In the last four years alone in Sierra Leone, under the presidency of Rtd Brigadier Maada Bio, the police and presidential guards have killed more protesters than they did under the last two presidencies – of Kabba and Koroma, combined (a total of over twenty-one years). Some of the most heinous killings took place in Makeni, Lunsar, Tombo, and Freetown.
In 2020, prisoners at the Pademba Road Prison in Freetown were demonstrating in the prison yard to obtain protective wear against the spread of COVID-19 in the prison. They came under sustained machine gun attacks by presidential guards, who mounted their machine guns at the top of the hill above the prison and directed the barrels toward the prisoners. Scores were killed.
A government-censored report stated that ‘only’ thirty-one prisoners were killed. This is a huge underreporting of the actual number of prisoners who were killed. Pademba Road Prison is one of the most overcrowded prisons in Africa. Built in 1913 and opened in 1914, it was meant to hold 324 inmates. Today the prison has over 1,300 inmates.
The protest was related to COVID-19. One case had been found in prison, which led to restrictions on movement, but no basic protective wear, such as face masks, was provided for prisoners. In addition to the restrictions on movement, the chief justice suspended all court sittings and ordered the closure of a retail unit at the prison.
In Makeni, on 18th July 2020, six youths were gunned down by the police after staging a peaceful protest to prevent the removal of a stand-by electricity generator from the city by the government. In response, the government gave orders for the police to open fire on the protesters, killing six and wounding twelve.
In Tombo, the police were called to open fire on protesters, who had been stopped from taking their fishing boats to the water. This trivial disagreement, which could have been resolved by dialogue, was responded to by force. The result was the killing of two young men, who died of bullet wounds.
Last week’s widespread and bloody protests in Freetown and the provinces, which resulted in the killing of over twenty civilians and five police officers, have been brewing for the past few years as a result of corruption, bad governance, police brutality, entrenched unemployment and hardship felt by 68% of the country’s population.
Youth unemployment in Sierra Leone is about 70% across the country (an increase of 10.77% since 2019). These difficulties have been exacerbated by the arrival of COVID-19 and the manipulation of commodity prices by the government’s favoured traders. For example, Sierra Leone imports more than 60% of its rice, which is monopolised and controlled by a very tight and corrupt cartel of state-appointed traders, leaving local importers unable to trade in rice importation. Sierra Leone spends well over $240 million a year to import rice (these are underestimated government figures).
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sierra Leone government, like the government of The Gambia, received millions of dollars from the international community to provide emergency food support and COVID-19 protective wear to their populations. Whilst the government of The Gambia was very thorough in providing food and emergency support to every household in the country (for example, every household in The Gambia received a 50kg bag of rice along with cooking oil), the Sierra Leone government used the money to purchase thirty brand new Toyota Land Cruisers for its ministers and associated directors. The very small number of those who received some money from the state were all relatives of government ministers and directors. The result was a terrible degeneration into extreme hunger, poverty, and neglect for the most vulnerable families during prolonged lockdowns.
The current upheaval has been in the making for three years, capitalised on by social media influencers and opportunistic opposition politicians at home and abroad.
Young people who have managed to find work for themselves as Kehkeh drivers (like Tuk-Tuk – a three-wheel taxi) and motorcycle taxi riders are having a torrid time with the traffic police. Kehkeh drivers and motorcycle taxi riders are stopped at least five times a day by traffic police, who congregate at bottleneck junctions in cities to stop, harass and take money from them. Those who refuse to pay have their licences taken away from them or are sent to court for bogus offences such as speeding.
At one point at Up-Gun Roundabout in Eastern Freetown, we counted ten traffic police officers at a very narrow junction, all looking for riders to harass for money. With petrol costs increasing and the number of passengers decreasing, in addition to the high cost of living, riders are no longer willing to give money to traffic police officers. On two occasions in two weeks in July, riders staged a stay-at-home protest. A rider told me: ‘This is the worst government this country has ever seen. The president doesn’t talk to the country about what is happening; he is always out of the country.’
While extreme poverty has multiplied in the last four years in Sierra Leone, the number of high-value houses and four-wheel-drives has increased exponentially. Range Rovers are very common here, but Jeep Wranglers are now the new toys for ministers, directors and public sector managers – and for their girlfriends. At one point at a crossroads on Regent Road in Western Freetown, we counted six new Jeep Wranglers in five minutes. These top-of-the-range vehicles were decorated with various-coloured headlights shining in broad daylight that you would be forgiven for thinking that the factory was just down the road. Extreme corruption in Sierra Leone has become frighteningly blatant and barefaced.
In rural Sierra Leone, the situation is catastrophic – even in the government’s heartland of south-eastern Sierra Leone. In Bo city, magnificent new houses have started to spring up along the main highway going to Kenema, towards the stadium. They are like diamonds in elephant dung. These are the sorts of houses you would expect on the south coast of the USA. They are huge, bold, and unrepentant. A large proportion of key ministers and directors in this government come from this region, Southern Sierra Leone.
In Kenema, Eastern Sierra Leone, the poverty is dire. As we drove past, we saw a group of young girls and older women waiting to collect drinking water from a broken waste pipe that was laid between the main road and a truck repair garage in the middle of the city. I stopped my colleague and got out of the vehicle with my camera.