It has been a year since the tragic August protests in which dozens of civilians and six police officers were killed. In typical Sierra Leonean fashion, the anniversary of this tragedy passed quietly. No public acknowledgements, no memorials. Those who lost loved ones in the incident had to remember their family members and relatives in the most discreet way. One year on, we reflect on the tragedy and remind the State of its obligation to provide justice for the victims and closure for the ones they left behind.
After the August protests, the President appointed a special committee to investigate. Months later, the Committee released a report that left much to be desired. Instead of getting to the bottom of the issues, the Committee, headed by Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai focused on establishing liability and responsibility for the protests. The findings superficially pointed at the social issues that underpinned the violence, while giving strong accents to the State’s insurrection narrative. They made a lot of effort to point fingers at people believed to be involved in planning and executing the protests. Passing references were made to the police brutality and killing of civilians. No effort was made to go into the civilian deaths and the need for accountability, justice and closure. Another opportunity to honestly investigate the issues was missed despite the time and resources spent on the inquiry.
Immediately after those protests, dozens of people were rounded up around the country and speedily tried and jailed. Many of those civilians who were believed to have participated in the protests are presently serving their sentences in some of the fastest trials the country has seen. The police officers who were killed in the protest were given a decent funeral, while the civilians were boxed up and buried as their family and loved ones looked on in anguish and pain. There was no opportunity to pay proper last respects. In other words, while there was a deep interest in teaching the protesters a lesson and appeasing the families of the police officers who were killed, there was no appetite for justice and closure for the civilians. Law and order was the mantra and the State quickly took a fierce posture that was meant to serve only one purpose: to send a strong message to whoever would attempt to take to the streets in future.
There are several reasons why the State needs to sincerely reflect on the August 2022 protests and take steps to address its own weaknesses. For a long time after the incidents, the narrative and efforts were to protect the state and quickly re-establish or reinforce its authority. The focus must also be to serve justice to everyone—equally and fairly regardless of their beliefs and creed or where they come from and under the fairest of conditions. Justice and human rights are critical elements of democracy and the rule of law is the key to that. So, whoever is deprived of their right to life—be they police or civilians, deserve justice. Can the State really look back and conclude in all honesty that all the victims of the August 2022 protests have been served justice and their families have been allowed to have closure? This alone was enough reason for the Special Committee and the relevant organs of the State to investigate how people were killed.
It is normal in Sierra Leone, for security forces to use force disproportionately and get away with it. As long as they are serving the interest of the State, no one really takes interest in investigating the conduct of our police and military in the way they use force. It is this impunity that has reinforced the security forces’ appalling record as far as public order incidents are concerned. There are several incidents where civilians have been killed by police, under similar circumstances, and nothing happens. The State cannot preside over this level of impunity otherwise they begin to look like state-sanctioned crimes and abuses of human rights. It is a reputation that the State should not want and therefore, the death toll of the August 2022 protests should offer an opportunity to the state—the police and military—to reflect on the way they conduct themselves when they deal with civilians. There were also reports of forceful disappearances and summary killings that were never investigated and the security personnel who were behind those killings were never adequately reprimanded for their actions or inactions. This does not look good and even the passage of time will not wipe off the stain. Previous governments are still remembered for the way they used the security forces against civilians and this government will definitely be remembered for its handling of the August 2022 riots.
There is a lot of talk about social cohesion and unsettled matters and the State’s poor handling of the August 2022 protests certainly does not promote cohesion. What we have is a significant number of Sierra Leoneans at home and abroad who lost their family members and relatives in the protests and do not feel that they have been given justice. There are also a good number who have family and friends behind bars for reasons related to these same protests. Besides, there have been other incidents in different parts of the country where civilians were killed by security forces, and nothing was done to hold anyone accountable. Cohesion is not nurtured in such an environment and if the State is sincere about building a cohesive and free society where everyone can disagree and still feel that they belong and feel protected at the same time, then excessive use of force and incidents involving loss of life must not be politicised or allowed to just die down. We do not have to like people to ensure that they are treated justly, and the State needs to ensure that everyone, regardless of their affiliation and beliefs, enjoys the full protection of the law.
Whatever you are up to this weekend, watch out for the August rains.
Watch a video testimonial of a bereaved father who lost his daughter during the August 10 2022, protests in Freetown.