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CONFLICT THREAT OP-ED

Another military coup in Sierra Leone may be inevitable following botched elections, growing discontent

Another military coup in Sierra Leone may be inevitable following botched elections, growing discontent
Soldiers ride on the back of army pickups in Freetown, Sierra Leone on 27 November 2023. The government lifted a curfew a day after gunmen attacked military armories and freed hundreds of prisoners on 26 November 2023 in a ‘co-ordonated’ attack according to the Information Minister Chernoh Bah. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Ibrahim Barrie)

In a country with a history of civil war and political tension, the recent events in Sierra Leone have raised concerns about the sustainability of the government's resilience against subversion and the potential for darker days ahead.

The Wilberforce barracks and some prison facilities faced an assault in the early hours of 26 November 26, many, including myself, believed that the long-anticipated coup was effectively in progress. However, akin to past endeavours, the state managed to resist the subversion. The crucial question that arises is: How sustainable is this resilience over time?

Escaped prisoners, Sierra Leone

Escaped prisoners are brought back to the Pademba Road Male Correction Centre after being caught by police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, 27 November 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Prince Samura)

Before the events of 26 November, on 9 August the Sierra Leonean police, through its spokesperson, CSP Brima Karama announced that 19 people were arrested and investigated for ‘state subversion’. However, the development was widely reported as a coup attempt owing to the nature of actors involved. At the time, it was reported that those arrested and being investigated include 14 serving officers of the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF), two officers of the Sierra Leone Police, one retired chief superintendent of police and two civilians. Others speculate that the claim of state subversion was a tool used by the government to stifle opposing voices, especially those most vocal against the conduct of the contentious June 2023 presidential election in which President Julius Maada Bio narrowly won.

Escaped prisoners

Escaped prisoners are brought back to the Male Correction Centre. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Ibrahim Barrie)

Samura Kamara, the candidate of the main opposition party, the All People’s Congress (APC), rejected the results describing the process as nothing short of an institutional coup by the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP). International observers also shared their concerns. For instance, the European election observers in Sierra Leone commented that there were “statistical inconsistencies”. They further claimed that “there were inconsistencies between the first and second batch of presidential results, including ‘notable discrepancies in the number of average valid votes per polling state’. It said the results also showed a strikingly low number of invalid ballots nationwide and a very high turnout exceeding 95% in at least three districts”. The US, Britain, Germany, Ireland and France echoed similar sentiments. 

To demonstrate its dissatisfaction, in August 2023, the US announced visa restrictions on persons they believed played a role in undermining the electoral process. In a turn of events, President Bio while visiting the US in September, claimed that the US attempted to compromise the electoral process by asking him to interfere with the vote counting. As he put it, after the Election Commission of Sierra Leone (ECSL) “had done all their calculations, collations, all the processes. I was now requested to stop them from calling the result by the United States. So, I don’t know who is accusing who of interference.” The electoral outcome created a political impasse, whereby the opposition party, the APC, refused to take up its seats in the parliament until the APC and the government signed an “Agreement for National Unity”, which encouraged the APC to take up its seats in parliament. Notwithstanding, there has been expressed dissatisfaction with the agreement, especially among members of the APC, which appears to further heighten political tensions. 

election campaign banners, Sierra Leone

A man walks past election campaign banners in Freetown, Sierra Leone, 23 June 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Ibrahim Barrie)

Ominous future

In this context, could the alleged botched elections become a precursor to darker days ahead? I dare to say Yes! And my prediction is based on three contributing internal factors. 

One is that, considering the country’s deadly civil war history, it is easy for such tensions to spiral into conflict. While the country has made significant progress in building peace after the civil war, certain indexes point to mixed results. For example, while it improved its ranking on the Fragile State Index 2023 report, moving from 46th to 51st out of 179th countries in 2022 and 2023 respectively, the index’s categorisation of Sierra Leone in the ‘High Warning’ status level signals potential risks and indicates the underlying political vulnerability of the country. 

Another factor is what appears to be a fragmentation within the military ranks. I believe this will be an important determinant in carrying out a potential coup. And the 26 November events reinforce this point. For instance, according to the Sierra Leone government, 13 military officers were arrested in connection to the events that claimed at least 20 lives and about 2,200 inmates escaped from attacked prisons. In addition, 32 men and two women which include serving and retired soldiers and police personnel were declared wanted by the state. It appears not to end there.

 Ernest Bai Koroma

Former president of Sierra Leone, Ernest Bai Koroma. (Photo: EPA / Ahmed Jallanzo)

On 3 January, a day after 12 persons were charged to court in an alleged connection to the attempted coup, former President Ernest Bai Koroma, after weeks of being under house arrest, (and despite Ecowas’s request to Bio’s government to drop all “legal and administrative procedures” against his successor and allow him relocate to Nigeria) was charged to court for treason. The government has said that security officers loyal to the former president mostly orchestrated the coup. However, if Bio’s government, one already battling with public legitimacy, fails to substantiate their allegation, it may be viewed as a political witch-hunt against the opposition and could potentially derail peace in the country. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Fears of violence in Sierra Leone as former president Koroma faces treason charge

(Source: Data from the Ministry of Finance Sierra Leone and constructed by author.)

The third and final factor would be the country’s poor socioeconomic performance. According to the World Bank, about 26.1% of the population live below $2.15 per day. As the graph depicts, though the rate of extreme poverty has been on a downward trajectory, over 1.2 million people representing 14% of the population live in extreme poverty. The country’s budgetary allocations do not inspire hope either. For instance, rather than strengthen investments in critical areas and infrastructures that would sustainably address the needs of its populace, the government deems it more imperative to run a profligate recurrent budget. In 2023, for example, recurrent expenditure was 9.5% higher than capital spending, and 9.3% higher in the 2024 estimated budget. 

Considering the poverty levels, one would have expected reversal to be the case. The Minister of Finance, Sheku Bangura, in its 2024 budget speech highlighted the deep troubles ahead, stating that the “difficult socio-economic situation in Sierra Leone characterised by weak economic growth, limited fiscal space, higher inflation, high debt burden and sharp depreciation of the Leone. These, in turn, have translated into high cost of living with adverse implications for food security in our country”. 

The impact has and continues to be felt. In August 2022, for example, Sierra Leoneans demonstrated against rising prices for basic goods — a protest that left at least 21 civilians and six police officers dead in Freetown. In previous protests in other cities, few people have been killed. During that period, the inflation rate was 37.1% and by September 2023 it surged to 54.5%. And going by global economic uncertainties the surge might continue and, in turn, might spur discontent among Sierra Leoneans. Such a plausible outcome could become a catalyst for an opportunistic coup, as was the case recently in Gabon and Niger Republic. Whether such translates to a ‘successful’ coup, despite the dire cost and consequences, it would be an unfortunate event to learn from. DM

Michael Asikabulu shares interest in International Development, Political Economy and Corporate Governance. He holds an MPhil in Development Studies from Cambridge University and a Member of St. Edmund’s College Cambridge. He holds an MA in Organisational and Institutional Studies from the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa.

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