The leader of a breakaway political party is making waves in Sierra Leone as the country begins to look ahead to presidential elections and watches the final exit of a once 17,500-strong UN peacekeeping mission.
Charles Francis Margai was arrested on conspiracy charges this week, sparking a fiery reaction from supporters in the capital, Freetown, with one vowing people would “cause havoc” if the presidential hopeful remains in detention.
Margai’s shake-up of the political scene marks a potential rift in the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, who must give up the helm after the 2007 election.
Margai, who broke from the SLPP when it rebuffed him as its man for the presidential poll, was charged with 11 counts related to an unauthorised campaign rally last month in the town of Bo.
As news of Margai's arrest on Wednesday spread across Freetown, crowds of supporters assembled, at one point trying to storm the Criminal Investigations Department (CID), prompting riot police to fire tear gas.
CID director Moussa Lappia said, "According to our investigations, we've charged him various public order act offenses, as well as conspiracy and incitement."
Snubbed by the SLPP, Margai – the son of one president and nephew of another – left the party in a storm in early October and announced the formation of the People’s Movement for Democratic Change.
But he has been unable to register his party with the Political Parties Commission.
Minutes before his arrest Margai told IRIN in an interview that President Kabbah was "dragging his feet" in making the appointments necessary for the parties commission to function, thereby helping his chosen successor, Vice President Solomon Berewa, gain an early start in the campaign.
"Before registering, we can't hold rallies, but we can inform our allies on what we plan to do on an individual and personal basis," Margai said.
The split in the ruling party could bolster the All Peoples Congress party, which led the country from 1968 to 1992.
The political drama comes as Sierra Leone tries to manage a delicate peace, moving toward its second presidential election since the 1991-2002 war amid rampant unemployment, poverty and a host of civil society demands for righting the wrongs that fuelled the decade-long conflict.
Once the largest UN peacekeeping mission in the world with 17,500 troops at its peak, the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone, UNAMSIL, is turning over facilities and materials to national authorities this month and the remaining 1,300 soldiers will pull out by year’s end.
The charges this week against Margai stem from a confrontation on 18 November between his supporters and a motorcade of Vice President Berewa at a school reunion in the town of Bo.
The crowd reportedly blocked Berewa’s convoy, sparking accusations that Margai’s camp was out to harm or some said even assassinate the vice president. But Margai insists it was not a planned action.
Berewa claimed his life was in danger. Members of the government have accused Margai of trying to assassinate his rival.
Margai denies that he orchestrated the event in Bo or that he even had control of a crowd he called "spontaneous."
Interior Minister Pascal Egebenda said on Wednesday, “probably he [Margai] wanted to eliminate the vice president."
"This man is so desperate to become leader, he can do anything," he said.
Margai called the minister’s charge “irresponsible.”
In the interview before his arrest, Margai dismissed the accusation that his supporters posed a threat to Berewa's life or that he had planned for his assassination.
"The vice president is politicising the police and that is very dangerous in this country," Margai said from his downtown law offices.
"They should be mindful of the people's concern about their abuse of powers," he added, though he pledged to cooperate with any investigation that "was undertaken with respect for the law."
As authorities took Margai from his office to CID headquarters, crowds vowed to push for their leader’s release.
"We are going to be here as long as he is here," said Alex Kamara, a 30-year-old Margai partisan. "I am a peaceful Sierra Leonean, but if they keep him here we are going to cause havoc."
Margai’s brother, Samuel Margai, said the arrest is purely political - and says that is dangerous for the country.
“If it’s something you’ve done wrong then it’s a totally different thing [and] you are going to get what you deserve,” he said.
“When it’s a carefully orchestrated political gimmick then one ought to be worried, not only for [oneself] but for the so-called democracy that we are practicing.”