* ECOWAS seeks arrest of perpetrators
Michael Olugbode and Emmanuel Addeh in Abuja
There was a failed coup attempt in the early hours of yesterday in Sierra Leone, prompting the West African country to impose a countrywide curfew.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) reacted to the development, and demanded arrest of the perpetrators.
The Sierra Leonean government, while announcing the imposition of curfew, said the decision was necessitated by an attack on a military armoury in Freetown. The government said those that attempted to break into the armoury were repelled and calm had been restored.
Witnesses told AFP they heard gunshots and explosions in the city’s Wilberforce district. But the information ministry assured the public that “the government and our state security forces are in control.
“To enable the security forces to continue the process of apprehending the suspects, a nationwide curfew is declared with immediate effect across the country”.
No further details were given on the alleged perpetrators of the attack or their motives.
In a terse statement, Sierra Leone’s Minister of Information, Chernor Bah, said the government was in control of the situation. Bah said the curfew was declared to allow the security forces conduct a mop-up of those responsible for the act.
The minister stated, “In the early hours of Sunday, November 26, 2023, some unidentified individuals attempted to break into the military armoury at Wilberforce barracks. They have all been rebuffed. The public is assured that the government and our state security forces are in control.
“To enable the security forces to continue the process of apprehending the suspects, a nationwide curfew is declared with immediate effect across the country. We strongly advise citizens to stay indoors.”
The government urged citizens to follow the official ministry of information and civic education channels and official handles for accurate information and updates on the situation.
But a senior official, who requested anonymity, told Reuters, a news agency, that the central prison in Freetown was open and some inmates had escaped. The prison, designed to hold 324 inmates, held over 2,000 in 2019, according to a US State Department report.
It was not clear how many had broken out of the facility, but videos shared on social media showed several people fleeing from the area of the prison, while gunshots could be heard in the background.
The political situation in the West African nation had remained tense since the re-election of President Julius Bio in a disputed election in June, the result of which was rejected by the main opposition candidate.
Anti-government protests that resulted in the death of six police officers and at least 21 civilians last August were an attempt to overthrow the government, Bio said at the time.
In a message on the president’s X account, yesterday, the president said there had been a breach of security, as some unidentified individuals attacked the military armoury.
“As the combined team of our security forces continue to root out the remnants of the fleeing renegades, a nationwide curfew has been declared and citizens are encouraged to stay indoors,” the post said.
Bio added that the government would “continue to protect the peace and security of Sierra Leone against the forces that wish to truncate our much-cherished stability”. He said the government was “resolute in our determination to protect democracy in Sierra Leone”.
ECOWAS, while condemning the attempted military takeover, said in a statement, “ECOWAS condemns this act and calls for the arrest and prosecution of all participants in this illegal act.”
The regional body reiterated its zero-tolerance for unconstitutional change of government, underscoring its commitment to supporting the government and people of Sierra Leone to deepen democracy and good governance, consolidate peace and security as well and foster socio-economic development.
In a post on X, the US embassy in Freetown condemned in the strongest terms possible the attempted overnight forceful seizure of Wilberforce barracks and armoury.
The embassy said, “Such actions have no justification. We urge full cooperation with the government security forces in the ongoing operation to detain those responsible and strongly encourage all to adhere to government guidance regarding the ongoing curfew for their own safety.
“The United States continues to stand with all those working for a peaceful, democratic, healthy, and prosperous Sierra Leone.”
There have been eight military coups in West and Central Africa since 2020, delivering repeated blows to democracy in the region.
ECOWAS said in its statement, “The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has 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.
“ECOWAS further underscores its commitment to supporting the government and people of Sierra Leone to deepen democracy and good governance, consolidate peace and security as well as foster socio-economic development.”
But sporadic gunfire could still be heard in the empty streets of Freetown near the barracks on Sunday, said a Reuters reporter, who encountered a group of the renegade soldiers.
“We’ll clean this society. We know what we are up to. We are not after any ordinary civilians who should go about their normal business,” said one of the masked men in military fatigues before driving away.
Bio, who was first elected in 2018, was re-elected in June with 56.17 per cent of the vote – just over the 55 per cent needed to avoid a runoff.
International observers condemned inconsistencies and a lack of transparency in the count, as well as acts of violence and intimidation.
The main opposition All Peoples Congress (APC) party disputed the results of the presidential, legislative and local elections on June 24 and boycotted all levels of government. APC and the government signed an agreement in October following talks mediated by the Commonwealth, African Union, and ECOWAS.
APC agreed to end its boycott and to begin participating in government in exchange for an end to detentions and court cases it said were politically motivated.