As political violence continues, is Sierra Leone on the road to hell?

By J L Samboma

The man chosen by Sierra Leone’s main opposition party to challenge President Ernest Bai Koroma in elections next year has been whisked to Ghana for treatment after he was injured a fortnight ago by government supporters ahead of an opposition rally in the southern city of Bo.

Sources say Julius Maada Bio (left), a former military officer, left the country for Accra earlier this week.  The head injury he sustained during the incident became worse and he opted for further treatment in Ghana, bringing an abrupt end to his “Meet the People” tour of the country in preparation for the elections.

Missiles for the General

The incident, in Sierra Leone’s second city, took place when supporters of the ruling All Peoples Congress (APC) attacked a procession of opposition members as they made way to the venue where the retired brigadier was billed to address his party faithful.  Rocks and other projectiles were thrown at them.

A spokesman for the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) said they had suspected such an attack from the APC and asked the police long before the proposed rally to beef-up security arrangements.  However, on the day of the incident, the opposition say, police withdrew protection and allowed their opponents to line part of the route.

Angry SLPP youths went on the rampage after Bio was hurt, burning down several buildings, among them the APC party office and homes of prominent ruling party officials.  One man was killed when police opened fire on the crowd; another’s finger was sliced clean-off (above right; Bio in image adjacent with head plaster).

SLPP women were raped

This is but the latest in a long line of inter-party skirmishes between the APC and the SLPP since President Koroma (left) came to office in 2007 after the country’s first peaceful transition of power in forty years.  In the summer of 2008 the SLPP's HQ in Freetown, the capital was attacked by government supporters, and the party’s radio station damaged.

However, it was the attack the following year, in March 2009, which was to attract heightened international media attention and opprobrium.  Then, the SLPP’s Freetown offices were firebombed by government supporters and at least four SLPP female members raped on the party's premises.  Opposition party offices in several other towns were also attacked that month.

While researching this piece and a pending documentary film on the subject, I contacted the Sierra Leone authorities and their embassy in London.  My calls and emails went unacknowledged; the information attache at the embassy promised to talk to me but declined at the last minute.

These violent developments would be worrisome in any country; they are more so for Sierra Leone, which endured a decade of bloody, internecine civil war between 1991 and 2002.  Over 50,000 people lost their lives in that war and millions more were displaced.  They do not bode well for a fragile democracy trying to rebuild a post-war civil society.

Instead of taking concrete action to nip this growing threat in the bud, the Koroma government has on every occasion mouthed the usual platitudes about abhorring violence, and calling for “calm on both sides.”  No one has ever been convicted or otherwise punished for involvement in this spate of political violence.  (The image above left is of the attack on the SLPP HQ in March 2009)

“Normal” Sierra Leone politicking

This is not surprising, as the violence is in the main instigated by members or supporters of the ruling party.  The government has failed to send out an unequivocal message that political thuggery will not be tolerated in the new, “democratic” Sierra Leone.  A culture of impunity has thus been allowed to develop, something which has disturbing implications for the pending elections. 

What the government has done instead is attempt to sweep these violent eruptions under the carpet, or whitewash them as little local difficulties which merely add local colour, and background noise, to the hustle and bustle of “normal” Sierra Leone politicking.

It is assisted in this task by local media – both official and “independent” – which blare-out its positions, blaming opponents and their supporters for events which many know are inspired by government inaction against the perpetrators.  Proof that they are officially-sanctioned is thin on the ground, but it is obvious to many that the government is looking the other way.  In the thick of this mix is a plethora of government- and APC-financed internet publications churning out the party line.

It takes two to tango

The opposition are not blameless.  As the old saying goes, it takes two to tango.  The violent scenes enacted in Bo a fortnight ago by SLPP youths, in the aftermath of the attack on Bio, are inexcusable, and must be condemned unreservedly.  But one must conclude that the opposition event would have taken place relatively peacefully if APC supporters had not disrupted the occasion – or if it had been policed properly.

The impartiality of the police and security forces has once again come under scrutiny. In this and other inter-party skirmishes, many have accused them of standing by while opposition supporters were attacked, or of becoming active participants on the side of government supporters.

A case in point was the assault on the SLPP HQ in March of 2009, during which SLPP female members were raped.  There is footage – on youtube and elsewhere – of members of the police and President Koroma’s security detail assaulting opposition members on the party’s premises.  Despite official denials, I have seen video clips of a senior, pistol-toting member of the presidential guard emerging from the area where the women were raped - adjusting his flies.  (He is seen in the video below, wearing black and trampling and kicking a hapless victim on the floor.)

The Road to Hell

Courtesy of the APC’s elaborate media operation, claims have surfaced that the Bio was “not injured” in Bo. He was “faking it,” we’re told.  At least they have not lost their grip on reality to the extent of trying to deny that the opposition was attacked that day. 

If the President and his government are serious about wanting to see an end to these incidents of politically-motivated violence, they should institute an impartial investigation into all these episodes and bring to book those responsible for instigating and perpetrating them – without fear or favour.  To paraphrase the President, there should be no sacred cows. (Film below shows President Koroma condemning the March 2009 violence in his country.)

Only such action can put an end to the culture of impunity and ensure that next year’s elections take place in an atmosphere of peace, tolerance and respect for democratic principles.  The intolerance and skulduggery we see walking the streets of Sierra Leone today are what led to the decade-long civil war.  If action is not taken now, then Sierra Leone would have once again embarked on the road to Hell.