Hajj begins in Saudi Arabia and general elections in Sierra Leone
Saudi Arabia: Hajj marked by severe heat and high attendance
Saudi officials overseeing this year’s Hajj are contending with significantly higher attendance figures and hotter temperatures compared to recent years, raising concerns surrounding the potential for heat- and crowd-related incidents. The six-day mass religious gathering began on June 26 and will involve various rituals, including the celebration of Eid al-Adha on June 28, in and around the cities of Mecca and Medina. This year’s removal of COVID-era restrictions on the total number of Hajj attendees and caps on pilgrim age has enabled a return to pre-pandemic attendance levels. The annual holy pilgrimage has drawn more than 1.85 million pilgrims according to Saudi authorities – figures not seen since the 2019 Hajj which involved 2.49 million participants. High attendance numbers have increased the likelihood of crowd crushes and surges, which have occurred seven times since 1990 and killed a total of 4,732 pilgrims. This year’s Hajj, which takes place annually according to the lunar calendar, has also been marked by high temperatures of up to 48°C (118°F). The lifting of a COVID-era age cap for pilgrims indicates a proportionally higher number of elderly Hajj participants who will be more vulnerable to this severe heat. At least 287 pilgrims have been treated for cases of heatstroke, dehydration, and exhaustion thus far, according to the Saudi Health Minister. Media and government reports indicate that Hajj organizers have taken steps to mitigate risks associated with both the large crowds and extreme temperatures. Movements of groups of pilgrims within and between Hajj sites are strictly managed and scheduled, and anti-stampede demonstrations and rehearsals have been coordinated by the Saudi government and governments of several countries that send large numbers of worshippers to Hajj. Organizers have also placed more than 32,000 health workers and thousands of ambulances on standby to respond to medical events. Despite these precautions, stampedes and heat-related illnesses impacting Hajj participants cannot be ruled out for the duration of the pilgrimage, which concludes on July 1. However, aside from an increase in domestic and international travel at the beginning and end of Hajj, the event is unlikely to impact other areas of Saudi Arabia due to government limitations on pilgrims traveling outside of designated areas.
Sierra Leone: Incumbent sworn in following contested elections
Incumbent Maada Bio secured a win in Sierra Leone’s June 24 presidential elections marred by episodes of violence targeting the opposition and the Electoral Commission (ECSL), as well as logistical challenges at several voting stations. A total of 13 candidates participated in the election, including frontrunners Maada Bio and opposition All People’s Congress (APC) party candidate Samura Kamara. Bio closely avoided a run-off, securing 56.1% of the total ballots – slightly above the 55% threshold – while Kamara won a 41% share of the vote. International monitors voiced concerns about the lack of transparency in the tallying process, and APC officials claimed that their electoral agents were not allowed to verify the count. Despite allegations of irregularities at several tally centers, Bio was sworn in as President on June 27 – hours after the official results were announced – triggering celebratory marches in Freetown. While the ESCL and international observers described election day as relatively peaceful, several violent incidents targeting APC supporters and ESCL officials were reported in six regions; the exact locations remain unclear as of June 28. A few incidents of election-related violence were also reported ahead of and in the days following the vote. Security forces surrounded the APC headquarters in Freetown on June 25 and deployed tear gas against APC supporters who had gathered outside the office. Several media reports indicated that security forces also fired live ammunition at the building, killing one person; however, authorities have denied these accusations. The unrest came after 66 people were arrested across the capital on June 21 amid clashes between APC supporters and security forces outside the party headquarters; these skirmishes broke out despite a call for peaceful nationwide protests by the APC. Kamara has rejected the official election results, although he did not specify how his party might respond. While no disruptive, large-scale protests have materialized since June 27, the highly polarized political environment and history of election-related violence in Sierra Leone indicate that further unrest and associated disruptions cannot be ruled out in the short term, particularly if Kamara calls on his supporters to publicly dispute the vote count in the coming days.