State violence and political repression in Sierra Leone

Chernoh Alpha M. Bah and Matthew Anderson: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 10 May 2020:

Protests, social unrest, violence; these symptoms do not appear in a society without a cause. When democratic expression is repressed, when the voices of oppressed people are suppressed, and when state violence becomes unbearable, the end products are social unrest and mass protests.

Today’s crisis in Sierra Leone is no exception. In his widely broadcast message on May 8, Julius Maada Bio, the president of Sierra Leone, described the ongoing violence in the country as acts of “terrorism”, blaming it mostly on opposition members and their supporters.

“Protest is the language of the oppressed,” said Martin Luther King Jr., the iconic American civil rights leader at a time when millions of African Americans were taking to the streets to protest worsening poverty, police brutality, and the discrimination against blacks in the United States during the 1960s.

In some cases, the US civil rights protests turned violent, resulting in extensive property damage across major US cities.  Even so, the heavy-handed response of US federal and local authorities to black protesters, including the murder of 30 civilians by police and military officials in the Detroit riots of 1967, for example, were rightly considered unjust, immoral, and anti-democratic.

Indeed, not all violence is the same. Nor is expressed defiance of governmental policy equal to treason or terrorism. Throughout the struggle for the rights of African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s, the US federal and state governments tried strenuously to justify violent repression of protesters and activists by labeling them as “terrorists”, “criminals”, “communists”, and “provocateurs.”

But men and women who are drawn into the streets out of desperation because of the threat of state repression, of arbitrary arrests, and of police brutality, are not terrorists. Even while the destruction of property by such protesters may be regrettable, it is not equivalent to the violence inflicted by a government, well-armed and powerful, against civilian citizens. Nor are police beatings and killings justified in such an instance even where the claim is supposedly in the defense of life and property. When a populace is confronted with state violence, people often resort to mass protests and resistance.

Indeed, it is nothing new for authoritarian governments to label all opposition, including legitimate opposition, as “terrorists”.

There is a long history of anti-democratic regimes resorting to such cynicism, from Apartheid South Africa locking up Nelson Mandela in prison for 27 years for supposedly being a “terrorist”, to the arrest and murder of activists and journalists opposed to Siaka Steven’s one-party rule in Sierra Leone during the 1970s and 1980s.

Sadly, authoritarian regimes, especially newly emerging authoritarian democrats in most parts of the world, have often quickly labelled active civilian opposition groups as “terrorists” when they cannot win the national debate and conversation on public policy. Such anti-democrats willfully ignore the root causes of social unrest and economic depression that drive protests and resistance in the first place.

Despotic leaders throughout history, whether they are from the army or from political parties, have always justified state violence and anti-democratic policies in the name of maintaining law and order and national security.

It is with this historical context of the nature and character of dictatorial governance that we must consider the crises in Sierra Leone today.

We must begin by asking the question: why has random violence become a regular feature of Maada Bio’s presidency in these two years? Most especially, when did this actual random violence and youth protests commence and why have they continued unabatedly?

Within one week alone, there have been three recent incidents of violence and bloodshed across several parts of the country: the mass killing of prisoners at Freetown’s Maximum Prison and two other separate youth protests, in Lunsar in the north of country and in Tombo in the outskirts of Freetown.

These violent events have similar features – they are all characterized by deaths and direct confrontation with armed troops of the Sierra Leonean state – the police and the military. In the prison incident alone, more than 60 deaths – mostly of unarmed prisoners – have been reported by eyewitness accounts. And in Tombo and Lunsar – as in the Freetown Prison – public infrastructure was equally set ablaze. Police stations and houses owned by local community leaders perceived to be state allies were also targeted by aggrieved youngsters.

But what is most important in this context is the response of the Bio regime to these events. Many in government have casually described the ongoing youth protests as “riots by lawless youth.” They have even gone as far as ascribing them to “hate messages” allegedly spread on social media by defeated opposition elements. Some ruling party supporters and government spokespeople even claim that the ongoing violence is sponsored by Ernest Koroma and APC opposition politicians. They allege that Koroma and the defeated APC leadership are resisting Maada Bio’s pending Commission of Inquiry White Paper that is expected to exclude key APC politicians from future elections or from holding public office.

But the government has failed to acknowledge what actually precipitated the youth responses witnessed in Lunsar and Tombo. Youths do not begin to protest simply because some former opposition politicians with nothing to offer them (nor significant popularity to speak of) tell them to. No, the recent youth protests are a symptom of a country deeply entrenched in political and economic crisis; a crisis that has reached its apex during a raging disease pandemic, and a crisis that has been punctuated by state violence throughout.

Protest events, like these, have been witnessed across many countries on the African continent where citizens – from South Africa, Uganda, Burundi, Nigeria, and Congo – have protested against the hardship of violent lockdown measures.

What those concerned about the ongoing violence in Sierra Leone have failed to consider is the state’s own role in the origin of this chain of violence. They have ignored how at the first sitting of the newly elected parliament in April 2018, riot police stormed parliament and forcibly removed opposition members of parliament who were, by the results of the 2018 elections, the majority in parliament. Having removed the majority opposition party in parliament, ruling party politicians  hurriedly, and in a questionable and illegal process, imposed a Speaker of Parliament who was not even from among the elected MPs, but whose political record has been the subject of two judicial processes from the days of Tejan Kabbah and Ernest Bai Koroma.

That forceful imposition of a parliamentary Speaker, the Deputy Speaker, and Clerk was the initial inauguration of state violence orchestrated by ruling officials bent on ensuring that the SLPP, and eventually the Bio regime, will command control of parliamentary processes despite being the minority political party in parliament.

Ruling party supporters and their leaders celebrated this parliamentary coup against the popular will of the people. They justified that violent beginning of the Bio regime as a representation of political tactfulness. What they failed to understand was that by that singular action alone, Bio and his new squadron in power had set in motion a violent train whose gushing flames would eventually be fueled by the resistance of the constituents whose representatives were brutalized and humiliated by coercive agents of the executive.

Following that fratricidal and shocking beginning of parliament, ECOWAS (which had played a crucial role in mediating the elections of 2018 that brought Bio to power) dispatched a fact-finding mission to Sierra Leone. SLPP leaders ignored the recommendations of the ECOWAS parliamentary delegation and moved their attack against the opposition majority in parliament by further use of the judiciary to force ten opposition MPs out of parliament.

This use of crooked judicial precedents, which run against the primary legislative instruments of the country, were part of ruling party efforts to fully control the three tiers of government – the executive, judiciary, and the legislative arm –  against the popular electoral will of the greater majority of citizens as expressed in the elections of 2018.  These two state-orchestrated violent events are the principal triggers to other state orchestrated violence that escalated across the country over the last two years.

Supporters of this state violence – who are mostly ruling party supporters and their new employees – must now recall how nearly a year ago, on May 31, 2019, when dissatisfied opposition supporters who had gathered at their party headquarters to protest the controversial court removal of ten APC MPs were attacked and teargassed by police troops. Images of these violent scenes were relayed by live television broadcasts across Sierra Leone and beyond.

These state sponsored violence and terror did not stop at the gates of parliament and the judiciary. Its extensive arm reached into the electoral terrain as well.

Supporters of state violence must also be reminded the way ruling party agents and thugs, under instruction from SLPP leaders, interfered in the August 2019 by-election campaign in Constituency 110. They kidnapped one Ibrahim Conteh at the village of Hamilton, drove him to the home of the SLPP candidate, tied him up and tortured him to near death.

The violent scene of this incident, which occurred right in front of SLPP constituency leaders in that area, was also filmed by phone camera showing the agonized victim in pain and blood while pleading with ruling party gangsters for his life.

That notwithstanding, on the very day of polling in that constituency, officials of the ruling SLPP, including a cabinet minister and party thugs, stormed polling centers and destroyed voting materials, forcing a cancellation of the elections. This was done when it became clear that the SLPP was facing electoral defeat in that by-election despite unleashing all its brigades of violence during the campaigns and after arresting and unlawfully detaining opposition party organizers ahead of the polls.

That cancelled by-election has not been slated for electoral competition ever since it was annulled nearly a year ago now.  A similar version of electoral violence was equally unleashed in the Tonko Limba local council election in September 2018.

Let the SLPP supporters now condemning “youth violence” also recall June 30, 2019, when thugs representing two SLPP factions – of the party chairman Prince Harding and Jimmy Batilo Songa – engaged in a fierce fight in their party office in Bo resulting in the disruption of traffic and the destruction of property.

Let them also recall in that same month of June that armed police equally stormed a village in Mile 91 and killed, in cold blood, a local village farmer on the pretext that he was farming marijuana.

No arrests of the known perpetrators in these incidents were carried out because the violence served the political interests of ruling party politicians.

Indeed, the irony of the sudden condemnation of violence from the SLPP leadership stems from the fact that the violence committed by the ruling party since Bio assumed power has gone without condemnation from the presidency and the ruling party’s leadership. The result is a growing atmosphere of fear and repression in the country, where the state and SLPP leadership can commit violence with impunity, while simultaneously arresting and brutalizing anyone brave enough to speak out.

Foreign embassies in Sierra Leone and the few remaining voices of democracy in the country have repeatedly spoken out against these rising trends of violence and despotism orchestrated by ruling party officials and their supporters. By all accounts, genuine democratic voices in both civil society and the independent media can no longer raise their voices in the prevailing toxic political environment under Bio because they have become afraid of the overt and covert reprisals that often accompany any form of dissent against the evolving climate of repression in the country.

The truth that needs to be told to the community of civilized nations is that there has been a massive crackdown on civil liberties, especially the right to free expression and the right to political association since Bio assumed power, despite the constitutional guarantees provided by the multi-party constitution of Sierra Leone.

Independent journalists, in particular, have come under attack for exercising their right to free expression. These attacks include the case of two female journalists who were beaten by presidential guards at the national sports stadium in Freetown in full glare of leading officials in the government. When news of the incident appeared in the public domain, ruling party officials initially defended the violence of the presidential guards by seeking to label the victimized journalists as “opposition elements”.

The state was eventually forced to apologize and pay a paltry compensation to the victims due to concerted pressure from the press union and a cross section of civil society. Several other journalists have experienced similar harassment. A journalist working for the national television was recently dismissed because of a Facebook message he posted that appeared to praise a former minister in the previous government. The list of media harassment includes the recent violent beating of Faya Amara Faya by military forces.

The escalating environment of violent repression of legitimate grievances, the suppression of press freedom, and the violation of electoral processes are what leads to mass protests and social unrest. This is exactly why youths are protesting across towns and villages in the country.

The casual and blanket labeling of those a government disagrees with as “unpatriotic,” “terrorists,” and “thugs”, sets a dangerous precedent and has always been used by despotic leaders who are eager to justify further state violence and political repression against opponents in a competitive democracy.

Indeed, this rhetoric by SLPP elites follows a dangerous historical pattern that fosters the erosion of democracy and respect for human rights.

All activists, journalists, and genuine pro-democratic voices from all political parties and wider civil society must reject the cynical rhetoric expressed in Maada Bio’s recent speech, which represents nothing short of a state project to criminalize free speech and opposition in a competitive multi-party-political environment.

We, as a society, and as freedom loving human beings, must reject all forms of state orchestrated violence, even if it is perpetrated in the interest of our friends and political allies. Silence in the face of the ongoing crackdown on democratic values – the criminalization of right to free speech and the right to political association – risks turning all genuine democratic voice into direct and indirect accomplices in the ongoing consolidation of a hegemonic dictatorship in the name of enforcing the rule of law in Sierra Leone.

Editorial note:

This article is part of an ongoing series on rising state of violence and authoritarian democracy in Sierra Leone. The next essay will examine question of state violence as it relates to the right to employment and institutional governance under the Bio regime.

For more information, read Africanist Press: https://africanistpress.com/2020/05/10/state-violence-and-political-repression-in-sierra-leone

17 Comments

  1. My own take to this article is that, I wonder how can one compare the present situation in Sierra Leone to that of the American civil rights protest…these are two different situations, the context is wrong, so can’t be compared…as practitioners, we should all do our little to help bring peace to the country but not to encourage things like these…have you forgotten that we’re at a public health state of emergency? Let’s don’t forget the context… thanks

  2. In such an environment, what is the role of the Political Parties Registration Commission (PPRC)? I believe the PPRC actions in Sierra Leone’s democracy is a setback for peace and development. Until today, the PPRC has held up registration of political parties, including the People’s Democratic League (PDL) despite fulfilling all requirements, being recorded in the country’s gazette. This way of doing things does not augur well for Sierra Leone, and its time the international community prevail on the PPRC to release registration certificates of political parties held for no justifiable reason rather than to suit the designs and tastes of corrupt, unpatriotic and power-thirsts politicians of yester years.

    The PDL will not result into any violence but will continue to press for its constitutional human rights and democratic freedoms, which are enshrined in the 1991 multiparty constitution of Sierra Leone. We will resist PPRC’s provocative, hatred and discrimination employed in the registration of the PDL as a full-fledged political party.

    May God save Sierra Leone!

  3. A very good piece; written by experienced and capable journalists. The article highlights a true and comprehensive account of the atrocities and bad governance that has taken place since the Bio led SLPP government resumed office in April 2018. From the first time police broke into the sacred well of parliament (the Gbanika) to prepare for the imposition of a bogus and unscrupulous Speaker, to the firing of tear gas canisters at innocent and law abiding opposition supporters, and most recently, to the brutal slaughter of 11 unarmed inmates and 2 officers at the Pademba Road prisons. What an eventful and wasteful 2-years …

    There are a lot of questions to be asked about the reckless and indiscriminate killing of prisoners at the correctional centre. Were those unfortunate souls sacrificed amid the process of a ritual ceremony? What were the SLPP Chairlady (and other senior officials) doing at the centre, at the wee wee hours of the morning? Is President Bio trying to override an INDEPENDENT INVESTIGATION on the prison incident by substituting a deceitful and controversial speech at the spur of the moment? The Sierra Leone public as well as the International Community need to know.

  4. Reading through the comments of certain rookies partaking in this glorious, intellectual platform, one can sense some aspect of oblivion that begs the questions. Can these individuals read, comprehend, and analyze information contained in articles posted here? Or, could it be a factor of political fanaticism — with the effect of rendering one unable to think for him/herself? Joining the debate on current issues affecting our nation is definitely a good thing, however, the debate can only remain intriguing when we employ facts, else people will become bored and walk away.

    Thousands of readers flock to this medium for its renowned fairness, balance, and non-biased reporting. Each article being posted here is unique per its contents, so it is only wise when commenting to do so in the context of the information contained in the article – not some wild rumors or fake news your political masters might have circulated. Commenting on political talking points from a speech you have listened to or comments made by party extremists will earn you no respect in this platform. What matters in this forum are facts.

  5. Bio understands one language which is guns. When the bullets will start to rain that is when we will hear the call for peace. It is just a matter of time before the last stroke that will break the camel’s back.

  6. This article is totally misrepresented and did not mentioned certain key topics and issues. It is unfortunate that the writer failed to mention one so called Adebayor who is based in Holland making audios and fueling tension in Sierra Leone prior to the Prison Riots he made 10 days warning and it occurred exactly.

    In Lunsar he urged the locals there to riot and Tombo was the same and these are open facts and information that lead to the unrest and arrest or suppression of opposition. Arrests of APC members stem from beating journalists to death, taking loaded and unregistered firearms to the public and also President office, Incitement and sabotage by popular ex ministers and also financing and ensuring that political unrest happened in Sierra Leone. I am really disappointed to read this article which clearly a sponsored and paid up job. Mr. Writer pls pls just be honest to yourself and I believe u have sense and also fear God. This article is Horrible

  7. President Bio’s government is far more a democratic and an inclusive one than the previous brutal, tribalistic and nepotistic regime of President Koroma. With candour, it is easier to understand that the ongoing national unrest is being fueled by a handful of people in the main opposition party as it was heard from President Bio’s speech.

    To ascertain even further as expected, the first set of group to comment against the president’s speech is the APC after peace loving Sierra Leoneans has praised the president across the country for such a bold step against violence and national unrest.

  8. This is an excellent article. We hope that the socio-political-economic leaders of Sierra Leone realize that Sierra Leone, right now, is going nowhere in economic and political development. If that is their aim, then they are being successful; Sierra Leone is going no-where in economic development for the next half century. In other words, if they want Sierra Leone to make progress in economic and political development, then what is going on right now will not get them anywhere in such development. Tribalism and corruption are preventing economic development in Sierra Leone; from what is going on, Sierra Leone’s failure in economic development will continue for the next half century at least.

    Fifty years from now, Sierra Leone will still be an economically backward (underdeveloped) country. And yet, I can assure anyone that Sierra Leone can become a middle income developing country in 25-30 years if the political leaders of the country are serious about economic development policy making and the supportive political environment from now on.

  9. Has the Telegraph written any article about the incidents in Lunsar, Falaba or Tombo unfortunately None! Any critical article about the role of APC’s chairman for life and its executives in a democratic society of today, None. Any article about the Chief Minister quite a lot, about the repressive SLPP government quite a lot, about Minister Sandy quite a lot, about the Judiciary a little bit, about the Justice Minister almost None. When there is any article about the ruling party, Dr. Banya (die hard baised SLPP senior) is mostly commissioned to bring in biased stories about his party. It makes me wonder WHY!!

    Resume: The main opposition party APC has a chairman and an executive that is bent on holding our country to ransom. The more unrest in the country the longer they can secure their power base in the APC and the Telegraph is unfortunately not aware of that, oh my Salone we have a problem!!!

    • I respect your views as always Mr. Anthony Moiba, but I disagree with your comments concerning the respected Dr Sama Banya and of course, the most powerful and most peaceful LEADER former President Ernest Bai Koroma, Sierra Leone has ever had till date in my view. Concerning Dr. Sama Banya, we need to give him the benefit of the doubt. His age should signal to us how he sometimes makes his judgement. Sometimes, I become upset and appalled by some of his comments, but will always respect him and give him the benefit of the doubt. Don’t forget how Gagool was important in King Solomon’s Mines.

      Concerning former President Ernest Bai Koroma, he is not and will never hold Sierra Leone to ransom. In fact, he is a peacemaker. That is why the Bio SLPP is taking advantage of that. To be honest, the real trouble makers and people holding our country to ransom, are the extremists within the one time party of bread and butter, The SLPP, now the Bio SLPP. God bless former President Ernest Bai Koroma and Dr. Sama Banya.

  10. Poor Young4na, I know you will be furious with Mr. Thomas for limiting our comments to only two paragraphs because this article is originally your idea, but since the article is not your comment, I can’t ask Mr. Thomas to use his journalistic magic wand to shrink the article to at most four paragraphs during this Coronavirus crisis.

    My only comment at this moment after glancing through the article is to advice the lifetime chairman of the APC party who has been accused of sponsoring and executing terrorism against the people of Sierra Leone, to directly respond to the accusations. I hope and pray that he will start with condemning the act of burning a medical center during a health crisis,which was probably built during his regime.

    • Hahahaha, funny Mr. Fallay, you just made by day. On a serious note, I am just a concerned citizen with no political attachment who makes comments on this glorious forum based on events back home. I have no access to the 2 authors of this article, however, it is obvious they wrote the article taking into account citizens liberties in connection to what has been happening in our nation for the last 2 years.

    • Wait a minute Mr. Alusine Fallay. All these drumming here and there over Young4na’s brilliant views over the article does not call for. What matters, is what Sierra Leoneans think about the present state of affairs under Pressure Bio and the Bio SLPP. That’s why, we are constantly, meticulously and consistently listening to their narratives/views, across the political divide every now and then, to make sure we give them the back up they need, to make that wise decision on judgement day – CACD.
      The earlier such back-up research are made, the better we position ourselves for CACD. Sierra Leoneans are tired and have had enough. Bottom line, the article is 100 percent accurate I reckon. Also, most Sierra Leoneans will be concerned about the present excellent chaotic state of affairs in Sierra Leone. Two years on, the Bio SLPP ship still struggling steering in mild seas. The Bio SLPP steamship should ask the opposition tug boat for help, PERIOD. God bless Young4na and Mr. Alusine Fallay.

  11. Wow, an incredible synopsis of why our nation has been unstable in the past 2years. Based on factual reporting on events happening over the past 2 years, I must say this article is close to being accurate on what most independent and patriotic citizens have been expressing all this while. Clearly the current regime bears a huge responsibility to the instability in our nation. The regime thirst for totalitarian rule — leading to the overturning of parliament with an opposition majority to minority is the genesis of all this quagmire.

  12. A nation without a solid identity,that swings tirelessly back and forth like a pendulum,between two crooked, corrupt, dysfunctional political parties,cannot,and will not be able to bring credible,sustainable peace,prosperity,and progress to its struggling citizens living in squalid conditions and abject poverty.It takes great skill,and ingenuity to use empathy, and firm resolve to uplift the standards of livings of others,much poorer,and less educated than you are.Repression,and intimidation are the ways of cowardly men,who lack the guts to beat their chests,make bold sacrifices,and go all out to protect human dignity,honor and life.

    Seriously,its unfortunate,that all of our leaders since our independence grew up in a society spoon-fed to them by their selfish British colonial masters – he taught them to walk,and run before they could learn to crawl,to sing before they could speak,to use hatred,and suspicions as reliable weapons of protection,and self preservation instead of mutual respect,and trust;the end result is what you are witnessing today. Stevens, Milton Margai,Tejan Kabbah,EBK, one and the same – all products of the vagabond British,that handed them a scepter of power engulfed in hot,scorching burning flames,after he had taught them the art of stealing,killing,and spreading lawlessness,and mayhem – the thief is long gone now, only his accomplices remain.

  13. Terrorism is define as the “unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims”. So protesting by setting ablaze of properties and intimidating the government to bow to the opposition political or individual or group needs is clearly in the arean for the President to define those act as Terrorism.

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