Sierra Leone Telegraph: 29 October 2012:
When the Sierra Leone Political Parties Registration Commission (PPRC) saw it fit to put out a public statement, expressing concern “about an incident, which took place in Freetown on Friday 12th October 2012, involving the motorcade of His Excellency the President – Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma and the motorcade of the flag bearer of the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) – Brigadier Rtd. Julius Maada Bio”, you know that the country had come very close to another civil upheaval, the outcome of which no one could have predicted.
The commercial district of Freetown came to a chilling standstill that Friday, as a deadly shootout between the armed guards of president Koroma and those of the opposition SLPP leader, was averted by a struck of fate rather than by design.
Should the armed guards of both sides have opened fire on each other, what would have been the fate of the president and the opposition leader? Would they have survived the carnage?
Would that shooting have marked the beginning of yet another senseless civil war in Sierra Leone?
Some analysts in Freetown believe that the incident was planned and stage managed by those wanting to derail the democratisation process in Sierra Leone.
Others have gone so far as to accuse senior police officers and key members of the ruling APC party of conspiring to instigate violence in the country, for which the opposition SLPP presidential candidate would have been held responsible ahead of elections in November.
There are strong suspicions that senior police officers deliberately bungled the logistic and traffic planning arrangements, usually put in place to ensure the safety and security of the president.
As a result of this alleged conspiracy, heavily armed guards of both sides came face to face in a massive traffic jam, which could have been avoided, had the police gone about their job in their usual manner.
The question being asked, just three weeks before presidential election is held, is whether the president himself was party to the deadly conspiracy, designed to lure the opposition SLPP presidential candidate – Julius Maada Bio into a violent confrontation with the armed presidential bodyguards.
This incident could have at best led to the arrest of Maada Bio, and worse – killed in the ensuing gun battle.
Critics say that the senior police officers responsible for traffic planning and presidential security knew and approved Maada Bio’s travel schedule and traffic detail.
The police also knew about the president’s travel and traffic arrangements, well in advance to ensure that the route to be taken by the president was cleared. But it seems the police had a different plan and motive.
Freetown is a densely populated city, with one of the worst traffic congestion problems in the West African sub-region. It is therefore unthinkable that the police could have got it so terribly wrong on Friday, 12th October.
The leaders and supporters of both political parties had been rallying in the streets of Freetown, as they launched their election manifestos, marking the start of campaigning.
Security, law and order ought to have been at the top of the police’s agenda, but they just weren’t. Why?
Following the approval of the travel and traffic plans of Julius Maada Bio by the police, arrangement was made for a team of armed police officers to be embedded within his convey and to take the lead, as the convoy made its way from the east of Freetown to the commercial district of the city.
As both president and opposition convoys set off from different locations, heading towards the same direction, it was obvious that confrontation was inevitable.
A close confidant of the opposition SLPP leader told the Sierra Leone Telegraph that; “Maada Bio was unaware that the president was also stuck in the chaotic and heavily congested traffic, heading towards Goderich Street.”
“Bio’s vehicle was on the other side of the road, with cars in front and at the back of the convoy of eight vehicles” he said.
And as we have also learnt, there were police officers travelling with Maada Bio, who ought to have known of the on-coming presidential convoy and who also, should have led Bio’s convoy away from the presidential route. But it seems the police had a somewhat different agenda.
What used to be routine traffic planning, had become a dangerous game of cat and mouse.
“There were many people – SLPP party supporters dancing behind Bio’s convoy as it made its way across Kissy Road, heading for Goderich Street. The police could have diverted Bio’s vehicles to Ross Road. And the police officers travelling with the opposition leader showed no concern.”
Then it happened. The people of Sierra Leone were facing a nightmare scenario, recklessly engineered by senior police officers to cause mayhem, as both convoys met head on at Goderich Street.
Weapons were drawn, guns uncorked, but no bullets fired. The body guards in both convoys had served in the country’s army that was once headed by the opposition SLPP presidential candidate – Maada Bio.
It seems those who planned and engineered the incident had forgotten to inform the body guards to open fire, once both convoys meet head on; or could it be that the body guards of both Bio and Koroma are not as unprofessional and dumb as was thought.
Their decision to show restraint in the face of such dangerous and risky encounter, perhaps unwittingly averted what could have led to serious and uncontrollable violence in the country.
According to the statement released by the police after the incident, the opposition SLPP leader – Maada Bio, had disobeyed their orders for his convoy not to approach Goderich Street. This sounds highly implausible.
Why the police officers embedded in Bio’s convoy, did not simply divert his convoy to avoid any possible confrontation with the presidential motorcade is a valid question that must be asked.
Was there a conspiracy by senior police officers to ensure that both convoys meet head on, with the expectation of a deadly shoot out?
There is little doubt, had violence erupted at the scene, Bio would at best have been arrested, charged with treason and disqualified from contesting the forthcoming elections in November.
Some analysts have speculated that perhaps, should violence have erupted leading to widespread revolt in the country, the police and the army would have seized the opportunity to take over State House.
The constitution would have been suspended, a state of emergency declared – once again heralding the return of martial law in Sierra Leone.
Was president Koroma an innocent sitting duck in his convoy, oblivious of any conspiracy to frame the opposition SLPP leader, or was he a party to that conspiracy?
Can the police be trusted to oversee a free and peaceful election in November?
I don’t think there was a conspiracy with such intentions, but I believe should that ugly situation ended the way the article’s author imagined, the consequences could have been what he feared.
The security and traffic lapses bear the hallmark of Sierra Leone’s Police anaemic professionalism and the lack of capacity to adequately handle the affairs of state security.
However, what makes matters worse is the political influence that constantly pervades their operational decision making, up their ranks.
It was an isolated incident that yet exposed the pitfalls we have in the institutions that should constitutionally maintain law and order. Look at the judiciary, for example – the miscarriages and executive interference.