A political crisis that has been unfolding in Sierra Leone took a dramatic turn Friday when police stormed the headquarters of the country's bar association in the capital of Freetown, breaking up a meeting of lawyers who had convened to discuss whether President Ernest Bai Koroma's decision to fire his vice president without parliamentary approval last Wednesday was unconstitutional.
Police reportedly disrupted the meeting at the request of 10 bar association members affiliated with the incumbent All People's Congress (APC) political party. The lawyers in attendance were preparing to cast votes in support of a document demanding that Koroma rescind his actions.
A lawyer who witnessed the raid reported on social media that 150 bar members fled outside, where they staged a protest by holding up signs and singing Sierra Leone's national anthem. Police reportedly responded by "violently" tearing signs from the hands of some lawyers. One lawyer was "brutally manhandled, bundled, and thrown into a police van," before being transported to a central police station, where he was held for at least an hour.
"It was a touching sight to see several dozen lawyers, several of whom were very senior practitioners, peacefully process behind the police van to the police station," Andrew Johnson, a legal counsel at the Law Reform Commission of Sierra Leone, wrote in a Facebook post. "At the station, lawyers vowed never to leave the station until their colleague was released."
The Sierra Leone People's Party, the country's main opposition group, responded by announcing that it is considering waging an impeachment process against Koroma. The party is also urging citizens to disregard the legitimacy of new Vice President Victor Bockarie Foh, a former ambassador to China who was appointed to fill the post less than 24 hours after former Vice President Samuel Sam-Sumana was fired.
Mohamed Ibn Chambas, the special representative and head of the United Nations Office for West Africa, was reportedly sent to the country on Saturday to meet with both Koroma and Sam-Sumana.
Sam-Sumana was disbarred from the APC political party on March 6 amid accusations that he was fomenting "chaos" in his home area of Kono, a district in Sierra Leone's east known for rich diamond mines. Kono was a central stage during the country's 11-year civil war that killed more than 70,000 people and displaced nearly half of the population in the 1990s.
Sam-Sumana was also accused of conspiring with members of the Sierra Leone People's Party, and lying about being Muslim and obtaining a master's degree from Metropolitan State University in Minnesota.
Asked by VICE News about Sam-Sumana's last public appearance, government spokesperson Abdulai Bayraytay acknowledged that the vice president was out for prayers at his mosque on Friday, seemingly undermining the government's claims about his religious affiliation. According to Metropolitan State, Sam-Sumana graduated in the class of 2002, but VICE News could not immediately confirm whether he obtained his master's degree from the school.
Koroma fired Sam-Sumana on Wednesday after the vice president requested political asylum at the US Embassy last Saturday, allegedly out of fears over his safety. APC members saw the move as a threat by Sam-Sumana to abandon his post.
"Technically, [requesting political asylum] is like abdicating your responsibility," Bayraytay said.
Bayraytay also noted that, according to Sierra Leone's constitution, candidates must be registered with a political party in order to hold office. Sam-Sumana, the government spokesman said, lost that qualification when his party members voted to kick him out earlier this month.
Bayraytay spoke with VICE News on Friday after he returned from a trip with Koroma to Kailahun and Pujehun, two districts along the country's border with Liberia that have shown strong signs of recovery from the Ebola epidemic. These areas have gone more than 100 days without a new case of the disease, which has claimed more than 10,000 lives since it began spreading across West Africa in late 2013.
Friday offered another milestone: It was the first day that Sierra Leone reported zero new Ebola cases since the outbreak began in the country.
Bayraytay says the government shuffle will not have any effect on the country's Ebola strategy, which includes plans for a series of nationwide curfews in late March and early April. Sierra Leone, along with its severely impacted neighbors Guinea and Liberia, is aiming to stop new Ebola transmissions by April 15.
"Events like this happen," Bayraytay said in reference to Sam-Sumana's firing. "Governance is not a static, one-time thing."
Sam-Sumana was accused of causing "chaos" and taking part in anti-party activities during his vice presidency, but Bayraytay could not give examples of these allegations when pressed.
Last November, Sierra Leone's National Advisory Committee launched an investigation into the accusations against Sam-Sumana. The results, released March 6, offered few details beyond allegations that Sam-Sumana was responsible for upticks in violence in Kono.
"They came to a unanimous decision that activities of vice president were not in best interest of the party," Bayraytay said.
Last June, Koroma fired his chief of staff over allegations of corruption that involved Sierra Leone's mining and timber industries. Sam-Sumana was previously the subject of a similar controversy. When two journalists posed as timber traders in 2011, two of the vice president's associates approached them and asked for kickbacks to help secure his support for a timber export business in the country — an operation banned by Sierra Leonean law.
US mining entrepreneur Mark Heiligman has also claimed that the vice president owes him an unspecified debt from a 2001 plan to create a diamond mining operation in Kono.
In a 2012 open letter addressed "To The People of Sierra Leone," Heiligman wrote that Sam-Sumana "betrayed us… He betrayed President Koroma… and worst of all he betrayed all of the men, women and children of Sierra Leone."
Koroma's actions last week mark the first time a vice president has been expelled in APC's history. The political party has controlled Sierra Leone for more than 30 years, split across two periods of rule.
Sierra Leone's bar association contends that, despite the accusations of misconduct that litter Sam-Sumana's past, there is no excuse for Koroma's arbitrary disregard of the national constitution. In their letter opposing Sam-Sumana removal, the bar members demanded that the president withdraw his decision within 48 hours after the letter was issued.
In exchange, the attorneys requested that the president implement an impeachment proceeding, or request that Attorney General Franklyn B. Kargbo seek consul from the Supreme Court on whether or not Sam-Sumana's request for asylum undermined his position in office.
Sam-Sumana has said he plans to battle the move.
"I have instructed my legal team to pursue this matter in the highest court of the land, the Supreme Court," he said in a statement issued late Wednesday.
"There is no law in the constitution that gives [Koroma] such power," he said. "This is unlawful."
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