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Forecast podcast: Sierra Leone coup attempt fuels fear of political crackdown

Sierra Leone President Julius Maada Bio stands at podium with sunglasses on. There are curtains in the colors of the national flag behind and above him

Editors Jimmy Lovaas and Sophie Perryer discuss the attempted coup in Sierra Leone that left at least 20 people dead and saw nearly 2,000 prisoners escape, plus more on China expanding visa-free travel, train strikes in the UK, a referendum on a territorial dispute between Guyana and Venezuela and the latest on an American journalist detained in Russia.

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These stories and others are also available in our free weekly Forecast newsletter.

This episode was produced with work from Factal editors Sophie Perryer, Vivian Wang, Irene Villora, Owen Bonertz and Alex Moore.  Produced and edited by Jimmy Lovaas. Music courtesy of Andrew Gospe.

Have feedback, suggestions or events we’ve missed? Drop us a note: hello@factal.com


Factal Forecast podcast transcript

This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.

JIMMY LOVAAS, HOST:

Welcome to the Factal Forecast, a look at the week’s biggest stories and what they mean from the editors at Factal. I’m Jimmy Lovaas.

Today is November 30th.

In this week’s forecast we’ve got an attempted coup in Sierra Leone, China expanding visa-free travel, train strikes in the UK, a referendum on a territorial dispute between Guyana and Venezuela and the latest on an American journalist detained in Russia.

You can also read about these stories and more in our weekly newsletter, which you’ll find a link to in the show notes.

Sierra Leone attempted coup

Information compiled by Sophie Perryer

JIMMY: Up first, we’ll take a look at the attempted coup in Sierra Leone. For more on that we’ve got Factal Senior Editor Sophie Perryer. 

JIMMY: Hello, Sophie!

SOPHIE: Hey, Jimmy!

JIMMY: Well, Sophie, we’d gone a little while without an attempted coup in West Africa, but it looks like we snapped that streak this weekend. What can you tell us about Sierra Leone?

SOPHIE: Well, like you say Jimmy, we are contending with some coup contagion in this region of West Africa – although this latest attempted power seizure did come as a little bit of a surprise in Sierra Leone, because things looked as though they were improving following a period of unrest after the June elections. So back in June, President Julius Maada Bio was re-elected for a second term, but there were reports of violence in the lead up to and aftermath of the vote, and concerns were raised by international observers like the US and EU over a lack of transparency and some intimidation as well. After negotiations mediated by ECOWAS, the government reached an agreement last month to work with the opposition to end the latter’s boycott and work together to review the June vote. But then early Sunday morning, we began seeing reports of gunfire near a military base in Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown, that transpired to be a break-in at the military armory. A prison was also breached and almost 2,000 inmates were set free. 

JIMMY: Wow! What’s the latest, then? How are things looking at the moment?

SOPHIE: Well, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the government declared a nationwide curfew while it launched an operation to round up the perpetrators. Then, two days later, an army spokesperson announced 20 people were killed, including 13 soldiers who were loyal to the government. The president also said most of the suspects, who were described as “renegade” current and former military personnel, have been taken into custody. The investigation is ongoing and the curfew remains in place, although it’s now been relaxed to nighttime only as opposed to 24/7.

JIMMY: What have reactions in Sierra Leone been like following the attack? And, you know, how has the international community responded?

SOPHIE: Well, predominantly with condemnations. The EU, US and UK all criticized the attacks as an attempted forceful seizure of power, and ECOWAS, the West African regional bloc, put out  a statement expressing “utter disgust” and saying it has “no tolerance for an unconstitutional change of government.” Certainly from a Western perspective, there’s simply no appetite for any more military takeovers in the region, especially given the number it has seen since 2020 in other countries such as Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso.

JIMMY: Well, considering all that, what do you think folks should be watching for next then?

SOPHIE: Well, two main things: the first is the recapture of prisoners who were broken out of jail in Freetown on Sunday. Almost 1,900 were set free and just 20 have been returned so far, so it’s likely we will see campaigns of mass arrests in the coming days as Sierra Leone’s authorities attempt to restore order. It’s also worth watching for any signs of a political crackdown on the opposition, or any arrests of army officers believed to be linked to the coup; the government will likely be seeking to avoid any repeat scenarios of Sunday’s attacks and is likely to orchestrate some sort of crackdown on dissent, although it’s not clear exactly what form that will take just yet.

JIMMY: Well, Sophie, we’ll stop there today, but as always, thank you so much for getting us caught up to speed. Always appreciate it. 

SOPHIE: Thanks for having me!

JIMMY: Take care.

China expands visa-free travel

Information compiled by Vivian Wang

JIMMY: Some visitors will be able to enter China without a visa starting Friday. 

Beijing is trialing the new policy with citizens from France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Malaysia.

It’s part of China’s efforts to boost business and leisure travel, both of which took a hit during the pandemic due to strict coronavirus measures. 

The process began earlier this year, when Chinese authorities lifted a requirement for visitors to quarantine or test for the virus when entering the country. 

The trial will last a year, although it’s not clear yet what effect it will have on visitor numbers. 

Some areas of northern China are currently reporting a spike in unspecified respiratory illnesses. 

The World Health Organization has asked for further information but isn’t recommending any new travel restrictions at this time.

UK train strikes

Information compiled by Irene Villora

JIMMY: Rail workers in England will launch seven days of strike action on Saturday. It’s part of an ongoing dispute over pay, working conditions and job security. 

Services at 14 different rail operators will be affected, although there’s not expected to be any coordinated nationwide impact.

Drivers will also refuse to work any overtime during the strike period.

Now, the government has expressed concern over the impact the strike may have, especially on businesses and hospitality in the lead-up to Christmas.

Venezuela referendum on territorial dispute with Guyana

Information compiled by Owen Bonertz

JIMMY: On Sunday, Venezuelans will vote on whether to claim sovereignty over the western half of Guyana. 

Venezuela has claimed rights over the area west of the Essequibo River for almost 200 years.

The area makes up almost two-thirds of Guyana’s national territory and is  home to around 300,000 people, mostly Anglophone and Indigenous communities scattered throughout the dense jungle.

Venezuela’s interest in the region spiked in 2015, when massive oil reserves were discovered there.

Voters are expected to back the government’s position and recognize the territory as Venezuelan. Still, Venezuelan authorities have no way of enforcing the non-binding measure. It’s mostly being viewed as a political tool to promote nationalism ahead of the 2024 elections.

Guyana has appealed to the International Court of Justice to intervene if necessary.

US journalist’s pre-trial detention expires in Russia

Information compiled by Alex Moore

JIMMY: Russia’s pre-trial detention of a Russian-American journalist is scheduled to end on Tuesday.

Alsu Kurmasheva, a Prague-based journalist for Radio Free Europe, was detained in Kazan, Russia, in early-June. She’s charged with failing to register as a foreign agent under Moscow’s laws. 

Her detention was previously extended and the date of her next court appearance is unknown.

Now, Kurmasheva’s detainment, along with the arrest of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, underscore the spiraling risk to foreign reporters in Russia since Moscow’s full invasion of Ukraine and tightening of “foreign influence” laws. 

Gershkovich, who was arrested in late-March and charged with espionage, once again had his pre-trial detention extended this week through Jan. 30. 

Nearly all other American journalists have departed Russia at Washington’s urging.

JIMMY: As always, thank you for listening to the Factal Forecast. We publish our forward-looking podcast and newsletter each Thursday to help you get a jump-start on the week ahead. Please subscribe and review wherever you find your podcasts. We’d love it if you’d consider telling a friend about us.  

Today’s episode was produced with work from Factal editors Vivian Wang, Irene Villora, Owen Bonertz and Alex Moore. Our interview also featured editor Sophie Perryer and our podcast is produced and edited by me – Jimmy Lovaas – with additional writing by Sophie Perryer. Our music comes courtesy of Andrew Gospe.

Until next time, if you have any feedback, suggestions or events we’ve missed, drop us a note by emailing hello@factal.com

This transcript may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability not guaranteed. 

Copyright © 2023 Factal. All rights reserved.

Music: ‘Factal Theme’ courtesy of Andrew Gospe

Top photo: Sierra Leone President Julius Maada Bio courtesy of Erik Cleves Kristensen (CC BY 2.0)

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