Calm returns to Sierra Leone as protest death toll rises

At least six protesters and six police officers were killed as anti-government protests in Sierra Leone turned violent, according to officials and local media reports.

Hundreds of people took to the streets on Wednesday in a public display of anger over economic conditions in the country and to protest the perceived failure by the government to cushion the effect of rising prices.

At least six protesters were killed, the AFP news agency reported, citing a morgue technician at the Connaught Hospital in Freetown; local media reported that seven protesters died.

Two police officers were killed in Freetown, three in the northern town of Kamakwie and one in the northern city of Makeni, Police Inspector General William Fayia Sellu told the Reuters news agency.

Al Jazeera was not able to independently verify death tolls.

Deadly unrest is uncommon for Sierra Leone, especially in the West African country’s capital Freetown. Relative calm returned to the city on Thursday after a nationwide curfew was imposed. Police and troops patrolled the streets of the capital, and some shops in the city’s central business district had reopened, AFP reported.

A demonstrator throws a gas canister during an anti-government protest in Freetown, Sierra Leone [Reuters]

What began Wednesday as a peaceful assembly by market women to draw attention to “economic hardship” descended into clashes between security forces and young men demanding the president resign.

Several police stations were burned down and vandalised around the country, it said.

A police statement said 113 “suspects” had been arrested in the northwest and northeast provinces.

‘Embrace dialogue’

One video verified by Reuters from Freetown showed a police officer firing a gun into a crowd.

Sulaiman Turay, a 19-year-old living in east Freetown, marched briefly before police started firing tear gas and said he later saw demonstrators getting shot at from his porch.

“I think people are shocked. It’s not the country we know. Sierra Leone is a peaceful place,” he said.

A curfew imposed on Wednesday would continue from Thursday between 7pm (19:00 GMT) and 7am, the police said, without specifying an end date for the measure.

The government also announced it had put in place “mechanisms” to monitor social media and warned the public against spreading “incendiary” information “to destabilise the state”.

The internet was cut for two hours on Wednesday and again overnight, according to internet observatory NetBlocks.

President Julius Maada Bio, who had been in the United Kingdom on a private visit, returned ahead of schedule on Wednesday night, according to presidency spokesperson Tanu Jalloh.

“As a government, we have the responsibility to protect every citizen of Sierra Leone”, the president said on Twitter, describing the events as “unfortunate” and promising an investigation.

“I urge all Sierra Leoneans to be calm”, he added.

The United Nations, European Union, UK and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have all condemned Wednesday’s violence.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, urged the government to hold “prompt, impartial and thorough investigations … and bring those responsible to account regardless of their status and political affiliation”.

“I urge all sides to embrace dialogue”, she said.

Sierra Leone has had a reputation for relative stability since the end of a civil war that ran from 1991 to 2002.

Its population of eight million people live in one of the poorest nations in the world, ranking 182 out of 189 countries in the UN’s Human Development Index, a benchmark of prosperity.

The economy, heavily dependent on minerals, was devastated by the civil war that left about 120,000 dead.

Efforts at rebuilding were set back by an Ebola epidemic in 2014-2016, a fall in world commodity prices and the coronavirus pandemic — all of which have disrupted trade and investment and hit exports.

In July, the country slashed three zeros off its currency in a bid to restore confidence in the inflation-hit leone.

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