Sierra Leone :Julius Maada Bio’s fledgling tenure as president of Sierra Leone was punctuated by renewed controversy after police forcibly removed members of the opposition from the opening session of the new parliament.
A week of mounting tensions in Freetown culminated on Wednesday with officers escorting 16 members of the All People’s Congress party from the chamber for disruptive behaviour.
In a show of political solidarity, they were followed by the remaining members of the APC party, which was unseated after a decade in power when Bio won a contentious run-off election against Samura Kamara at the beginning of April.
“Today, yesterday, they were both chaotic,” said Khursve Kargbo, regional operations manager for the Sierra Leone police. “Members of parliament were asked to leave by the clerk, and we had to forcefully remove them from right inside the well of parliament. The day before supporters outside were fighting, throwing stones, and we had to contain them.”
Tensions developed on Monday after high court justice Alusine Sesay placed injunctions on 14 elected APC parliamentarians and two SLPP politicians, barring them from participating in the initial session. The injunctions followed claims by the SLPP that their APC rivals had illegally received government salaries throughout their election campaigns.
On Monday evening, APC member SSB Dumbuya, the outgoing speaker, declared in a press release – itself a first for a speaker of parliament – that he had indefinitely postponed the opening session in light of the “confused situation”. Parliament’s newly appointed clerk, Paran Tarawally of the SLPP, countered with a statement branding Dumbuya’s declaration illegal, and said the session would go ahead as planned.
The following day, however, violent clashes between rival party members outside parliament shut down the proceedings before they began. According to police, at least four people were seriously injured.
By Wednesday, the number of injunctions against APC parliamentarians had risen to 16, including outgoing deputy speaker and former APC vice-presidential candidate Chernor Bah.
The APC leadership said the move was evidence of an attempt by the SLPP to undermine the APC majority before the opening session’s speaker elections.
Parliament nonetheless reconvened, with barricades established along the approaching roads to prevent the public from entering the campus. But when APC officials learned that 16 of their number had been banned, they began shouting and slamming their fists on the desks.
“What we are seeing is completely unprecedented, so what else can we do about it?” said APC MP Abdul Karim Koroma.
“They are blocking our members from participating in a decision they were chosen to partake in, all in order that they can secure the speakership. They say that it has precedent because two SLPP members were barred in 2012, but that is nothing like the scale of what is happening today, and we have to stand up and say something.”
When the session was officially called to order an hour later, several dozen police moved in and blocked the chamber doors, to which APC members began chanting: “No police!”
As several MPs stood to shout at Tarawally directly, the clerk called more police into the room and ordered that those standing should be removed. When they resisted, pandemonium broke out. Tables were broken as several people were forcibly removed, while Tarawally shouted, “Get them out!” into his microphone. The remaining APC MPs eventually walked out in protest, allowing the SLLP’s Abass Bundu to stand unopposed for election as speaker. He won the position with 72 votes.
“I could not vote in that election,” said Kande Yumkella, a newly elected parliamentarian who ran for president with the National Grand Coalition party. “Police coming in and forcefully removing a party, and not to have lawmakers even comment during the session? It’s wrong, and if we care about the constitution, we shouldn’t stand for that.”