By Lawrence Williams
Protesters marched through the streets of the capital, Freetown, and other parts of the country, protesting the government’s maladroit handling of the economy and rising poverty and unemployment rates. Protesters also expressed concern about human rights and governance in the country and the prospect of gerrymandering in next year’s elections. What began as a peaceful protest later turned violent, rambunctious, and almost intractable. Clashes erupted between protesters and law enforcement agents. These further escalated to attacks on some public infrastructure, vandalism of public buildings and brutal killings of police officers. The aftermath of the protest left several dead and dozens more injured, as well as some buildings utterly vandalized or razed. Additionally, the demonstrators were met with live fire from the police, some of which resulted in the deaths of civilians as well. Graphic images of the violent scenes soon flooded social media. Some protesters in the northern town of Binkolo were seen putting children in harm’s way by using them as human shields during the demonstration. The internet was quickly shut down. International Media reported that the protest was triggered by the high cost of living and youth unemployment in the country.
In their initial reactions, some government officials and pro-government civil society activists said that the protest was a ploy to overthrow the constitutionally elected government of His Excellency Julius Maada Bio. They accused the main opposition All People’s Congress (APC) of being involved, an accusation the APC strongly denies.
A nationwide curfew was spontaneously imposed by Vice President Mohamed Juldeh Jalloh on the same day to curtail the spread of the violence which had become almost intractable. The imposition of the curfew was stoutly critiqued by political and governance activist, Augustine Sorie-Sengbe Marrah Esq. Marah said in a tweet that the action of the Vice President was unconstitutionally. He said the declaration of a curfew should be preceded by a proclamation of a State of Emergency. The curfew has however been lifted.
In his briefing to the Diplomatic Community on Aug. 11, Foreign Minister David Francis described the August 10 demonstration as a ‘terrorist attack’ fueled by the APC to unseat the government of President Bio. He told members of the diplomatic community in Sierra Leone that what happened last Wednesday was not a demonstration but rather a “violent insurrection by terrorists”
Albeit the incidents have been met with strong international condemnation on all fronts, the U.K High Commissioner and the U.S Ambassador et al. were concerned that the minister’s characterisation of the protest as a terrorist attack could escalate tensions, but David Francis did maintain that there is no legitimate term to describe the incident other than a terrorist attack.
In like manner, senior government officials including the Minister of Information and Communications Rahman Swarray have described the demonstration as a failed coup attempt orchestrated by the APC.
In his address to the nation on August 12, President Bio said the “insurrection was premeditated, well-planned, financed and executed with shocking brutality” by persons who had severally “identified themselves on social media as APC Warriors, PPP, and persons who are determined to capture political power even at the cost of hundreds of lives.”
He said the incidents “were a clear statement of their collective intent,” adding that the “chants of the insurrectionists was for a violent overthrow of the democratically elected government.” The president has since promised to “crack down hard” on them and their collaborators and financiers, and has ordered a full-blown investigation.
The APC put out a statement on Aug. 13 distancing itself from the events of Aug. 10. They instead accused the government of arbitrarily hounding hundreds of APC supporters during the curfew hours and locking them up in some undisclosed locations.
“Our senior members were being picked up from their homes before and after protest period and locked up in undisclosed locations. Hundreds of our members who did not participate in the protest have been picked up during curfew hours and their whereabouts are still unknown. These abducted members are reported to have no contacts with family members since these unidentified armed men picked them up from their homes. This is without doubt chilling new threat to the rights of citizens. The government should now stop using state apparatus against our members across this country simply because they chose to be members of the APC. The President and his government should stop blaming the APC for the “faceless demonstration” and learn to take responsibility by addressing the cries of citizens,” the release states.
The party however said they would support any credible probe instituted by the government.
The release states: “It is our hope that the promise of an investigation will be an impartial and independent one. Such an independent committee should delve into the violent protests, the loss of lives and destruction of property in many places around the country. Through this independent and impartial investigation their pattern of unsubstantiated and relentless accusations against our party will be discredited. We call for publication of the names and addresses of all those arrested in connection with this incident and the immediate and unconditional release of all our members and possibly the hundreds of other presumably innocent citizens in the custody of law enforcement agencies. The APC Party stands prepared to support government in a transparent, credible and impartial process at all levels.”