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Sierra Leone’s former president is set to appear in court this month to face treason charges related to the failed coup in the west African country late last year.

Ernest Bai Koroma was this week charged with treason and other offences over his alleged involvement in the failed plot to unseat the government of his successor Julius Maada Bio.

More than 20 people were killed in November when key sites across the country were attacked, including a military barracks and a prison where more than 2,200 inmates were set free.

The Bio government has said the failed coup was orchestrated mostly by security officers loyal to Koroma, Sierra Leone president for 11 years until 2018 who has been under house arrest since last month. Treason convictions can carry lifetime imprisonment penalties, according to Sierra Leone’s penal code.

West and central Africa have been hit by a string of coups in recent years, leaving many regional leaders wondering whether they might be the next to be removed. Soldiers have seized power twice in Mali and Burkina Faso, and once in Chad, Gabon, Guinea and Niger since 2020.

The treason charges against such a prominent figure in Sierra Leone have further ratcheted up tensions in a country still divided over a disputed election last year and scarred by an 11-year civil war that killed more than 50,000 people.

Tensions have been high in Sierra Leone since Bio won re-election in a vote that international and local monitors say was not transparent and riddled with irregularities.

MPs from Koroma’s All People’s Congress (APC) party, whose presidential candidate lost the vote, refused to take their seats in parliament after the poll and demanded an election rerun. The political paralysis caused a US agency to pause work on the disbursement of a grant worth more than $450mn.

The charges against Koroma came a day after 12 other people were also charged with treason as well as “harbouring, aiding and abetting the enemy”.

Those charged include Amadu Koita, a Koroma bodyguard who has criticised Bio on social media, and Bai Mahmoud Bangura, a senior official in the former president’s party.

Abdul Karim Kamara, an APC spokesperson, told the Financial Times that it was “difficult” to respond to the treason charges levelled against Koroma amid claims that a deal had been reached with the regional Ecowas bloc for the former president to temporarily relocate to Nigeria.

“We saw the Ecowas letter saying the president would travel to Nigeria and shortly after that he was summoned to appear in court”.

Ecowas, the west African group of nations, had been involved in dialogue with Sierra Leonean authorities since last month. Macky Sall, president of Senegal, and Ghana’s president Nana Akufo-Addo visited Freetown in December to meet Koroma and Bio.

A letter sent by Ecowas to Bio and seen by the Financial Times referred to a relocation agreement reached during Sall and Akufo-Addo’s visit and said Nigeria would host Koroma on a “temporary basis”.

Koroma would leave Freetown for the Nigerian capital Abuja this week, according to the letter that also urged the Sierra Leonean government to drop all “legal and administrative procedures” against Koroma. In an interview with the FT, Sierra Leone foreign minister Timothy Musa Kabba denied a deal had been struck to allow Koroma to go to Nigeria.

Kamara, the APC spokesperson, also said any suggestions that members of his party were involved in any coup plot was a “non-starter” because the party only stood to benefit from democratic rule.

“We only exist as a political party when there’s a democracy. How does a coup benefit us? We might not want Bio as president but a coup would not answer our quest for leadership either.”

This article has been corrected to make clear that Koroma stood down as president when his second term ended in 2018 and did not lose to Bio in an election

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