Covid-19 restrictions give rise to political tensions in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone faces a delicate balancing act between maintaining peace and fighting the public health disaster-that is the coronavirus. The virus poses great danger to human lives for a nation with an already very fragile health system. 

To reduce risk of infections, the government has had to implement nationwide restrictions and has curtailed movements. But enforcement of these regulations leaves the country on a knife edge. With over half its population (57.9%) multidimensionally poor, there is a looming threat of conflict erupting amid Covid-19.

Over the past few weeks, sporadic violent clashes have occurred in parts of the country, leaving over a dozen people dead, many hospitalised and property destroyed. Reasons for this unrest are unknown but have been widely attributed to coronavirus restrictions. 

Unrest began in Freetown with a riot in the Pademba Road Correctional Centre where five inmates and two prison officers died and parts of the detention facility were burnt. Then in Tombo, a small fishing community on the outskirts of Freetown, irate fishermen went on the rampage and reportedly burnt down parts of the police station, the home of the town chief and left several people injured. The fishermen had been told that only 15 boats would be allowed to go fishing as part of social distancing measures. Similar incidents have been reported in Lunsar and other parts of northern Sierra Leone.

These incidents have diverted attention from Covid-19 and there are now serious concerns about peace and national cohesion. Concerningly, many fear that the country could slide back into civil conflict if nothing is done to address the increasing tensions.

After the diplomatic community and inter-religious organisations called for him to unify the country, President Julius Maada Bio was unequivocal about his government’s line of action to contain the violent clashes. 

“The security sector has closely analysed the prime movers, financiers, causes, nature and patterns of the violent acts. Our responses are therefore well-informed. As commander-in-chief, I have ordered the intelligence and security forces to use all available resources, and take all measures necessary within the laws of the country to deal promptly, decisively and robustly with all acts of violence against the state,” Bio said in a recent address to the nation.

Many have described the president’s remarks as too strong at a time when people’s livelihoods have been cut off and survival is seriously threatened by Covid-19 restrictions.  

A civil society working group on epidemics has called for harmonised regulations on the coronavirus response. The consortium wants the government to present these revised Covid-19 rules for approval in Parliament.

“While condemning the act of youths and fishermen of Tombo in taking the law into their hands, it is also important to emphasise that the seeming lack of consolidated set of clear and predictable regulation for Covid-19 did contribute in exacerbating the Tombo crisis situation,” parts of the consortium’s statement read. 

But there is an interesting twist to the unfolding drama in Sierra Leone. In his speech, President Bio accused the main opposition, All Peoples Congress (APC), of aiding and abetting the violence by financing, planning and inciting crimes he labelled as “terrorist attacks”.

“Their actions are planned, co-ordinated, well-orchestrated and executed acts of violent terrorism. They even record their acts with telephone cameras, run self-valorising commentaries on their acts of extreme violence and killings, and share those synchronously in WhatsApp forums.

“The silence of the national APC leadership on the active participation of their members and executive members in these acts of terrorist violence, senseless loss of lives, injuries and wanton destruction of public and personal property is truly disconcerting,” Bio said.  

Observers say that accusing the main opposition in such strong terms will only aggravate the political tension that has been brewing. This comes off the back of the arrests and detention of high profile former ministers in the APC administration. 

Among those arrested is Alfred Paolo Conteh, a retired major and former minister of defence, who was accused of treason as well as possession of undeclared weapons. Another arrestee is Sylvia Olayinka Blyden, a journalist and politician who served as former minister of social welfare, gender and children’s affairs, who was arrested for incitement and subversion, according to the Sierra Leone Police.

Bio accuses the opposition of trying to make the country ungovernable; noting that the incidences of unrest are due to the public threats of the losing presidential candidate of the APC. In turn, the APC has blamed the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party for instigating the prison riots in order to clamp down on opposition members.

These political gimmicks are not new and are also unimportant. The only take-away is that the constant shifting of blame proves even more costly during these times when people are dying and thousands more are at risk of contracting coronavirus.

A statement from the resident co-ordinator of the United Nations in Sierra Leone calls for a collective national push to battle coronavirus and eschew divisions and acts of violence. “To this end, the United Nations in Sierra Leone calls on all the political parties, their followers, security agencies and the population at large to promote respect for human rights while eschewing acts of incitement and other actions liable to violence and distract from the all-important fight against Covid-19,” the statement read in part.

From 11 years of brutal civil war to Ebola and from flooding to landslides, Sierra Leone now faces the coronavirus. The path to this point has undoubtedly been erratic and deadly — and people have still not fully recovered. In the interests of their people, both the government and the opposition players ought to remind themselves that reverting to violence and political combat will only make the people of Sierra Leone’s lives more difficult than they already are. At least let them fight coronavirus in peace.

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