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Gunshots and curfew in Sierra Leone: What you need to know

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Sierra Leone is in lockdown after President Julius Maada Bio declared a curfew on Sunday morning. The streets of Freetown are empty, with a heavy presence of military and police patrols all over.

Similar deployments have been reported across other major townships in the country, but the tension is at the centre, in Freetown.

What happened?

In the early hours of Sunday morning, Nov. 26, 2023, there was a reported attempt to steal some weapons from the armoury at Wilberforce Barracks, according to President Bio’s statement.

“In the early hours of this morning, there was a breach of security at the military barracks at Wilberforce in Freetown, as some unidentified individuals attacked the military armoury,” Bio wrote on his X handle.

Wilberforce Barracks is less than half a mile from the Presidential Lodge. Security presence around the area and major streets have since been increased.

There is no official confirmation yet on whether those who attempted to steal the weapons are military personnel. However, there have been widespread gunshots in different parts of the capital.

The President’s statement also confirmed that there was a “security breach” without giving any further details.

A civilian living at Murray Town barracks, which is the headquarters for the Army, said right up to 8:00am residents were hearing gunshots in the area. She shared her experience in a public WhatsApp group. 

A resident living at Dwarzack in the central part of the capital told DUBAWA, “I am scared. We have been hearing gunshots all morning,” he said.

He shared a voice note in a public WhatsApp group of what sounded like gunshots exchanges. He insisted that he preferred anonymity, given the current situation. 

Dwarzack is just a few hundred yards from the country’s biggest prison, holding up to 2000 inmates.

There are no confirmed reports about how many people might have been wounded, killed or arrested. Minister of Information Mohamed C. Bah told DUBAWA on the phone that they would do a comprehensive update on that shortly.

In an interview on BBC this morning, he said security forces are trying to “track down the retreating renegades” who attempted to steal the weapons.

The government has refused to call Sunday’s incident a coup, with Mr Bah saying that the threshold for a coup will be determined by the military, and in the coming hours and days, there will be a complete picture of Sunday’s event. 

The nationwide curfew could also affect sea transportation and air traffic, with passengers set to come in or travel across the country. Specifically on-air traffic, Minister Bah said: “We will put a specific notice out on that air traffic; we are doing the coordination now.”

By 2pm, the Sierra Leone Civil Aviation Authority had released a statement saying the country’s airspace was open. However, the SLCAA advised airlines to schedule passengers on the next available flights after the curfew.

Gunshots and curfew in Sierra Leone: What you need to know

An incident in isolation?

In August this year, more than a dozen officers from the police and military were arrested on “Conspiracy to Commit felony to with Subversion”.  One former police officer had to be extradited from Liberia to face his charges in an alleged coup plot.

Those arrests happened just a few months after the country’s general elections. 

Details about that investigation have not been disclosed beyond the charges.

It is unclear whether this incident correlates with that, as the country waits for more information in the coming days.

What now?

Meanwhile, Sierra Leone’s most important democratic partner, the United States, has released a short statement condemning those who attempted to take over the barracks and the armoury.

The US Embassy in Freetown posted this on X:

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms the attempted overnight forceful seizure of Wilberforce barracks and armoury. Such actions have no justification.” 

Main Opposition leader Samura Kamara of the All Peoples Congress has also called for peace and calm. On his X handle, he wrote: 

“The peace and unity and safety of our country are paramount, and everything else will follow for a prosperous and secure Sierra Leone. This country needs the peaceful energies of each and every one of us to build and sustain a better future for all.” 

The government has promised a more comprehensive update later in the day and the coming days. 

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