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What led to the coup attempt in Sierra Leone? | Explained

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Sierra Leone President Julius Maada Bio during the 64th Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Head of States and Government ordinary session in Abuja on December 10.

Sierra Leone President Julius Maada Bio during the 64th Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Head of States and Government ordinary session in Abuja on December 10.
| Photo Credit: AFP

The story so far: On November 26, unidentified gunmen targeted the Wilberforce military barracks and several police stations and correctional centres in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The Minister of Information and Civic Education declared the attacks in the capital as an unsuccessful coup attempt to overthrow the government. In August 2023, the Sierra Leone police had arrested several people, including senior military officers who were accused of planning violent attacks on government institutions. The recent attacks were an attempt to free the military officers.

What is happening in Sierra Leone?

Three specific factors play a role in the recent events in Sierra Leone.

First, is the political instability. The political climate in Sierra Leone has been unstable since President Julius Maada Wonie Bio’s narrow re-election in June, which was achieved without the need for a run-off election. The outcome was contested by the opposing All People’s Congress party, who alleged that the election was manipulated. The opposition boycotted the parliament declaring a policy of non-engagement with the government, with elected members not taking up office at any level of the government until October.

Second comes the economic instability. The country is experiencing a high cost of living crisis and severe poverty. The inflation rate in Sierra Leone went up by 50.94% in August. According to the UN, 59.2% of the population lives in poverty. The youth unemployment rate was 4.15% in 2022. The economic policies of President Bio, worsened the economic crisis, causing the cost of living to escalate. It resulted in violent protests in July and August 2022 demanding the resignation of President Bio. Since his electoral victory five months ago, Mr. Bio has been under scrutiny due to the challenging economic state of the country. Third is the aggression of the police. The prison riot of 2020 in the overcrowded Pademba prison was quelled by using live ammunition. Similarly, the protests of August 2022 left six police officers and 27 protesters dead. Resentment towards the government persists due to the lack of accountability towards protest casualties, as police aggression continues.

What has been the state response?

An indefinite curfew was immediately levied following the attack and was lifted on November 27, only for new curfews to be imposed. The Sierra Leone Civil Aviation Authority (SLCAA) informed airlines to reschedule flights according to the new nationwide curfew. A cash reward has been declared to anyone who could provide details about the coup leaders. President Bio declared that calm had been restored, but shots were fired in Murray town on November 26, amid security operations to capture the leaders of the attack.

Will the ECOWAS intervene?

Since 2020, six African countries have undergone nine coups and coup attempts. Countries including Niger, Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Gabon and Sudan are under military rule. The growing antagonism of people towards democratically elected governments paved the way for the junta to legitimise their takeovers. The Economic Community of West African States’ (ECOWAS) intolerance towards unconstitutional takeovers was emphasised when the organisation threatened Niger with military intervention and levied economic sanctions. Sierra Leone is a member country of ECOWAS and hence if any security concern arises in the future, ECOWAS and the member countries will step in to maintain constitutional order. The visit from the ECOWAS’ delegates to the country highlights its commitment towards democracy. Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world and if a coup attempt is successful, the consequent ECOWAS intervention and sanction will be detrimental.

Jerry Franklin is a post-graduate scholar at Madras Christian College. Nithyashree RB is a post-graduate scholar at Stella Maris College.

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