Protests Turn Deadly in Sierra Leone Over Rising Cost of Living

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DAKAR, Senegal — Demonstrations against rising prices in the West African nation of Sierra Leone turned deadly this week as long-simmering economic grievances, compounded by the global food crisis, erupted into street clashes.

Female street vendors who last month staged peaceful gatherings against the soaring cost of living were joined on Wednesday by hundreds of political protesters, who clashed with the police and demanded the president’s resignation over the government’s perceived failure to confront rising fuel and food prices.

At least four police officers were killed, according to a police statement, and an unknown number of protesters also died in clashes, according to Sierra Leone’s information minister and multiple news reports.

After a day of calm on Thursday, protesters demonstrated again on Friday in Freetown, the capital city, with police firing live ammunition at the crowds, according to videos shared on social media. The extent of injuries was unclear.

The protests in this West African nation of eight million people underscored how rising inflation, the impact of the war in Ukraine and the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic have had cascading effects on social stability across the world.

In Sri Lanka, months of protests fomented by economic hardship and fuel and food shortages forced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to step down last month.

Countries like Ghana, where the country’s inflation rate reached its highest level in nearly two decades last month, and Ecuador, among many others, have also been roiled by protests.

In some of the world’s poorest countries, like Sierra Leone, the effects of the latest food crisis have been piled onto older challenges — particularly the aftermath of Ebola outbreaks and the coronavirus pandemic, among others.

But beyond economic hardship, a growing crackdown on freedom of expression and the right to protest has fueled discontent in Sierra Leone, aggravating this week’s tensions, said Alhaji U. N’jai, a Sierra Leonean social and political analyst.

“Wednesday was the tipping point of something that had been brewing for months,” said Mr. N’jai, a professor of environmental science at the University of Sierra Leone’s Fourah Bay College. “That brought together groups that are completely different, but they were unified by economic difficulties.”

As tensions rose on Wednesday, protesters threw stones at police vehicles, lit fires on the streets and beat police officers with sticks and stones. Security forces used live ammunition against them, and the internet was briefly shut down.

One police officer was killed in Freetown and three others died in two towns in the country’s northeast, according to a police statement. Several police stations were also burned down, and more than 100 protesters were arrested.

In a television address on Friday, Sierra Leone’s president President Julius Maada Bio said “peaceful protesters will be fully protected by law enforcement officials” even as police have been accused of responding with disproportionate violence to demonstrators.

Mr. Bio presented his condolences to bereaved families and said those responsible for the deaths of police officers would be brought to justice, but gave no details on the number of civilian casualties.

Sierra Leone had enjoyed relative stability since it emerged from a civil war between 1991 and 2002 that, according to the United Nations, left at least 70,000 people dead and 2.6 million displaced.

But it remains among the world’s poorest countries despite its extensive mineral resources. Nearly 30 percent of Sierra Leone’s population suffers from chronic hunger, according to the World Food Program, and more than half its population lives below the poverty line.

Food inflation had already increased because of the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, but it reached new highs this year. The cost of fertilizers has more than doubled over the past year, according to Sierra Leonean farmers consulted by the nongovernmental humanitarian agency Care.

Last month, Sierra Leone’s central bank removed three zeros from its bank notes, hoping to restore confidence in the currency and reduce the amount of paper money in circulation while keeping its value unchanged.

Sierra Leone is one of 60 countries identified by the United Nations as struggling to afford food imports, according to a leaked email seen by Politico. Food accounts for about a third of merchandise imports in Sierra Leone.

The United Nations, the European Union and the United States issued pleas for calm this week.

On Friday, Amnesty International urged the Sierra Leonean authorities to hold accountable those responsible for the deaths of protesters.

“When policing assemblies, the security forces have an obligation to minimize harm and injury,” Michèle Eken, the organization’s West and Central Africa researcher, said in a statement.

Sierra Leone’s information minister, Mohamed Rahman Swarray, said the protests had been organized by the opposition to destabilize the government, and denied that economic grievances had motivated protesters.

“Wednesday’s riot was a well-machinated act to remove a legitimate government,” Mr. Rahman Swarray said in a telephone interview, calling the demonstrations a “failed coup.”

“Nobody wins in a war situation,” he added.

In an interview with the BBC on Thursday, Mr. Bio, the president, blamed outside forces for the unrest.

“We have a few Sierra Leoneans who live in the diaspora who have threatened to unleash terror in Sierra Leone,” he said, in an apparent reference to an anti-government Sierra Leonean commentator living in the Netherlands who had called for protests this week.

The president “was mostly referring to Adebayor and other fringe elements who might be anti-government,” Mr. N’jai, the analyst, said of a commentator with a wide following among youths who is known only by his nickname.

“He’s been able to fill up a huge vacuum, because of the lack of confidence in the government,” he added about Adebayor. “People listen to him religiously.”

On Friday, an overnight curfew was still in place even as calm had returned to Freetown. The military could be seen patrolling on the streets.

Thousands of the stalls that line up Freetown’s most popular street market, and where many of the female protesters worked, had been destroyed overnight.

It was unclear who was behind the destruction, but Freetown’s mayor, Yvonne Aki Sawyerr, an opponent to the current government, said in a statement that the City Council was not responsible for it.

Lamrana Bah contributed reporting from Freetown, Sierra Leone.

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