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Sierra Leone: Bio taps Green Beret as security adviser amid US poll pushback

By Julian Pecquet, in Washington

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Posted on August 31, 2023 14:36

Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Bio in Freetown, Sierra Leone, June 24, 2023. REUTERS/Cooper Inveen
Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Bio in Freetown, Sierra Leone, June 24, 2023. REUTERS/Cooper Inveen

President Bio’s government has hired Mercury Public Affairs and US Army veteran Jerry Torres to deepen diplomatic and military ties with the Joe Biden administration.

The government of Sierra Leone has hired a US Army Special Forces veteran and a Washington lobbying powerhouse as the West African nation looks to assuage the Joe Biden administration’s concerns following disputed elections in June.

President Julius Maada Bio has tapped retired Green Beret and defence contractor Jerry Torres to serve as his national security adviser, according to a new lobbying filing effective 11 August.

Torres’ task includes ensuring that US officials “understand the facts related to the recent presidential election, and recognise the legitimacy of the recent democratically held election and the election results”, according to a 2 July memo he shared with Ambassador to the US Sidique Wai.

Separately, Mercury Public Affairs says it has begun negotiating a lobbying contract with Vice President Mohamed Juldeh Jalloh’s secretary, Barba Fortune.

To date, six agents have registered with the US Department of Justice to assist with “government relations, public relations, and communications advice and services, including outreach to government officials and US media”, including former Congressman Anthony ‘Toby’ Moffett, a Democrat from Connecticut.

Disputed elections

The lobbying push comes amid US blowback following reports of electoral irregularities and intimidation of poll watchers in the 24 June election that saw Bio elected to a second term with 56% of votes cast.

The main opposition candidate Samura Kamara has rejected the results, deeming them “not credible” and a “frontal attack on our fledgling democracy”.

“I think a lot of people know that he [Bio] stole the election,” says Susan Shepler, an associate professor at the School of International Service at American University in Washington with three decades of experience in Sierra Leone.

“And so he’s been sort of trying to cover for that by appointing a lot of young people and women to his Cabinet, saying: ‘Look, this is a new era’, but also bringing in lobbying firms to help him project a new image.”

The State Department has called for an independent probe of the election.

“The United States continues to be concerned about irregularities in the election results announced by the Electoral Commission for Sierra Leone [ECSL],” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a 14 July statement.

“Independent parallel vote tabulations and analyses by accredited national and international observation missions raise questions about the integrity of the official results,” Miller said.

“We call on the government to institute an independent, outside investigation of the elections process and integrate observer recommendations to improve the electoral modalities for future elections.”

I don’t think it would make sense for the US to fight for it when Sierra Leoneans themselves aren’t willing to fight for it

On 31 August, the State Department stepped up its intervention by announcing a new visa restriction policy targeting individuals found to be responsible for or complicit in “undermining democracy in Sierra Leone” including through “the manipulation or rigging of the electoral process; intimidation of voters, election observers, or civil society organizations through threats or acts of physical violence; or the abuse or violation of related human rights.”

“Persons who undermine the democratic process in Sierra Leone — including in the lead-up to, during, and following Sierra Leone’s 2023 elections — may be found ineligible for US visas under this policy,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a press statement.

“The visa restriction policy announced today will apply to specific individuals and is not directed at the Sierra Leonean people,” Blinken said.  “This decision reflects the commitment of the United States to support Sierra Leoneans’ aspirations to have free and fair elections that demonstrate the will of the people and strengthen democracy and the rule of law.”

Congress has also expressed misgivings.

“I remain concerned with the electoral process in Sierra Leone, particularly the lack of transparency and responsiveness to the legitimate concerns of voters, candidates, political parties, observers, and international partners,” Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote in a 30 June statement. “The escalating harassment, defaming, and targeting of citizen observers is also unacceptable.”

Risch went on to hint at possible aid restrictions, noting that past elections were crucial to ending Sierra Leone’s civil war and “securing important opportunities for the country’s development from partners, including the United States”. The Biden administration’s aid request for the country for Fiscal Year 2024 is just below $45m, mostly for health programs.

“The United States will be watching for confidence-building measures from the electoral commission in the coming days,” Risch said.

Shepler, however, sees little real US appetite for punishing a country that is still recovering from years of devastating civil war, especially when Bio seemed destined to win in the second if not the first round of voting.

“I think people want to think of Sierra Leone as a success story,” she tells The Africa Report.

“They want to point to the success of democratic reforms post-conflict and even though I would say there were serious discrepancies in this election, it was good enough. Maybe he probably would have won in the second round anyway and so it’s not like he stole the election completely.”

Disappointed Sierra Leoneans themselves, she adds, seem resigned to the idea that this election, if not perfect, was the best they could hope for.

“I don’t think it would make sense for the US to fight for it when Sierra Leoneans themselves aren’t willing to fight for it,” she says.

New era

While the election is a main concern, the agreement with Torres goes far beyond. According to his memo to Ambassador Wai, key components of the proposal include:

  • Strengthening Sierra Leone’s relations with the United States. This includes serving as a liaison to the Department of Defense and other agencies and informing them of ‘subversive activities’ and attempts to ‘destabilise’ the country, developing a regional partnership with the US and opening a Pentagon-funded security assistance office at the US Embassy in Freetown, and improving the perception of the country’s human rights record;
  • Improving the security of the government’s information technology and cyber capability, including the creation of a closed communications network between President Bio and his cabinet;
  • Strengthening the security and protection of critical information, such as developing procedures for data classification and personnel vetting;
  • Protecting against destabilising ‘false narratives, fake news and offensive material’ and developing ‘offensive ‘attack’ cyber operations to remove content deemed subversive, while developing cyber tools for intelligence and security agencies;
  • Raising the country’s international profile by organising a Global Security Conference for West African nations in Sierra Leone and seeking more US and international funding for Freetown’s role in peacekeeping, humanitarian and disaster relief missions, including participation in UN missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Eritrea, South Sudan and Western Sahara; and
  • Improving Sierra Leone’s economic security through grant funding, improved rice and other agricultural production and increased foreign investment.

A former Republican political candidate who failed in his bid for a congressional seat in Florida last year, Torres has long-standing ties to Sierra Leone and is working pro bono. He expects to be reimbursed about $10,000 in travel and other expenses per year, however.

Shepler sees a continuation of Bio’s long-standing interest in security affairs. The president launched a coup as a young military officer in the mid-1990s and remains partial to travelling in lengthy and well-armed convoys.

Earlier this year, Sierra Leone also secured one of two African seats on the UN Security Council – alongside Algeria – for the 2024-2025 term.

“I think the message directed out is we are a new, young, vibrant government, and we are taking women’s issues, youth issues seriously,” Shepler says. “Simultaneously, we want to step on to the world stage more and […] be part of the UN Security Council, be part of UN peacekeeping missions, etc. [….] trying to get international positions for [Bio] and his staff.”

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