Protests against soaring inflation and the rising cost of living shook the capital of Sierra Leone. Businesses, government offices and buses across eastern Freetown were charred or destroyed completely in the violence as police and security officials brutally cracked down on demonstrators. At least 21 protesters and six officers were killed. Police fired live rounds into the crowds.
“It was an explosion of violence,” Mohamed Sillah, a resident, said of the damage inflicted on his and other buildings. “We don’t usually see this in Sierra Leone but we are in tough times.”
Like many other African countries Sierra Leone has been particularly badly affected by rapid inflation. And it was the dire economic situation that brought people out onto the streets. Most of the country’s 8 million people live in poverty. Inflation rose to almost 28% in June, fuelled first by the Covid pandemic easing and then the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Food inflation is at the highest level in decades, almost doubling since September 2021. The prices of rice, onions, tomatoes and beef had all risen by about 50% over the last year, with the price of fuel and palm oil roughly doubling.
A tense calm has settled, with ordinary life gradually returning but police and army convoys patrolled the busy commercial streets in the districts of Rokupa, Makeni and Kamakwie where Freetown’s protests took place.
In recent months doctors and teachers have gone on strike, with demands for pay increases to meet rising inflation. In July, hundreds of women working in markets protested in Freetown, condemning the government’s handling of the economy. Many shops and stalls closed in support of the demonstrations. Dozens of women were arrested by police. Several alleged they had been beaten and sexually abused by officers.
The government has partly blamed the opposition for the protests, branding them an attempted coup, and launching an inquiry into alleged organisers. However, protesters interviewed by local media described their movement as “faceless” rather than orchestrated by one group, and reflective of widespread discontent.
Marcella Samba-Sesay, the director of Campaign for Good Governance, a civil society group, said anger has also been rising over the authorities’ refusal to permit protests. Under the terms of a public order act adopted in 1965 during colonial rule. protest organisers usually have to ask the police for permission to protest.
“But most of the time, when the issues are political, the police will say no,” said Samba-Sesay. “So people who want to come out and protest have not been given the permission to do so...“People are really suffering, and feel the government is not responding or allowing them to have a voice,” Semba-Sesay.