An uneasy calm is gradually settling in Freetown following gunfire over the weekend that threw Sierra Leone’s capital into panic mode.
Gunshots rang out early Sunday morning as armed men attacked Wilberforce barracks, the military’s main encampment and one of the largest garrisons in the West African country.
Videos on social media showed several inmates running away from the Central Prison, popularly called the Pademba Road Prison, after the armed men also attacked the facility and set free almost all of the reported 1890 people held there. A police station holding prisoners, too, was attacked. At least twenty fatalities have been reported, with 13 soldiers among the dead.
In a televised address on Sunday evening, about 17 hours after the first gunshots were fired, President Julius Maada Bio said the assailants had been “rebuffed,” and that most of those who led the attacks had been arrested.
“I want to assure everybody who is resident in Sierra Leone that we have overcome this challenge,” he said, speaking from the presidential lodge which is just about 6 kilometres (3.7 miles) from the attacked barracks.
Several military checkpoints sprung up around Freetown on Monday. A few shops in the central business district opened and a few people went to their workplaces, but schools and banks remained closed, residents said. A dusk-to-dawn curfew has also been imposed till further notice and flights to and from the country have been restricted to the curfew times.
The attacks came amid a string of coups and counter-coups that have rocked West Africa since 2020. Although President Bio and other officials have been careful not to label the uprising an attempted coup, many Sierra Leoneans have used that term to describe the violent events.
“A lot of people are saying it was an attempt to topple the government,” said Amadou Lamarana Bah, a journalist who tried to report even as the chaos broke out but was turned back by gun-pointing military men. There has been continued speculation about the real motive of the attackers as details continue to trickle down from the authorities, he said. “Others are saying it was an attempt to release some military officers who were in the prison. Things are not yet back to normal at all.”
‘We were expecting something’
Sunday’s events were the culmination of tensions that have been brewing since highly contested elections concluded in June. Following President Bio’s re-election, Samura Kamara, candidate of the opposition All People’s Congress (APC), immediately rejected the SLPP win, saying the results were not credible. European Union observers, as well as United States officials, had also said results by the electoral commission lacked transparency.
But Sunday’s attacks also came as deep resentment swells among Sierra Leoneans who are feeling the bite of a flailing economy that was hit hard, first by the COVID-19 pandemic, and then, the fallout of Russia’s war on Ukraine. Many have directed their anger at President Bio who they accuse of jetting out of the country on expensive international trips.
Those feelings deepened when dozens were killed last August after police shot at crowds protesting against high food prices in Freetown, a rare occurrence in a country where protests are usually peaceful. At least 21 civilians and six policemen died in the riots.
“What went down last year, even if it’s not directly related, I think created an environment where some people maybe sensed an opening,” said Kieran Mitton, a King’s College London researcher focused on Sierra Leone. The crackdown, he said, had made President Bio and the country vulnerable. “There’s a general sense of unhappiness. A lot of people I’ve spoken to said, ‘We were expecting something. Maybe not this but we were expecting something because the situation in the country is so, so bad.’”
Sierra Leoneans have often called out the foreign media for tracing the country’s present issues to brutal civil wars that raged for more than a decade from the 90s until 2001 and saw thousands killed and Sierra Leone’s economy stagnate. But the recent violence, some admit, does remind them of those dark times.
“I was a teenager during the war,” Bah, the journalist said. “I can recall when we went to a mosque to seek refuge and military guys came and were firing all over. Some people were killed. We survived, but officers pointing guns bring back those memories.”
For some, Sunday felt like the country took several steps back, even as people try to move forward. Sallu Kamuskay, a blogger, was stuck preparing for a friend’s wedding in another part of town when the gunshots rang out. He woke from a nap to see his phone exploding with messages from worried friends and family.
“I was shocked waking up to the news after we said ‘never again,’” Kamuskay said.
An emergency all-day curfew meant the groom’s parents were stuck in the area of the chaos. “Those of us who were already here had to proceed with the wedding while my friend’s father and mother joined via WhatsApp video call,” he said.
It’s unclear who led the attacks on the military armoury. Authorities said the assailants were “unidentified” and that investigations are continuing to determine their identity.
Rumours of a possible coup had been swirling for months. In August, 14 top military officers were arrested for “subversion” or undermining authority. Their names were not disclosed.
But at least two analysts told Al Jazeera that about 50 people, including military officials and former rebel commanders, might have been involved in the Sunday attacks. The intruders appeared to have successfully breached and removed some weapons from the barracks before a special guard attached to the presidency intervened and pushed them out of town, the experts said.
One video on social media showed residents peering into a truck that a local fact-checking website confirms was abandoned by the attackers. In the truck is a rifle, an RPG grenade launcher, bullet cartridges and military fatigues.
Kars de Bruijne, West Africa lead at Clingendael Institute, a think tank, says it’s odd that the attackers went for an armoury and not a more sensitive spot as is usual in coup attempts.“You’d expect that they’d go to the State House,” de Bruijne said, referring to the presidential lodge. “It’s possible they had plans to do that but they were facing a lot of resistance.” The inmates, he added, were possibly released “to make sure they could create a lot of chaos”.
Some of those who died in the gunfire have been linked to Ernest Bai Koroma, the country’s immediate past president and a member of the opposition APC.
Idrissa “Leatherboot” Hamid Kamara, an ex-fighter who was imprisoned after the war and who later joined the former president’s security team was one, according to local media. A bodyguard attached to Koroma was also shot dead by the Sierra Leonean army, and another was taken alive, in what appeared to be a raid on his home.
Koroma distanced himself from the violence in a statement. “I’m deeply concerned over the unfolding events in Freetown, and I strongly condemn the grave breaches of state security,” the former president wrote on social media.
A military and police reshuffle could happen in the coming weeks, de Bruijne said, as authorities try to unravel more details.“My fear is that there’s going to be a very serious crackdown on the APC,” the expert added. If politicians are found to be involved then they should be accountable, he said, but “the risk is that the authorities could overreact and that might lead to others being arrested who were not directly involved in this at all”.
Calls for peace
President Bio’s address to the nation on Sunday evening was soothing, in a country where events have become increasingly politicised, and where some say government officials have previously used inciteful language. After the killings last August, for example, Bio and government officials had called protesters “insurrectionists”.
On Sunday, Bio used neutral terms like “individuals” and “attackers” and focused on praising the “bravery” of the security forces. He called on Sierra Leoneans across party lines to fight for the country’s hard-earned peace.
“Even when it has been questionable if a coup was even in the cards, he has called a coup, when he has talked about political unrest, he has called it mutiny or treason,” said Mitton of King’s College, pondering the president’s attitude change.
Ex-military and a one-time military ruler, Bio might be expected to have it smooth with the army but that’s hardly the case, Mitton noted. “I think he would like to see himself as having the military on his side (but) that points to the relationship not being as simple as people assume. There are always factions within the military and if you have an alliance with one group, you will have some that feel a bit left out.”
Bio’s tone on Sunday hit the mark for many people across the country, Bah, the journalist said, even if people are still dissatisfied with the economic challenges they face. “Sierra Leonans commended the way he addressed the situation,” he said. “I don’t think people want military rule, all they want is for him to cut expenditure, especially travelling.”
Some say they want to keep making progress.
“All we want is peace,” Kamuskay, the blogger, said. “Even when people are not happy with the election results and the way the country is being run by this government, people still want peace.”