On the evening of Sunday, November 26, 2023, President Maada Bio of Sierra Leone addressed the nation on national television and reassured the citizens of his government's full control of the country's security. How comfortable the people of Sierra Leone were with such assurances could be difficult to determine.
Earlier in the day, security authorities had imposed restrictions on air transport, erected roadblocks and imposed a curfew. These "rare" security measures were in reaction to a surprise attack on some security installations and facilities in the early hours of the day. Armed men had attacked a major military barracks and simultaneously attempted to break into a major prison facility--all located in Freetown, the capital. Citizens have mentioned that they heard heavy gunfire and some other din in the capital.
So far, international organizations including the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the European Union have expressed concerns about what this incendiary action means for stability and constitutional rule. Nonetheless, no group of people is as concerned as the ordinary citizens of the West African country. Many people, in what is known to be one of the poorest countries in the world, have had bad experiences with conflict--they do not want another.
Notably, the government in its communication on Sunday avoided the word "coup". This was an obvious means to water down the severity or potency of the attacks. This notwithstanding, Sierra Leone has not been in the best shape concerning security. This has particularly been the case before, during and after the last general elections.
Before the elections, economic hardship, mostly blamed on external factors, had led to protests and consistent criticism of the government of the government. While the government attributed the high inflation and debt challenges to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukraine conflict, opposition parties and other interests blamed them on government incompetence, corruption and mismanagement. Of importance to happenings on Sunday was how the government has handled the economy that was worth a little over $4 billion in 2022. Inflation stood at 27% in the same year while Gross Domestic Product (GDP) slumped to 3.5%--a fall from 4.1 the year before. The government responded to protests with heavy-handedness. Some opposition members and protesters have faced arrest and abuses of their rights, including assaults.
Moreover, the opposition raised issues bordering on transparency and the lack thereof in the period before the elections. During the process, pockets of violence and accusations of fraud and other irregularities were reported by the opposition parties who believed the incumbent was abusing its incumbency to rig the elections. With Maada Bio running for a second term; and an opposition leader who came second in the last elections the 2018 elections contesting again, the stakes were high for both sides. Not unexpectedly, the opposition rejected the final results of the polls and organized protests. Again, the government had responded with force. These chain of events has had the country's security set up on high alert for possible attempts by anti-government groups to create problems or even overthrow the government. The government's claim that it had arrested many of the attackers speaks to its readiness for such occurrences--largely. Barely a month after the elections, some soldiers and civilians were arrested and detained on suspicion of planning a coup.
Furthermore, the country has had a tumultuous past that makes current signs of potential instability worrying. Politically, Sierra Leone in the 1970s and 1980s experienced many coup detats. At one point, a soldier in his early 20s took power. Valentine Strasser who ruled the country for four years had the current president as his second in command. Later, Maada Bio himself served as a military head of state of the junta that handed over to a civilian administration in 1996. The instability suffered by the country has meant that any sparks that signal a return to the situation will have citizens sit on tenterhooks.
More worrying has been a macabre civil war that killed hundreds of thousands of people and maimed many more. The scars of the decade-long war that required regional and international efforts to resolve in the early 2000s are still fresh mentally and physically across the country. The likelihood of attacks such as those on Sunday snowballing into something similar to the past cannot be farfetched.
Regionally, events in Sierra Leone are causing unease among actors that are already overwhelmed by recent events. In the past three years, ECOWAS has seen four member-states move from civilian rule to military rule. The regional organization, while exerting diplomatic pressure on the coup makers, right from the beginning, is witnessing many more. For a region that was known for political instability in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, before the broad adoption of democracy in the early 1990s and the 2000s, there is much anxiety about the chain of coups extending to other states. This makes Sierra Leone a matter of concern.
Complicating the situation for regional security actors are recent efforts by junta-led states to cooperate against sanctions and other measures that seek to force them to return their systems to democratic rule. In recent years, Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali have formed a military alliance to "defend" themselves against aggression. They have consequently vowed that an attack on one will constitute an attack on all. This was in direct response to ECOWAS' earlier moves to use force to reverse the Nigerien coup.
Consequently, the ability of the bloc to maintain the democratic status quo in the region is increasingly waning. With this situation, ECOWAS would want to be more preventive than curative in its approach to coups. Once they are successful, recent trends show that coup makers are not prepared to hand over power back to the civilians. While the government of Sieera Leone has refused to call that attack a coup attempt, the fact that suspects targeted the armory in a military facility barracks could not be taken for granted. If they wanted arms, then they did have a superior motive. Overthrowing the government cannot be counted out.
With some of the attackers detained and the government vividly in control of its monopoly in the use of force, any immediate fear of continued hostilities has been allayed. What looked like a putsch has been quelled by the government. Other actors who could have similar motives against the government could be deterred.
This notwithstanding, the government's reactions and how they are managed could either worsen the physical security problem or make it relatively better. In an acutely polarized country, if the government resorts to vendetta rather than dialogue, it could lead to an escalation. Sometimes, when opposition elements feel they might be hunted down regardless of their non-involvement in incendiary activities, they get more radicalized in self-defense. This could create a larger problem for the government and state.
Moreover, the heightened security challenges could disrupt the government's focus on improving the economy. One of the major issues that dominated the last general elections was the economy. After the elections, the government seems to be implementing the required measures to improve the system. Unfortunately, the recent signs of insecurity could occupy decision-makers in Freetown. Also, huge amounts of scarce resources could be diverted to the security sector. For a poor country that needs to lift many from abject poverty, this could be counter-productive.
Furthermore, the current event could lead to general abuses of the rights of ordinary Sierra Leoneans. Often, governments empower the security sectors to use expansive surveillance and preventive measures after they have repelled attacks of this nature. In Turkey and elsewhere, events similar to this led to more powerful central governments that adopted detention without trial, a limitation of freedom of speech and other abuses to exercise near-absolute powers. For a country that emerged from a brutal civil war to adopt democracy, this could be destructive.
Regionally, there is the temptation of ECOWAS to become overtly supportive of the government in Freetown. Even though states are theoretically separated from governments, and the bloc is committed to the stability of states, this could only be realized when it works with the government. With this, the government tries to court the support of the bloc to gain a diplomatic advantage in domestic strife. Consequently, the opposition in Sierra Leone, most of whom may not support the use of violence for political goals, may have to deal with a powerful government that has the backing of ECOWAS in the current scheme of things. This could create more problems if it is not well handled by the regional diplomats in Abuja.
Not least, Sierra Leone shares a long border with the Republic of Guinea. The bauxite-rich country is one of only two countries that shares land boundaries with the country in question. Interestingly, Guinea is controlled by a junta that has been in office since 2021. With coups proving to be contagious in the region and Guinea and Sierra Leone having a history of dissidents crossing to the opposite sides of the border, the consequences of insecurity and political tensions in the latter could worsen.
The orthodox approach by ECOWAS concerning political instability has been generally reactionary. Many have criticized the bloc for doing little to address underlying problems that cause political crises, and for becoming overly active when the consequences of the problems escalate. In Sierra Leone, the bloc could call for a broad dialogue between the government and opposition elements on matters concerning the country's stability. Often potential coup makers exploit the gulf between governments and opposition elements to forecast the success of their actions. Where governments and opposition are seen to be in hostile relations, the military is likely to take advantage.
Closely related to this is the need for a second look at the so-called winner-takes-all political environment in the region. In West Africa and many other places in Africa, ruling parties almost always have unlimited powers on the extent to which they control and allocate national resources. This has meant that resources are used for parochial interest at the expense of the masses. More sensitively, the opposition is marginalized in the process. This makes the political arena inherently adversarial. For long-term stability in Sierra Leone, the ruling government must be willing to share power.
Our RileySENTINAL global, regional and country situation reporting and analysis, developed and provided by Riley Risk resources in strategically positioned locations, provide comprehensive updates and in-depth analysis of high-risk environments and events. This enables our clients to access timely and pertinent on-the-ground information, bolstering their decision-making capabilities in volatile operational contexts.
Our reporting services are meticulously crafted to empower clients with the proactive knowledge they need to stay informed and navigate challenging operational environments effectively.
Reach out to us today using the engagement meeting link here to learn more about how our risk advisory services can bolster your business operations and help you accomplish more.