Umaru Fofana via Gallo Images