Sierra Leone Announces Arrest of 14 in ‘Attempted Coup’

The small West African nation of Sierra Leone announced on Tuesday that it had arrested 13 military officials and one civilian in connection with a thwarted coup attempt on Sunday, when 20 people were killed and more than 2,000 prisoners were let loose.

“What happened on Sunday, 26th November 2023, was a failed attempted coup,” Chernor Bah, the country’s information minister, told reporters on Tuesday. But he did not identify any of the 14 people arrested.

Residents remained on edge in the capital, Freetown, where there was a heavy military presence on the streets and an increased number of security checkpoints. Most schools were shut down.

The country’s president, Julius Maada Bio, 59, a former military officer who took part in two coups during Sierra Leone’s civil war in the 1990s, was re-elected in a tight vote in June. But the results of the vote have been rejected by his main opponent, contributing to a tense political atmosphere, and the election was deemed to be not transparent by many international observers.

The violence in Sierra Leone has exacerbated jitters across the region, which in recent years has endured a series of military coups, most of them successful. In Guinea, a neighbor of Sierra Leone, as well as in Niger, juntas rule despite vocal protests from the Economic Community of West African States, the regional bloc known as ECOWAS, of which all three nations are members, and international efforts to restore civilian governments.

“ECOWAS said they had a non-coup policy,” said Adedayo Ademuwagun, a Lagos-based analyst with Songhai Advisory, a risk assessment firm. But in the end, the coups in Niger and Guinea were not reversed, he added, “so the armies in neighboring countries ask themselves: Why not us?”

Of Sierra Leone, he said, “With a fractured army, an unpopular government and a vulnerable administration, the political risk remains elevated.”

Mr. Bio has been praised for a policy that has greatly expanded access to education. But he has been criticized in Freetown, an opposition stronghold, and in the northern part of the country for his lavish lifestyle and for failing to deliver on promises to improve livelihoods.

He was re-elected despite having overseen violent repression of protests, including in the summer of 2022, when more than two dozen people died in clashes amid demonstrations over rising prices.

Sierra Leone is among the poorest countries in the world, ranking 182 out of 189, according to the U.N. human development index. Nearly 60 percent of people in Sierra Leone are food insecure, according to the World Food Programme.

Mr. Bio tried to reassure the country on Sunday evening, saying that “calm has been restored” following “a breach of security” at different sites, including the main military barracks, the armory and the Pademba Road Prison in Freetown.

The 20 people killed in clashes between the assailants and the security forces included 13 soldiers, three assailants, police officers, a civilian and a private security officer, Mr. Bah, the information minister, said. A total of 2,133 prisoners fled three different prisons as a result of Sunday’s break-ins, he said, and only 178 have returned.

Earlier on Tuesday, the police said that they arrested an additional person near the military barracks, and that “a few shots were fired in the process.” Although there were no casualties, the news swiftly spread on social media, causing panic among residents. Those living near the military barracks, where the arrest happened, were seen leaving their homes in haste to seek shelter elsewhere.

The All People’s Congress, the main opposition party, issued a statement on Tuesday condemning “the dastardly acts of violence,” adding that it “categorically” condemned “any attempt to associate our party to any form of violence.”

“As a responsible political party,” the statement added, “we strongly believe in the assumption of power through the ballot box and not through the barrel of a gun.”