Sierra Leone military barracks foiled attack ignites fears over coup attempt

A general view of Freetown on June 19, 2023. Sierra Leoneans will vote in a general election on Saturday, with President Julius Maada Bio hoping to secure a second term despite a crippling economic crisis which has sparked deadly protests. The west African country, which never fully recovered economically from a 1991-2002 civil war and the Ebola epidemic a decade later, was further pummelled by the Covid pandemic and fallout from the war in Ukraine. (Photo by JOHN WESSELS / AFP) (Photo by JOHN WESSELS/AFP via Getty Images)

Sierra Leone has grappled with a political crisis since the conclusion of a disputed general election in June.John Wessels/AFP/Getty ImagesCNN — 

The president of Sierra Leone has described a foiled assault on a military barracks in the capital Freetown as an “attack on democracy.”

In a video statement posted on X, formerly Twitter, late Sunday, President Maada Bio said most of the ringleaders had been arrested and calm restored. He vowed to “ensure that those responsible are held accountable through due process.”

Bio said in the statement following the attacks on the barracks, there was also a security breach at a Freetown prison, where an undisclosed number of inmates escaped.

The news sparked fears of another potential coup attempt in West Africa.

A nationwide curfew was imposed following an attack in the early hours of Sunday on the military barracks, leading to widespread flight disruption.

Authorities revised the indefinite curfew, saying it would now run from 9:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. daily local time, starting Monday.

The country’s airspace was also closed but the country’s aviation authority later said the Freetown International Airport would resume full operations after the curfew was lifted.

“This will be in effect until further notice,” the country’s information ministry said.

A divisive election

President Bio described the incident as an “attack on democracy,” but did not state outright that it was a coup attempt. Global condemnation has however been swift.

In a strong statement, the West African regional bloc ECOWAS said it “has learnt with utter disgust a plot by certain individuals to acquire arms and disturb the peace and constitutional order in Sierra Leone.”

ECOWAS, which has been trying to prevent a contagion effect after a spate of coups in the region, called for the prosecution of the masterminds behind the attacks while reiterating its “zero tolerance for unconstitutional change of government.” 

The US embassy in Sierra Leone condemned the attacks while adding in another statement on X, on Monday that: “We honor and remember those who gave their lives yesterday in defense of Sierra Leone’s Constitution and government.”

President of Sierra Leone and Leader of Sierra Leone People's party (SLPP), Julius Maada Bio, addresses his supporters during his final campaign rally in Freetown on June 20, 2023.

Sierra Leone’s President Maada Bio sworn in hours after election win

Sierra Leone has grappled with a political crisis since the conclusion of a disputed general election in June. Bio was sworn in for a second term after being declared winner of a fiercely contested presidential election that was fraught with controversies and described by international observers as “lacking adequate levels of transparency.”

According to local media in the West African nation, there have been three failed coup attempts to depose Bio’s government in the last year.

Oluwole Ojewale, an analyst with the Institute for Security Studies told CNN that this latest incident signals cracks in the country following the divisive election period.

“The victory of the incumbent left a trail of legitimacy crisis,” Ojewale told CNN. “That is a major challenge to the relative stability which the country has experienced for about a decade.”

West Africa has been plagued by recurring coups in recent years, including one in Sierra Leone’s closest neighbor Guinea.

Bio assured residents following the Sunday attacks saying, “As your Commander in Chief, I want to assure everybody who is resident in Sierra Leone that we have overcome this challenge, and together, we will continue on the path of progress and development.”

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