In a commercial taxi, a WhatsApp voice note played by a passenger suddenly became the subject of discussion. The voice note was that of a man known as Adebayo, a Europe-based Sierra Leonean who has become the defacto mouthpiece for Sierra Leoneans who are unhappy with the administration of President Julius Maada Bio.
Besides the economy, one thing Bio has not been able to address since assuming power in April 2018 has been unifying the country. And Adebayo, whose real name has been the subject of speculation, has exploited this to his advantage, further dividing the country along ethnic and geopolitical lines.
Those who listen to him, and they do so religiously, say Adebayo is endearing to them because only he appears to understand their concerns, like the hardship in the country and the alleged human rights violations opposition supporters face in the hands of the police.
While all this makes sense, Adebayo also employs a strategy that has let many other Sierra Leoneans distance themselves from him, at least in public - his use of unprintable languages on his targets who are mostly government officials and their supporters. His audios have the ultimate effect of setting a wedge between the country’s two largest ethnic groups: Temnes and Mendes.
President Bio’s failure to unify Sierra Leone is as much his own fault as it is his political opponents, especially the main opposition All People’s Congress (APC), which Adebayo identifies with.
While the APC has given him no chance to reach out to them, the president too has hardly shown any convincing sign of wanting to do so.
The 2018 election was one of the hotly contested presidential polls in Sierra Leone’s history. And it was characterised by ethnic tensions. Bio’s Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP)-led administration has done little, if anything, to win over the other side who, from the onset, felt sidelined.
The two parties have dominated politics in the country since 1961 when it attained self-rule from Britain. In keeping with the political trend of winner-takes-all, many APC supporters lost their jobs, as their SLPP counterparts took over.
The experiences of these people are what Adebayo has exploited.
Although the APC has in the past distanced itself from his comments, all his audience are APC supporters. And the government and its supporters say the opposition party has not done enough to stop its supporters from taking Adebayo seriously. Some ruling party supporters believe the APC uses Adebayo as a proxy, to say things they can't say in public.
In the APC’s northern stronghold city of Makeni, it is common to see people gather at one location listening to Adebayo’s weekly voice notes. “You journalists, including SLBC (state broadcaster), have failed us. You don’t tell us the truth. That is why we rely on Adebayo. Anything he says happens,” a Makeni resident and fervent listener of Adebayo recently told me.
Three deadly riots that have happened in the last four years have all been linked to Adebayo. He either predicted them or he spoke about issues that led to them in ways that the authorities considered incitement.
First, on April 30th, 2020 one person died after Police clashed with youths who went on the rampage in the northern Lunsar Town over the cancellation of the license of a major miner, leading to job losses.
The following month, May, a riot broke out in the fishing town of Tombo, in the Western Area, when youths protested strict Covid-19 restrictions. Two people were killed in that incident which also saw the only hospital in the community and a nearby police station burnt down.
Then, in Makeni, the defacto base of the APC, five people died when youths attempted to prevent officials of the Electricity Distribution and Supply Authority from transferring a generator to the nearby airport town of Lungi in Port Loko District in July that same year. Two months after that, in October, in the same Makeni, angry youths created a scene when they blocked major highways in an effort to prevent officials of the Anti-Corruption Commission from accessing the home of former President Ernest Bai Koroma, who was under investigation for alleged corruption.
With the continued economic hardships and the administration’s failure to address them, Adebayo’s popularity only grew. When rumors of a planned protest circulated on social media, everyone knew that it was just a matter of time before the next disaster occurred, except, of course, the authorities.
As usual, the police only issued a statement warning against any attempt to stage an unauthorized protest. The organizers, who never identified themselves, called for a three-day protest.
The first day was Monday, August 8. The police deployed heavily across major towns in the country. While there was no protest, the city was abandoned, with most businesses shut down for fear of an outbreak of violence. For supporters of the protest, that was a victory.
On Wednesday, no one expected things to get any worse until pictures of clashes between police and youths began appearing on social media platforms. As of Thursday evening, a preliminary report released by the Sierra Leone Police indicated that four police officers had died. It didn’t mention anything about civilian deaths.
Media reports, however, indicated that at least 10 civilians may have died.
New images of events are still popping up on social media, revealing horrible details of human rights violations by the security forces. In one such video, two armed security men are seen holding an armless civilian and a third one kicking him and later hitting him with his gun.
The protesters too were visibly excessive. A video of youths beating a police officer to death and abandoning his half-naked body in a pile of debris is a sad reminder to much older Sierra Leoneans of the dark days of the 1991-2002 civil war.
The authorities have issued a statement, as though seeking to prevent furthering release of revealing images. The statement from the National Cyber Security Coordination Center warned against sharing “incendiary” information with possible charges of cyber terrorism for anyone found doing it.
According to the police report, a total of 10 police stations were either vandalized or burnt down. Some private properties of police officers were also destroyed. Two govt buses, three government buildings, plus a warehouse, were also burnt down, it further notes. And 113 demonstrators were arrested.
Wednesday’s incident was a test for the new Sierra Leone Police chief, William Fayia Sellu. He was appointed just about 10 days earlier. IGP Sellu’s predecessor, Ambrose Sovula, was accused of heavy-handedness in policing, just like all his predecessors.
The government is treating the incident as an attempt to remove it from power. Top government officials, including Vice President Mohamed Juldeh Jalloh and Foreign Minister David Francis, have both been quoted saying so.
President Bio himself, in a BBC interview on Thursday, said the incident was “terrorism at the highest” level.
The next few days will be interesting to watch and see what happens.