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Updated Nov 27, 2023, 10:28am EST
africa

Sierra Leone military unrest sparks fears of a coup plot

Saidu Bah/AFP via Getty Images
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The News

Sierra Leone’s president said security forces foiled an attempt to break into a military barracks close to his official residence in the capital Freetown, prompting a daily curfew and international condemnation of anti-democratic plots in the West African nation.

The United States, European Union, and regional bloc Ecowas all issued strongly worded statements denouncing the latest sign of unrest in a sub-region that has been hit by a spate of coups in the last two years.

Residents and journalists in Freetown reported hearing gunshots before 5am local time on Sunday in Wilberforce, a neighborhood that houses Sierra Leone’s main barracks. President Julius Maada Bio later tweeted that “a breach of security” had occurred but insisted his government had restored calm.

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“Most of the leaders” of the barracks attack “have been arrested” and investigations are ongoing into their actions, Bio stated in a video posted on his X account. An unspecified number of detainees at Pademba Road prison in Freetown escaped after a breach that followed the barracks attacks, he said.

An indefinite daily curfew in Freetown begins today between 9pm and 6am, information and civic education minister Chernor Bah said.

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Know More

Eight countries in West and Central Africa are currently ruled by military governments formed after coups in recent years.

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The Sierra Leonean government and foreign embassies in the country have yet to describe Sunday’s events as an attempted coup. However, the U.S. and EU condemned a “forceful seizure” in their separate statements. Ecowas expressed “utter disgust” at the attempt to “disturb the peace and constitutional order” in Sierra Leone.

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It was the second jailbreak in West Africa this month following an attempt in Guinea, which shares a 493-mile border with Sierra Leone. Attempted coups in the subregion were staged in Guinea Bissau in February 2022 and the Gambia last December.

Bio won a second and final five-year presidential term in June, in elections that some observers — including the U.S. — faulted for “irregularities.” Some soldiers arrested by the government in August were accused of plotting a possible overthrow.

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Alexander’s view

Bio’s four-minute national address on Sunday evening served as a proof-of-life video to assure Sierra Leoneans to be calm but also underscored the sense of fear that gripped the nation. “We have overcome this challenge,” the president said.

Analysts are hedging their interpretations but there are signs that the country might well have survived a coup.

“What happened has all the hallmarks of a coup, at least an attempt,” Kieran Mitton, a researcher at the King’s College London who studies Sierra Leone, told Semafor Africa. He points to the attackers’ effort to go after weapons in an armory and “even an apparent attempted capture of the state broadcaster” as such marks. State broadcaster SLBC did not broadcast programming for many hours after the first gunshots until 5pm local time, but it is unclear if its offices were attacked.

To describe it as an attempted coup would justify so-called contagion theories that project the spread of more military takeovers in Africa as a result of successful attempts in places like Mali, Burkina Faso and Gabon. Analysis of potential hotspots have noted the Congo basin as being particularly high risk. However, a general theme appears to be that mutinous soldiers will make a move where they envisage little resistance due to weak state structures or ineffective leadership.

Sierra Leone, a country of eight million people with fresh memories of deadly conflict, has been on a gradual shift towards democratic stability in recent years. But Sunday’s events “were reminiscent of the war in too many ways” as one resident put it. Life in Freetown over the coming days is likely to be tense as soldiers have begun stop and search operations on residents. Soldiers reportedly fought those behind the barracks attacks in Jui, a town on the capital’s outskirts.

Bio, a former coup leader himself, will be under scrutiny to see his continued response to the threat posed to his power. “I think they have passed the test because this could have toppled past Sierra Leonean governments,” Mitton said. But a political challenge remains because Bio hasn’t always done a good job of building consensus with opposition parties. “There is a danger that he goes down the wrong path of seeking punishments against opposition figures suspected of being involved [in the attacks] without evidence,” Mitton said.

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Quotable

  • The US embassy in Freetown, in a note of “strong support” for President Bio, said: “We honor and remember those who gave their lives yesterday in defense of Sierra Leone’s constitution and government. We call for those responsible for these heinous attacks to be held accountable in accordance with due process and the rule of law.”
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