Ruben Rubadoveski: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 24 August 2023:
A young man was lying hopelessly by the side of a busy junction leading down the hill to Lumley Police Station in Freetown, still wearing his combat trousers under navy-blue waterproofs and his green military shirt. About three hundred metres away were two other young men. They both had unpleasant, distressing sores, ranging in size from an Olympic medal to a 5cent coin, on their swollen feet and hands. They walked like zombies in the crowded city street.
As we stopped to buy some Leones at a stall, yet another young man with swollen feet approached us and touched the shoe of my colleague to beg for money.
Every day in Freetown, the dead bodies of young men and women are collected by the city council and taken to the main mortuary at Connaught Hospital. The mortuary is now so full that the caretakers are refusing to take any more in, and are instead referring people to report discoveries of dead bodies to the police.
These young men and women, some of them military and police officers, were fed with highly toxic and addictive drugs, including what is called Kush, for a sustained period of at least six months prior to the 23rdJune presidential elections. They were sent to the streets by the government to intimidate political opponents across the country. After the elections, they were abandoned. Most ended up with damaged livers and kidneys, but with no medical help or food.
The presidential and parliamentary elections, which have been widely described by local and international observers as fraudulent, were indeed disgracefully and unreservedly rigged by the president. This has opened a very dark door on the future of Sierra Leone.
Just as the Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone (ECSL) was about to declare the main opposition as winner, the president sent heavily armed military and paramilitary police to attack the headquarters of the opposition party, the APC (All People’s Congress), firing live bullets. Those bullets killed a senior party official in her office. She died at the scene.
It was during this process that the electoral commissioner was whisked away at gunpoint and taken to a ‘secure’ location by the government. The election results were effectively hijacked, and the president was declared the winner. To this day, the aggregated results have never been released by the ECSL.
This line of action had been systemically planned many months before the elections. About a year beforehand, the president had recruited a very large number of young men and women into the paramilitary force called OSD (Operational Support Division). This is a heavily armed wing of the Sierra Leone police that intimidates the civilian population and the opposition.
The OSDs were instructed to put an end to any resistance to the president’s proposed plans and leadership by using lethal force. Over 80% of those recruited were from the Mende tribe and regions in the South-east. These people account for less than 30% of the country’s population.
The president, though a Sherbro by tribe (only 1.9% of the Sierra Leone population), has used the reach of the Mende to sustain his presidency. He armed the OSDs with weapons that the Chinese supplied a year before the elections. Synthetic psychedelic drugs, which were given to security units as ‘morale boosters’, were also imported.
In addition to the recruitment of OSDs, the president trained other military personnel, with a similar percentage of recruits coming from the same regions. Furthermore, he engaged the services of former rebel fighters and commanders, one of whom is called Chuckie – a notorious assassin from the eastern town of Kailahun.
During the Sierra Leone civil war, Chuckie (who took his nickname from Charles Taylor’s murderous son, who is serving 97 years in an American jail for grotesque human rights violations in the Liberian civil war) was one of those who participated in the heinous mutilations and killings of civilians in Sierra Leone.
In 2021, during a by-election in Eastern Sierra Leone, Kailahun Chuckie led a group of men who brutally beat a young opposition supporter to death in a village of Gbongboma. We acquired photographs and video of the incident.
Kailahun Chuckie and several senior military officers, whom the president had also recruited before the elections, have now been rewarded with ministerial positions after the 23rdJune elections, with Chuckie being made a regional minister for Eastern Sierra Leone. Like many of the new ministers the president has appointed, Chuckie is barely literate, and he has been described as a ‘yes man’ who carries out whatever orders he is given.
Those in the military or paramilitary forces who failed to carry out orders to supress civilians and opposition supporters have been either killed, expelled, arrested, or ostracised. For example, a highly respected paramilitary commander, Assistant Superintendent of Police Mathew Moiwa Gbanya, who was nicknamed Boyka, was sent to the northern regional city of Makeni with the specific responsibility of disrupting opposition activities prior to elections.
Boyka, who had extensive experience in international peacekeeping in East Africa, became loved by the people of Makeni. Rather than being the disruptive force that he was asked to be in Makeni, he changed the narrative. On the evening of 8th April 2023, Boyka was shot in the back while sitting in his vehicle by a military grade sniper rifle. He died instantly.
Three explanations were touted as the possible reasons for Boyka’s assassination. First, that he refused to become the disruptive force that he was asked to be. For example, instead of allowing drug use to proliferate amongst the young people of the city, he successfully curbed it. Second, that he was in a relationship with the president’s wife. Photographs of the two together were going round on social media. Third, that it was a revenge killing for previous government killings of youths during a demonstration in Makeni. Whatever the reason, it was a highly professional assassination of a man who was liked by the people he served.
During Boyka’s funeral, the president, who was present, said: “I will not leave the leadership of the Sierra Leone Police alone until you find the culprits and bring them to justice. I implore you all to leave your comfort zones and introduce new tactics to find the perpetrators.” To this day, Boyka’s killers have never been found. In the last five years alone, more people have been killed by the military and police forces of Sierra Leone on the orders of the president than in the twenty-one years prior to him becoming head of state.
Many of the new recruits the president has deliberately exposed to addictive drugs during the elections can be seen drooping at their security posts across the city. There are extensive security checkpoints dotted in and around the city, and on highways, and they are manned by heavily armed military and OSDs. This is a very costly and unsustainable undertaking that is taking vital resources away from meeting urgent economic and social needs.
The president has effectively ethnically cleansed the police and the military of Northerners, a process that started from the moment he came to power in 2018. He sold a new narrative to his supporters that there were plots to overthrow his government, which he saw as a legitimate excuse to arrest and get rid of Northerners in the police and the military. All those who have been arrested so far as alleged coup plotters are Northerners.
Photo: OSDs drooping under the weight of drugs.
Many Northerners who are senior police or military officers are leaving the forces and seeking sanctuary in other countries, but they are still hunted down and brought back to Sierra Leone. In the last few days, a former police chief superintendent, Mohammed Yaetey Turay, a Northerner who was dismissed from the police force in May 2020, was seeking refuge in Liberia but has now been extradited to Sierra Leone after he was accused of plotting a coup.
The president is even accusing Western powers of being behind the plots. Two weeks ago, I visited a very senior military officer, and the first thing he said to me when I entered his office was: “What are you British up to?” He was confused over my nationality. “What’s up?” I asked with a giggle. “We are on very high alert,” he replied. “We have just seized a helicopter at Waterloo.
The helicopter claimed to have had technical problems after departing from Liberia on its way to Banjul in The Gambia. There were two people on board – one is British and the other is South African, and they are both pilots. What are you guys up to?”
The helicopter in question is a ZS-WRT, a Eurocopter belonging to Skyhorse Aviation, a South African registered company. The helicopter was on a legitimate flight path from Liberia to The Gambia, and holds a landing permit (Lp/010823-057) for a technical stop in Sierra Leone. But anything that looks slightly different becomes a threat to the jittery president – even his own shadow.
This perception, together with the ever-increasing economic crisis and political uncertainties, is forcing large European and American companies to pull out of Sierra Leone. In the last few weeks alone, Air France and FedEx have pulled out of Sierra Leone. Many private business companies are also pulling out of the country. The World Bank Food Security review has just released a statement that Sierra Leone has the highest price inflation in West Africa.
Since the president declared himself winner of the presidential election, he has become a pariah – a virtual prisoner, unwilling to leave his mansion to even go to the office for fear of being confronted by the people. He has replaced all previous ministers he believes have the capability to oust him and has replaced them with illiterate ‘yes’ men and women who follow his orders without question.
A large percentage of the new ministers have been appointed by his wife, who many regard as the de facto head of state. The country has become dangerously stagnant and lacking in leadership, with the main opposition refusing to participate in governance and ordering all its MPs and other elected officials to abstain from attending parliament and state functions. Life is becoming harder and harder for ordinary Sierra Leoneans.
The UK, the US and the EU have all stated quite clearly that they do not, and will not, recognise the results of the elections. On Wednesday last week, the outgoing US Ambassador, David Reimer, was unequivocal in his assessment during a radio interview in Freetown, stating: “The United States is concerned about irregularities in the results that were announced by the ECSL – that includes a big difference between the ECSL announced results and the parallel vote tabulation, as well as inconsistencies that were analysed by domestic and international observers.”
The US ambassador went on to say that the US Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact Award funds, worth nearly $500,000,000, that had been awarded to Sierra Leone has now been suspended.
When it became known that the interview was going to be aired the next day, the government blocked the radio station, taking it off air. The interview was then leaked through social media. The local journalist who conducted the interview with the ambassador is receiving death threats.
The head of the Commonwealth, Lady Patricia Scotland, has offered to mediate between the government and the opposition party – a proposal that the opposition has welcomed but that the president is yet to accept.
The danger here is that any dialogue that falls short of mandating a re-run of the elections under the supervision of an external body within a six-month period is a recipe for catastrophe – the sort that would engulf the whole country, and possibly West Africa, and end up costing the UK, the US, and the EU dearly.
Electoral fraud and the blatant theft of citizen voices like in the case of Sierra Leone is a major contributor to the resurgence of coups and instabilities in West Africa, and it is becoming a very common practice. The international community must set an immediate precedent in Sierra Leone by ordering a swift re-run under independent supervision.
The president is desperate; he is absolutely on edge, and he is prepared to link with Wagner, the Russian mercenary group. This has happened in several other West African countries. He has done something similar before, in the mid-1990s, when he staged a coup and contracted-out state security to a South Africa mercenary group called Sandline International, which took charge of the country’s diamond mining region during the civil war.
The Chinese too have taken advantage of his desperation and incompetence: they have supported the country with weapons and have taken control of key mining areas in the country, all as the West withholds aid money. With such ethnically cleansed, heavily armed, and perpetually drugged security forces, Sierra Leone is on the brink, and it is in urgent need of help!
About the author
Ruben Rubadoveski is a freelance journalist based in the USA.