By N’ma Kamara
West of Freetown rudely woke up on the morning of Sunday November 26, 2023 to the ugly sounds of gunfire around the Wilberforce area. For some people it was a painful reminder of what we had gone through during the 11 years rebel war. For some, especially the younger folks, it was strange. Freetown and Sierra Leone had largely been peaceful, with people doing their normal businesses without any tincture of hindrance.
Gunfire was not a common sound. The country’s airwaves have been filled with the sweet sounds of Afro Beat that seems to have dominated the entertainment scene lately and gripped Sierra Leone, Africa and perhaps the world. So to wake up to the staccato of machine gunfire was a rude awakening to an unpleasant and unfamiliar sound.
Panic gripped the city as social media became inundated with the posts of the ugly scenes and sounds coming from Wilberforce. It was an ungodly hour and some people were even unaware of what was happening in that part of the city. Eastern Freetown was quiet and calm, as they were removed from the scene, but got a glimpse of it from social media. They were on tenterhooks like their colleagues in the west of the city. Uncertainty gripped the entire Freetown as most people were left guessing what was the real cause of the gunfire and the intent of it. As the night petered out the panic levels increased with some running to the toilet and back, a situation triggered by jitters.
When the first public engagement came out, it gave an ink somewhat, about what was going on. The government, through the vibrant Ministry of Information and Civic Education imposed a nationwide curfew order as a first step towards normalising the situation. By midday it was clear, there was an infiltration of the armoury at Wilberforce and arms had been forcefully taken away and used to launch an attack on the state. As the day wore on, the momentum of the infiltrators dwindled and loyal government forces had retaken control of the entire city. When the democratically elected President Julius Maada Bio made his broadcast that evening, it eased the tension in the jittery public and sent a message that the government the people voted for was in charge of the country, and not just Freetown.
There are many lessons to learn from the November 26th incident, one of which is that, if the atmosphere or climate is not calling for a coup, don’t dare it. You will be rejected by the people and left dejected. That is the fate that has befallen the putschists of November 26. For all the hype that Sierra Leoneans are suffering and that the people had become fed up with the government of President Julius Maada Bio, their reaction to the coup was one of outright rejection. Even the lure of ‘una komot na doh; una dey kam lef for buy res Le1m;’ did not play the trick.
If there is anything the reaction of Sierra Leoneans to the November 26 imbroglio showed, it is that the results of the June general elections are a fair reflection of the wishes of majority of Sierra Leoneans. Freetown is a place perceived to dislike the ruling party, but in the last general elections, though the ruling party did not win it, its percentage share of votes increased significantly. If Freetown, which is perceived to be a stronghold of the opposition party, rejects that which is seemingly coming from them, it shows that the results of the June 24 elections are incontestible. Freetown people showed an endorsement of the government of President Julius Maada Bio with an outright rejection of the coup of November 26. They refused to fall for the unrealistic bait of a turnaround in the lives of the people if they supported them and came out on the streets as a demonstration of their imaginary angst against President Bio’s government.
The events of November 26 are also pointers to the fact that it is not as gloomy as some would want us to believe. The desire for peace by Sierra Leoneans is overwhelming and they cannot compromise it for any selfish interest. Sierra Leoneans across the political divide, showed an inordinate belief in peace and serenity, in spite of the economic burden they are toting. Any disruption to the peace of the country has been frowned at by majority of Sierra Leoneans and it is high time those who plotted the November 26 coup knew this.
Little wonder that before the ugly incident of that day, the Global Peace Index ranked Sierra Leone as the most peaceful country in West Africa and the third most peaceful in Africa.
Juxtaposed against that, is the conspicuous tact with which government of Sierra Leone handled the situation. The government of President Bio has shown maturity in dealing a sensitive issue of the nature of treason, by displaying an eerie composure under severe pressure coming from both local and international actors. The government refused to be hasty in categorising the incident as a coup at the initial stages, and instead termed it a security breach. After scratching beyond the surface and digging deep into the investigations, it graduated the security breach to a coup d’etat. By showing such dexterity and respect for the rule of law, President Bio’s government has climbed another notch up in ladder for their respect for the human rights and democratic tenets. An eskance and knee-jerk reaction would have probably spoiled the show, misled the public and turned public opinion against the government.
In particular, the inflow and outflow of information from the government to the public and vice versa, during this critical period, has been phenomenal. And in Chernor Bah, President Bio has found a jewel in the crown whose tact at deciding what to say to the public, when to say it and how to say it, is top notch. Over all, despite the few diplomatic gymnastics, the government of Sierra Leone has come out of the November 26 incident smelling of roses. As the trial of those involved is set to start, the moral ground the government currently holds might just get higher.