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Riot police patrol as they pass smoke rising from a roadblock during anti-government protests in Freetown, Sierra Leone on Aug. 10.UMARU FOFANA/Reuters

As the anti-government protesters marched past her, Fatmata Kamara shouted her support. “We are suffering,” she chanted loudly, standing in front of her small market stall in Sierra Leone’s capital.

Government officials denounced the protests as a “violent terrorist insurrection” after at least 27 civilians and police were reportedly killed in Wednesday’s clashes. But ordinary people in the capital, Freetown, are sympathetic to the demonstrations at a time of soaring prices and rising economic pressures.

“Things are hard,” Ms. Kamara told The Globe and Mail. “We, the women, are suffering. The government doesn’t care. We want the government to do something for us.”

Fuel prices have doubled over the past year in the West African country and food prices are soaring, with the government blaming the Russian invasion of Ukraine for much of the inflationary pressures.

Food and fuel prices have spiked across the world this year, triggering fears of social tensions and conflict. “Sierra Leone appears to be the first African country where rising food and fuel costs have translated into unrest calling for the government’s resignation,” said Africa-based risk analyst Ryan Cummings.

As economic conditions worsen, Sierra Leone will “certainly not be the last country to witness such anti-state mobilization,” he said in a tweet on Thursday.

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Sierra Leone’s protests began with two days of stay-at-home civil action this week, shutting down shops and other businesses, and then erupted into street demonstrations and clashes with police across the country on Wednesday.

Some protesters carried placards reading “Free us” and “We need jobs.” One protester, 12-year-old Sheku Dumbuya, carried a hand-drawn sign that simply read, “Help us.” He was accompanied by his mother, Kadiatu, a single mother who sells local produce from a market stall near central Freetown.

The cost of living in Sierra Leone has risen by more than 40 per cent in the past eight months, according to a World Bank economic report released in May. The country is consistently ranked by the United Nations Human Development Index as one of the five poorest countries in the world. More than half of its 7.5 million people live below the poverty line.

Many people in Freetown appeared to support the protests. “Everything has gone up,” said Ibrahim Jalloh, a local market trader. “When gas prices go up, all other commodity prices are raised. It’s a fact of life in Sierra Leone these days, which has led to untold suffering, especially amongst the poor.”

As the protesters approached Freetown’s central business district on Wednesday, soldiers and police fired tear gas into the crowd, forcing them onto side streets and preventing them from approaching the office of President Julius Maada Bio, who was holidaying in Britain at the time.

Videos circulating on social media showed young men dancing around a burning roadblock, shouting, “Bio must go.” Some videos showed security forces firing guns at protesters.

As the protests grew more intense on Wednesday afternoon, internet services were temporarily shut down, and Vice-President Mohamed Juldeh Jalloh appeared on television to announce a curfew from 3 p.m. to 7 a.m. Heavily armed soldiers were deployed on the streets after the police said they could not cope with the situation alone.

Sierra Leone’s national security co-ordinator, Abdulai Caulker, said the military deployment was in response to “the potentially volatile situation in the country caused by repeated social media incitements of the gullible population to embark on countrywide violent demonstrations with the aim of subverting the peace and stability of the state.”

Mr. Bio, elected in 2018, faces a national election next June. In a tweet on Wednesday, he said: “What happened today was unfortunate and will be fully investigated.”

By nightfall, as heavy rains washed away the blood and extinguished the burning tires at roadblocks, police and mortuaries were counting the dead.

Eight police stations or posts were torched or vandalized and 113 people were arrested during the protests, Sierra Leone’s national police said in a statement on Thursday. Six police officers and 21 civilians were killed, according to the Reuters news agency, and dozens of people were injured.

On the brink

On Thursday, the police extended the nightly curfew indefinitely, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., and internet disruptions continued. The government also threatened imprisonment of up to 20 years for anyone who spread “incendiary information” on social media.

Foreign minister David Francis, speaking to diplomats on Thursday, said the protests were a “premeditated, well-financed, organized, violent terrorist insurrection.”

Government authorities appealed to the public to go about their normal business, but Freetown’s streets remained quiet with little traffic, few pedestrians and most shops closed and tightly locked.

Fuel prices in Sierra Leone have more than doubled since July, 2021, from the equivalent of 78 cents a litre to a current price of about $1.65 a litre. A 50-kilogram bag of rice that would have cost about $20 in 2019 is now selling for about $51.

“Everything is too expensive, and low salaries, unemployment and high rates of illiteracy mean people suffer,” said Mary Kamara, a project administrator at a non-governmental organization who witnessed the protests on Wednesday.

Many people cannot afford even one meal a day and are forced into begging, stealing, prostitution or appealing to relatives for money, she said.

Sierra Leone’s minimum wage is the equivalent of about $46 a month and hasn’t been adjusted since 2015. A police constable with 10 years of experience earns about $80 a month and teachers are paid around $100 a month.

With a report from Geoffrey York in Johannesburg

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