The over twenty people who were shot dead by security forces during the August 10 protests have been buried by the government despite persistent pleas from their relatives for the corpses to be handed over to them for burial. According to a government public notice, the decision was taken with the consent of grieving families who were given a token of twenty million Leones each for the burial rites of their late relatives. The public notice indicated that the corpses were to receive dignified burial on the directives of President Julius Maada Bio.
But the question is, could that be accepted as a magnanimous gesture from an administration which had branded the August 10 protesters as terrorists and coupists, who had wanted to overthrow the legit government of President Maada Bio? Can the government be honest enough to reverse it earlier statement of calling the protesters terrorists and coupists? I guess they will not because that would certainly tamper with their innate ego and bellicosity, and subsequently question their consistency in terms of the use of words and decision making.
The August 10 protest which was led by a faceless group referred to as Peoples Power in Politics (PPP) was declared illegal by the Sierra Leone police who had noted that nobody, as per law required, applied to solicit permission from the police to stage a protest in the country. Prior to the protest which started with a sit-at-home action, the police issued out a stern warning that, nobody should dare take to the street in the form of protest.
In the face of all the warning and to the dismay of the government, people, including women, came out in their numbers and protested for what many referred to as serious economic hardship in the country. As a donor driven and a developing country, Sierra Leone is no exception to the blanket hardship that currently bedevils the entire world, with youth unemployment on the increase, coupled with the rise in the prices of basic commodities. Aside from the corona Virus pandemic, Sierra Leone was struck by the Ebola Virus disease which eventually reversed the country’s economic growth.
Dealing with the country’s economic hard hit has been herculean for the current administration which had promised the heavens while in opposition. They have applied all possible means, including the auctioning of our reserves the Bank of Sierra Leone, to handle the country’s economic quagmire, but it seems nothing is working with a scenario of one step forward two steps backward.
On several occasions, the Sierra Leone police have denied people the right to protest, despite going through the due process to do so. Several politicians and right activists have been arrested and detained for basically having their say on national issues. Many have faced police humiliation for incitement and subsequently detained at the Criminal Investigations Department headquarters in Freetown for days and released later.
On August 10 when people came out in their numbers, the government invoked the Military Aid to Civil Power commonly referred to as MAC-P, which is a level one security operation to deal with any situation that might want to undermine the security of the state. Several arrests were made while some police officers and dozens of civilians were killed during the protest. Since the protest was deemed illegal from the outset, the government described protesters as terrorists and coupists, who had wanted to overthrow the democratically elected government of President Julius Maada Bio.
Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Professor David Francis, in his address to the international community, described the protesters as terrorists, albeit he was cautioned in the use of the word. The government’s characterization of the protesters as terrorists, according to many, was justified by the violent destruction of public property including dozens of police posts and vehicles and the brutal killing of police officers by protesters. On social media, some sympathisers of the administration stoutly defended the use of the word ‘terrorist’ to describe the protesters.
In his address to the nation after his return from a trip in the UK, President Bio, acting as a repeater station, also described the protesters as terrorists. He claimed that the protest was carefully planned, financed and carried out. He also accused the opposition of being behind the protest. President Bio promised to thoroughly investigate the protest and bring all culprits and accomplices to book.
Surprisingly though, protesters who were arrested by the police were never charged to court for either terrorism or treason. They were charged to court, convicted and sentenced for riotous conduct and other miscellaneous offences, with no charge of terrorism and treason. Although some government sympathisers would argue that our laws do not cover terrorism, but it would have been wise to charge the protesters for treason so as to match words with action.
But to charge them to court with miscellaneous offences begs the question as to why the government deliberately used the word terrorist to describe the protesters. It also boils down to the fact that there is a complete lack of inconsistency and logic in the use words and decision making on the side of the administration.
To many, the consistent use of terrorism to describe the protesters was a complete misnomer for a country that is in dire need of investment to create jobs for the youth and boost the economy. From the president down to the least government sympathizer, persistently described the protesters as terrorists and insurrectionists with no regret.
One thing that is clear is that, whosoever is declared as a terrorist is an enemy of the state and shouldn’t be treated kindly. It sounds bizarre for the government to take a sharp twist from treating the protesters as terrorists and to giving them befitting burial. Befitting burial for terrorists? When Osama Bin Laden was killed by the US Special Forces, his body was thrown in the high seas for the fish and other sea animals to feast on. Sadam Hussein was executed via the gallows as a sacrifice on Eid al-Adha. Qasem Suleimani, the Iranian military general, was killed by a US drone and his body was taken and buried by the Iranian government. These are the ways terrorists are expected to be treated and not be given befitting burial as in the case of ours in Sierra Leone.
Critical minds are of the view that the move by the government to bury those corpses was completely hypocritical and failure to hand over the corpses to the respective bereaved families was tantamount to the violation of human rights. There was nothing befitting about the burial of the corpses whose grieving families were denied the right to bury them in their own ways. If the state wants to prove magnanimity, then they should release all those placed behind bars in respect of the August 10 protest.