from TETEH KAMARA in Freetown, Sierra Leone
Sierra Leone Bureau
FREETOWN, (CAJ News) – THE attempted coup in Sierra Leone this past weekend is the latest crisis to rock Africa’s so-called coup belt.
Hailed as a beacon of political stability and democratic rule in the troubled bloc, Sierra Leone relapsed into calamity in the early hours of Sunday when a group of soldiers and police officers broke into the main ammunition stores at the Wilberforce Barracks and made off with heavy weapons.
Residents wake up to gunfire in the capital, Freetown.
Gunshots were fired around the Presidential Lodge, where President Julius Maada Wonie Bio was believed to be heavily guarded by presidential sentry as fighting raged throughout the day.
Gunfire exchanges also reportedly occurred near another military installation in Murray Town, also in the capital.
To aggravate the breakdown of law and order, the armed group attacked and overran the Pademba Road Prison, also in Freetown and released an unspecified number of inmates. Some prisoners were abducted.
It has been described as a failed coup in some quarters.
In a televised address late Sunday evening, Bio said most of the leaders of the mutiny had been arrested.
“Security operations and investigations are ongoing. We will ensure that those responsible are held accountable through due process,” he said.
Chernor Bah, the Minister of Information and Civic Education, earlier said the rebellious officers had been “rebuffed.”
“The public is assured that the government and state security forces are in control,” he said.
Authorities have declared a nationwide curfew.
“We strongly advise citizens to stay indoors,” Bah said.
Freetown’s vibrant markets and beaches resemble ghost cities.
At the time of filing this report, security forces had pushed back the assailants to the outskirts of Freetown and were engaged in battle in the Jui area.
Bah said the Pademba Road Prison had been secured. He refuted reports that the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) was on fire and under siege.
“The security forces are making progress in the operation to defeat and apprehend those responsible for today’s attacks,” he said.
The Sierra Leone Civil Aviation Authority (SLCAA) has indicated that travelers flying via Freetown International Airport will be impacted due to the curfew.
It has urged airline operators to reschedule departing passengers on the next available flights after the curfew is lifted.
The country’s airspace remains open.
The mayhem comes five months after the West African country of 8,8 million people held elections whose outcome the main opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) rejected, citing “glaring irregularities.”
Incumbent Bio (won 56,17 percent), in power since 2018, was retained after the poll although some observers expressed concern over “the lack of transparency in the tabulation process.”
Some observers were from the United Kingdom (UK) and United States (US), whose embassies in Freetown have denounced Sunday’s violence.
“We are monitoring the situation closely,” the UK embassy stated.
It advised British nationals in Sierra Leone to abide by the curfew.
The US urged cooperation with government security forces’ operation to detain those responsible and encouraged all to adhere to government guidance regarding the curfew.
“The United States continues to stand with all those working for a peaceful, democratic, healthy, and prosperous Sierra Leone,” the American embassy stated.
The skirmishes pose another headache to the Economic Community of the West African States (ECOWAS), which has experienced a series of coups.
Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali and Niger are under military rule. The West African bloc is also synonymous with rebellions by Islamist groups.
ECOWAS said it had learnt with “utter disgust” a plot by certain individuals to acquire arms and disturb the peace and constitutional order in Sierra Leone.
“ECOWAS condemns this act and calls for the arrest and prosecution of all participants in this illegal act. ECOWAS reiterates its zero-tolerance for unconstitutional change of Government.”
While Sierra Leone has experienced a number of coups and a civil war (1991 to 2002) since independence from Britain in 1961, the country has in recent years been a symbol of stability.
Berhanemeskel Nega, the veteran diplomat with particular focus on conflicts in Africa, said Sierra Leone has come a long way in “its peaceful and democratic transformation, and that should be protected.”
“The tragic episode in Sierra Leone’s past history of resorting to violence to solve problems shall not be allowed to repeat. The recently observed difficulties must be addressed with courage and sincerity.”
– CAJ News