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‘Explosion of violence’: Sierra Leone’s government takes control after days of protest

Mohamed Sillah said he doesn’t see these type of incidents in Sierra Leone, but it’s tough for businesses and people during these times.

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Mohamed Sillah described the events of last week, when rare protests against soaring inflation and the rising cost of living shook the capital of Sierra Leone.

The destruction of his and other buildings was “an explosion of violence,” as Sillah put it. “This is not something that happens often in Sierra Leone, but these are trying times for the country.”

Eastern Freetown was ravaged as police and security forces violently dispersed demonstrators, setting buildings on fire and destroying government buildings and public transportation vehicles. At the very least 21 protesters and 6 police officers lost their lives. Video footage confirmed by Reuters shows police opening fire on the crowds.

In this tiny west African country, most of the country’s 8 million people live in poverty, so protests are typically limited. Although rapid inflation across Africa is partly attributable to the conflict in Ukraine, Sierra Leone has been hit especially hard. That people were out in the streets in the first place was a direct result of the economy.

A week after the protests in Freetown, police and military convoys patrolled the main thoroughfares of Rokupa, Makeni, and Kamakwie. Normalcy was slowly returning as a tense calm subsided.

The government has launched an investigation into the alleged organizers of the protests after initially blaming the opposition for the unrest and labeling the demonstrations an attempted coup. The protesters interviewed by the local media, however, claimed that there was no central organizing force behind the demonstrations, and that the anger they were expressing was shared by many people.

The President of the country, Julius Bio, denied that the riots represented widespread discontent. He emphasized that the demonstration was not a reaction to the rising prices caused by the ongoing global economic crisis. The insurrectionists were calling for a violent coup against the legitimately elected government, as one of their slogans put it.

On the ground, however, it was obvious that many agreed with the protesters’ concerns.

First, the easing of the Covid pandemic and then the Russian invasion of Ukraine drove inflation up to nearly 28% in June. Since September 2021, food price inflation has nearly doubled, reaching a level not seen in decades.

Medical professionals and educators have been on strike in recent months for higher wages to keep up with rising costs of living.

Without giving their names, vendors at a Western Rural market complained that the cost of staples like rice, onions, tomatoes, and beef had risen by about 50% over the previous year, while the cost of fuel and palm oil had roughly doubled.

Campaign for Good Governance director Marcella Samba-Sesay said that the government had not explained to the majority of people why economic difficulties had increased.

The government’s message doesn’t get through to many people because of a communication gap. She explained that the growing public anger was due to a lack of explanation for the deteriorating situation.

The authorities’ refusal to allow protests has also been a source of growing anger. Many protest organizers are required by a public order act passed in 1965 during colonial rule to first obtain permission from the police before holding a demonstration.

Samba-Sesay said, “But usually when the issues are political, the police will say no.” “Therefore, those who wish to demonstrate publicly are not permitted to do so.”

In Freetown in July, hundreds of market women demonstrated against the government’s economic policies. In solidarity with the protesters, many businesses closed their doors. Law enforcement officials detained dozens of female protesters. Several claimed they were abused physically and sexually by police.

“People are really suffering, and they feel the government is not responding or allowing them to have a voice,” Semba-Sesay said. People must have safe outlets for expressing their frustrations.