The Achilles heel of Sierra Leone President Julius Maada Bio

Julius Maada Bio prepares to take the oath of office as new president of Sierra Leone on April 4, 2018 in Freetown.

Photo credit: Saidu Bah | AFP

What you need to know:

  • There is a deep-seated geopolitical rivalry between the northwestern region, considered the stranglehold of the APC, and the southeastern region, considered as the base of President Julius Maada Bio’s governing Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP).
  • While SLPP says Makeni is refusing to cooperate with it in its efforts to reunite the country after the divisive elections, the Makeni people say the SLPP is out to undo all the development they enjoyed in the last 10 years.

Freetown,

There were protests at the Well of Sierra Leone's Parliament as a group of Opposition lawmakers wearing black T-shirts with the words ‘Makeni Lives Matter’ interrupted a session with chants for justice for victims of recent deadly violence.

It followed the July 17 incident in which a group of angry youths clashed with security forces in the northern town of Makeni over a planned relocation of a standby generator.

Makeni is the largest town in the Bombali District. It’s also considered the base of the main Opposition All People's Congress (APC), partly because it's home to many of the party's influential figures, including its powerful leader and chairman, former President Ernest Bai Koroma.

Since his retirement in 2018, Koroma has been living in Makeni, in a massive Chinese-built mansion, located in an isolated suburb and insulated from the rest of the population by high walls and armed security guards.

Prime location

For 10 years [2007 to 2018], Makeni was considered the de facto capital of Sierra Leone, the place everybody wanted to be.

There were political reasons for attraction to the town, but business was also booming there due to development brought by the Koroma administration, much to the envy of the rest of the country.

With the change in regime in 2018, this privileged status was halted.

There is a deep-seated geopolitical rivalry between the northwestern region, considered the stranglehold of the APC, and the southeastern region, considered as the base of President Julius Maada Bio’s governing Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP).

Under Koroma, critics say, the north had the lion’s share of development. When he assumed power in 2007, Sierra Leone had just come out of an 11 years civil war.

Infrastructure was his priority, particularly roads. Most of the roads constructed were concentrated in the north, particularly Makeni.

Makeni is the only town in Sierra Leone that enjoys uninterrupted electricity supply to date, thanks to a hydropower plant located in neighboring Tonkolili District. Even Bumbuna, the small town which hosts the plant, doesn’t enjoy 24-hour light.

High inequality

The change in regime in 2018 halted the privileged status Makeni enjoyed for a decade.

So high is the level of inequality that when the Bio administration assumed power, it issued a list of road construction projects for the most deprived districts, majority of them in the southeast.

Many observers agree with the need to rectify the decade-long uneven distribution that left some parts of the country lagging behind in terms of infrastructure.

But the more action the government takes, the deeper the north vs south animosity gets.

While SLPP says Makeni is refusing to cooperate with it in its efforts to reunite the country after the divisive elections, the Makeni people say the SLPP is out to undo all the development they enjoyed in the last 10 years.

There have been many incidents the Makeni people point to in support of this view, from the shutting down of a major mine in another northern town called Lunsar, which also led to a deadly riot in May and several arrests of former officials on allegations of graft.

The latest is the July riot, provoked by a decision by the government to relocate a standby generator to the nearby airport town of Lungi in the Port Loko District.

Besides the hydropower, the city of Makeni has always had a standby generator, so that even when the rest of the country, including the capital city, battles recurrent power outages, the people of Makeni usually have no idea about it.

Storm rages on

The Ministry of Energy said the town of Lungi, home to the country’s only airport, had gone weeks without light. It therefore decided to temporarily relocate the Makeni standby generator.

Critics, however, say the plan was to remove the generator permanently.

Irate youths barricaded the highway leading to Lungi in an attempt to prevent the vehicle loaded with the generator from leaving. The police and the military were deployed to contain the ensuing riot. Five people died at the end of the two-day riot.

An government-sanctioned investigation into the incident is yet to be concluded and critics, particularly the Opposition, doubt the intentions of the investigation, hence the protest by APC lawmakers.

Among their demands is the release of victims’ bodies for burial and an independent investigation to bring the shooters to book.

The government blames the APC leadership for failing to prevent the riot by not properly informing the youths about the process leading to the decision to remove the generator.

On Tuesday a coalition of civil society organisations released a report after a fact-finding mission, which appears to support the government’s claim.

But the CSOs also blame the police for heavy-handedness in responding to the violence. They called for calm and urged the government to ensure justice.

But according to reports last week, the storm sparked by the incident is far from over, amid reported plans by the police to make more arrests.

Among those earmarked for arrest are the mayor and deputy mayor of Makeni, who are accused of incitement.

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