By Foday Moriba Conteh
The Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone (HRCSL) on 17th, 18th and 19th July 2020 conducted an observation and fact- finding mission in Makeni in relation to the riot which engulfed the town subsequently leading to fatalities.
According to the HRCSL, engagements with stakeholders revealed that on 30th May 2020, a stakeholders meeting was held in Makeni with representatives from the Ministry of Energy led by the Permanent Secretary and also some stakeholders in Makeni including Mayor Sunkarie Kamara. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the relocation of the generator plant to Lungi International Airport which had electricity supply challenges. This was in preparation for the opening of the Airport as earlier announced by the President on 24th June 2020.
It stated that in in the meeting, there were discussions around signing of an MOU between Makeni stakeholders and the Ministry of Energy for the generator to be relocated and returned within a period of two months.
The Human Rights Commission furthered that unfortunately as stated by the Mayor, information to other stakeholders and community people was not provided as promised by the Mayor neither was a feedback provided to the Ministry of Energy as the Mayor fell ill a day after the meeting and did not recover until after six weeks. The Ministry also did not make a follow up with the Makeni team on the delayed feedback until almost a month after the meeting.
It said the planned relocation of the generator plant on 17th July subsequently led to confrontation between security forces and an uncountable number of youth who took to the streets of Makeni after the national curfew hours began at 11pm.
The Human Rights Commission engaged Inspector General of Police, Sovula, Mayor of Makeni, the Local Unit Commander (LUC), Medical Officials at the Medical Referral Hospital, the Deputy to the AIG Mr. Lansana Koroma (CSP), paid visits to families of the deceased. It also engaged the Security Guards at the Sierra Leone People’s Party Office (SLPP) and the Sierra Leone Commercial Bank (SLCB).
According to the findings and observations by the Human Rights Commission the stakeholders meeting on 30th May 2020 between the Makeni City Council and the Ministry of Energy was held in Makeni to discuss issues around the relocation of the 1.65 Megawatts Generator to Lungi International Airport in Port Loko District.
It found out that due to the Mayor’s impromptu illness, other stakeholders and the community people had no idea on action points taken as no key authority in the council engaged them.
Furthermore, a feedback as promised by the Mayor to the Ministry of Energy was not made. Additionally, officials of the Ministry of Energy in Freetown did not also make a follow up on the action point taken at the meeting of 30th May and as a result discussions on the relocation of the generator got stalled. Both institutions faulted in making a follow up.
The Commission said on the night of 17th July, HRCSL regional staff observed that some youth on motorbikes around Magburuka Road where the Commission’s office is located were heard sending messages to others in the following words‘Come Out and resist the transfer of the generator’.
It went on to reveal that the Commission’s regional officers observed that youth groups grew in number and formed clusters around the Electricity Distribution and Supply Authority (EDSA) Office, Rogbaneh Police Station and in different parts of the town with sticks, machetes, and pelting stones at the police.
The Commission unearthed that rioters also went on the rampage and started destroying building i.e. the Sierra Leone Commercial Bank and the Sierra Leone People’s Party Office.
The Human Rights Commission discovered that the Sierra Leone Police were assisted by the Operational Security Division (OSD) and the standby Military Aid to Civil Power (MAC-P) in Makeni was invoked to restore law and order.
It stated that Law Enforcement Officials used teargas to disperse cluster of youth around the town and he 1.65 Megawatts generator was transferred from EDSA Makeni in the morning hours of 18th July to Lungi International Airport as the trailer had no access to the town and not on the night of 17th July when youth had anticipated its relocation.
That the early morning hours of 18th July was relatively peaceful and people were seen going about their normal businesses until late morning when security forces raided the big market and released teargas canisters at protesters.
It continued that in the late morning hours of 18th Law Enforcement Officials at the market place, threw teargas amongst traders, other persons including children. This angered the youths who became very violent and the riot took a negative turn. In the end five people lost their lives and were each at a time taken to the Makeni hospital. Ten (10) sustained injuries out of which 4 were taken to the Emergency Hospital where it was confirmed that one died bringing the total number of deaths to 6 (Six).
It pointed out that an official curfew was imposed in the late afternoon by the Sierra Leone Police and other stake holders to restore law and order in the town.
That from the findings it was discovered that approval for the curfew came much later from the appropriate authorities than earlier announced by Law Enforcement Officials at the market place.
The Commission mentioned that road blocks continued to be mounted by the youth in all major road and tyres burnt, preventing people and vehicles from moving freely. Youth formed several clusters all over the town and were chased by the joint Law Enforcement Officials and the LUC confirmed that Fifty One (51) persons were arrested. Some had sticks, stones and machetes which they had used to confront the police.
It stated that although the Commission has not been able to establish which Law Enforcement Official did the killings considering it was a joint mission, the action by the joint forces during the confrontations violated the enjoyment of the right to life. The Commission in its entirety condemns the deaths that occurred during the riot and continues to reiterate that the right to life is a non derogable right and should be preserved at all times.
Registering that it was unnecessary to use force within a market community it said further to the confrontations between the Law Enforcement Officials (LEO) and youth on the night of 17th July, on the 18th July, some LEO went to the Rogbaneh Market area in the mid- morning of 18th July and discharged teargas canisters at unsuspecting traders, children and other persons who were busy settling down with business. They insisted that they should go home and immediately leave the market area.
“The unexpected use of teargas by LEO against harmless and peaceful citizens within the market community contravenes Principle 9 of the UN Basic Principles 1990 on the Use of Force by Law Enforcement Officials which stipulates that ‘Law enforcement officials shall not use firearms against persons except in self-defence or defence of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury, or to prevent the perpetration of a particularly serious crime involving grave threat to life, or to arrest a person presenting such a danger and resisting their authority, or to prevent his or her escape,” it went on.
The HRCSL further notes that Article 2 of the Code of Conduct for LEO adopted by the General Assembly Resolution 34/169 (1979) stipulates that ‘in the performance of their duty, LEO shall respect and protect human dignity and maintain and uphold the human rights of all persons. Article 3 further notes that ‘LEO may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty’. HRCSL views the use of fire arms at the market place on innocent citizens as an extreme inappropriate measure and which poses a threat to the enjoyment of the right to life of the mentioned group of people.
With regards to Right to Freedom of Movement, the Human Rights Commission maintained that the confrontations led to the imposition of an indefinite curfew by the police in the early afternoon of Saturday 18th to 20th July. The curfew indefinite curfew led to a denial on the rights to freedom of movement of persons resident in the municipality. This restriction also affected the rights to as people cannot access the market.
The HRCSL observed that major roads were blocked by youth who subsequently burnt tyres by the road blocks. Although this action does not constitute a violation of the rights to freedom of movement by state actors, it however constitutes a human rights abuse as the action by youth restricted free movement of persons and vehicular flow of other citizens.
In its recommendations, the Human rights Commission said going forward, the Police should stop taking fire arms containing live rounds at scenes of protests/demonstrations except where it is extreme necessary; they should instead use rubber bullets and other lawful devices and means to dispersing protesters or quelling down protests.
It pointed out that the Government of Sierra Leone (GoSL) should make provision that will better equip the Police with riot safety gears and devices that will enable them to professionally respond to riots and protests without the loss of lives from both sides- the protesters and the police themselves.
The Commission added that the Law Enforcement Officials should speedily conclude investigations into the incident and identify those personnel who may have killed citizens, dismiss them from the force (s), prosecute them in a court of law or in the court martial as the case may be. Take appropriate actions.
That the Police should swiftly investigate and prosecute individuals who caused damage to property during the riot and other forms of violent conduct.
The Police should cease co-opting the military at every given opportunity during protests unless and until the circumstance truly demands military aid to civil power.
Youth should endeavour at all times to engage their representatives and other community leaders in a bid to channel their grievances rather than resort to lawlessness.
That the Central Government should support the Municipality to conduct an Institutional Capacity Audit in order to address the striking administrative challenges.
The Independent Police Partnership Board (IPCB) should timeously investigate the discharge of firearms which may have led to the death of civilians. GoSL should bear the medical cost for the injured victims.
That both central Government and the local Government should do more to open up the communication lines by frequently engaging each other so that issues could be easily addressed, and progress made.
Similarly, both Central Government and local councils should frequently engage their beneficiaries/residents informing them about how governance works and how they themselves as the beneficiaries should contribute to the process. The National Council for Civic Education and Development should take the lead in this.
That the Law Enforcement Officials should recruit citizens of good moral standing and temperament and engage the forces on standard human rights trainings especially in dealing with riots.