Since 1991, civil war between the government and the Revolutionary United Front
(RUF) has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and the displacement of more
than 2 million people (well over one-third of the population) many of whom are
now refugees in neighboring countries. A peace agreement, signed in July 1999,
collapsed in May 2000 after the RUF took over 500 UN peacekeepers hostage. The
RUF stepped up attacks on Guinea in December 2000, despite a cease-fire that it
signed with the Freetown government one month earlier. As of late 2000, up to
13,000 UN peacekeepers were protecting the capital and key towns in the south.
A UK force of 750 was helping to reinforce security and train the Sierra Leone
population is made up of 18 ethnic groups. The Temne in the north and the Mende
in the South are the largest. About 60,000 are Krio, the descendants of freed
slaves who returned to Sierra Leone from Great Britain and North America and slave
ships captured on the high seas. In addition, about 4,000 Lebanese, 500 Indians,
and 2,000 Europeans reside in the country.
In the past, Sierra Leoneans
were noted for their educational achievements, trading activity, entrepreneurial
skills, and arts and crafts work, particularly woodcarving. Many are part of larger
ethnic networks extending into several countries, which link West African states
in the area. However, the level of education and infrastructure has declined sharply
over the last 30 years.
with Sierra Leone were among the first in West Africa. In 1652, the first slaves
in North America were brought from Sierra Leone to the Sea Islands off the coast
of the southern United States. During the 1700s there was a thriving trade bringing
slaves from Sierra Leone to the plantations of South Carolina and Georgia where
their rice-farming skills made them particularly valuable.
In 1787 the British
helped 400 freed slaves from the United States, Nova Scotia, and Great Britain
return to Sierra Leone to settle in what they called the "Province of Freedom."
Disease and hostility from the indigenous people nearly eliminated the first group
of returnees. This settlement was joined by other groups of freed slaves and soon
became known as Freetown. In 1792, Freetown became one of Britain's first colonies
in West Africa.
Thousands of slaves were returned to or liberated in Freetown.
Most chose to remain in Sierra Leone. These returned Africans--or Krio as they
came to be called--were from all areas of Africa. Cut off from their homes and
traditions by the experience of slavery, they assimilated some aspects of British
styles of life and built a flourishing trade on the West African coast.
the early 19th century, Freetown served as the residence of the British governor
who also ruled the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and the Gambia settlements. Sierra Leone
served as the educational center of British West Africa as well. Fourah Bay College,
established in 1827, rapidly became a magnet for English-speaking Africans on
the West Coast. For more than a century, it was the only European-style university
in western Sub-Saharan Africa.
The colonial history of Sierra Leone was not
placid. The indigenous people mounted several unsuccessful revolts against British
rule and Krio domination. Most of the 20th century history of the colony was peaceful,
however, and independence was achieved without violence. The 1951 constitution
provided a framework for decolonization. Local ministerial responsibility was
introduced in 1953, when Sir Milton Margai was appointed Chief Minister. He became
Prime Minister after successful completion of constitutional talks in London in
1960. Independence came in April 1961, and Sierra Leone opted for a parliamentary
system within the British Commonwealth.
Sir Milton's Sierra Leone Peoples Party
(SLPP) led the country to independence and the first general election under universal
adult franchise in May 1962. Upon Sir Milton's death in 1964, his half-brother,
Sir Albert Margai, succeeded him as Prime Minister. Sir Albert attempted to establish
a one-party political system but met fierce resistance from the opposition All
Peoples Congress (APC). He ultimately abandoned the idea.
In closely contested
elections in March 1967, the APC won a plurality of the parliamentary seats. Accordingly,
the Governor General (representing the British Monarch) declared Siaka Stevens--APC
leader and Mayor of Freetown--as the new Prime Minister. Within a few hours, Stevens
and Margai were placed under house arrest by Brigadier David Lansana, the Commander
of the Republic of Sierra Leone Military Forces (RSLMF), on grounds that the determination
of office should await the election of the tribal representatives to the house.
A group of senior military officers overrode this action by seizing control of
the government on March 23, arresting Brigadier Lansana, and suspending the constitution.
The group constituted itself as the National Reformation Council (NRC) with Brigadier
A.T. Juxon-Smith as its chairman. The NRC in turn was overthrown in April 1968
by a "sergeants' revolt," the Anti-Corruption Revolutionary Movement. NRC members
were imprisoned, and other army and police officers deposed. Stevens at last assumed
the office of Prime Minister under the restored constitution.
The return to
civilian rule led to by-elections beginning in the fall of 1968 and the appointment
of an all-APC cabinet. Tranquillity was not completely restored. In November 1968
a state of emergency was declared after provincial disturbances. In March 1971
the government survived an unsuccessful military coup and in July 1974, it uncovered
an alleged military coup plot. The leaders of both were tried and executed. In
1977, student demonstrations against the government disrupted Sierra Leone politics.
Following the adoption of the republican constitution in April 1971, Siaka
Stevens was appointed President of the Republic by the House; he was inaugurated
for a second 5-year term in March 1976. In the national parliamentary election
that followed in May 1977, the APC won 74 seats and the opposition SLPP 15. The
next year, Stevens' Government won approval for the idea of one-party government,
which the APC had once rejected. Following enactment of the 1978 constitution,
SLPP members of parliament joined the APC.
The first election under the new
one-party constitution took place on May 1, 1982. Elections in about two-thirds
of the constituencies were contested. Because of irregularities, the government
canceled elections in 13 constituencies. By-elections took place on June 4, 1982.
The new cabinet appointed after the election was balanced ethnically between Temnes
and Mendes. It included as the new Finance Minister Salia Jusu-Sheriff, a former
leader of the SLPP who returned to that party in late 1981. His accession to the
cabinet was viewed by many as a step toward making the APC a true national party.
Siaka P. Stevens, who had been head of state of Sierra Leone for 18 years,
retired from that position in November 1985, although he continued his role as
chairman of the ruling APC party. In August 1985, the APC named military commander
Maj. Gen. Joseph Saidu Momoh, Steven's own choice, as the party candidate to succeed
Stevens. Momoh was elected President in a one-party referendum on October 1, 1985.
A formal inauguration was held in January 1986, and new parliamentary elections
were held in May 1986.
In October 1990, President Momoh set up a constitutional
review commission to review the 1978 one-party constitution with a view to broadening
the existing political process, guaranteeing fundamental human rights and the
rule of law, and strengthening and consolidating the democratic foundation and
structure of the nation. The commission, in its report presented January 1991,
recommended re-establishment of a multi-party system of government. Based on that
recommendation, a constitution was approved by Parliament in July 1991 and ratified
in September; it became effective on October 1, 1991. There was great suspicion
that Momoh was not serious, however, and APC rule was increasingly marked by abuses
of power. The rebel war in the eastern part of the county, led by Capt. Foday
Sankoh and his Revolutionary United Front (RUF), posed an increasing burden on
the country. On April 29, 1992, a group of young military officers, led by Capt.
Valentine Strasser, launched a military coup, which sent Momoh into exile in Guinea
and established the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) as the ruling authority
in Sierra Leone.
As a result of popular demand and mounting international pressure,
presidential and parliamentary elections were held in April 1996. Out of 13 candidates
that contested, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah won the presidential elections. Because of
the prevailing war conditions, parliamentary elections were conducted, for the
first time in Sierra Leone, under the system of proportional representation. Thirteen
political parties participated, with the SLPP winning 27 seats, UNPP 17, PDP 12,
APC 5 and DCP 3.
The Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), led by Maj.
Johnny Paul Koroma, overthrew President Kabbah on May 25, 1997, and invited the
RUF to join the government. After 10 months in office the junta was ousted by
the Nigerian-led ECOMOG forces, and the democratically elected government of President
Kabbah was reinstated in March 1998. On January 6, 1999, another unsuccessful
attempt to overthrow the government by the RUF resulted in massive loss of life
and destruction of property in Freetown and its environs.
With the assistance
of the international community, President Kabbah and RUF leader Sankoh negotiated
the Lome Peace Agreement, which was signed on July 7, 1999. The accord granted
amnesty to Sankoh and other members of the RUF and provided a framework for the
transformation of the RUF into a political party. Under Lome, members of the RUF
were granted positions of responsibility within the government. Sankoh was made
Chairman of the Strategic Mineral Resources Council and given the title of Vice
President. Almost immediately, however, the RUF began to violate the agreement,
most notably by holding hundreds of UNAMSIL personnel hostage and capturing their
arms and ammunition in the first half of 2000. On May 8, 2000, members of the
RUF shot and killed as many as 20 people demonstrating outside Sankoh's house
in Freetown against the RUF's violations of Lome. Following these events, Sankoh
and other senior members of the RUF were arrested and the group was stripped of
its positions in government.
Despite the suspension of the political arrangements
and a general view that the Lome agreement was invalidated by RUF actions, Lome
established some steps for bringing about a permanent cessation of hostilities
which remain valid. The agreement provided for a Disarmament, Demobilization and
Reintegration (DDR) program to assist the combatants from all sides in their return
to society. Lome called for an international peacekeeping force run initially
by both ECOMOG and the United Nations. The UN Security Council established the
United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) in 1999, with an initial force
of 6,000. Over time, the mandate of UNAMSIL was broadened and the authorized force
strength increased to its current level of 17,500 troops. A large part of UNAMSIL's
growth has been as a result of its absorption of the functions performed by the
ECOMOG forces, which departed in April 2000. After the events of May 2000, a new
cease-fire was necessary to reinvigorate the peace process. This agreement was
signed in Abuja in November of that year. However, DDR did not resume, and fighting
continued. In late 2000, Guinean forces entered Sierra Leone to attack RUF bases
from which attacks had been launched against Liberian dissidents in Guinea. A
second Abuja Agreement, in May 2001, set the stage for a resumption of DDR on
a wide scale and a significant reduction in hostilities. As disarmament has progressed,
the government has begun to reassert its authority in formerly rebel-held areas.
The Lome Accord also called for the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation
Commission to provide a forum for both victims and perpetrators of human rights
violations during the conflict to tell their stories and facilitate genuine reconciliation.
In June 2000 the government asked the UN to help set up a Special Court for Sierra
Leone. The court, which has not been set up as of November 2001, will try those
who "bear the greatest responsibility for the commission of crimes against humanity,
war crimes and serious violations of international humanitarian law, as well as
crimes under relevant Sierra Leonean law within the territory of Sierra Leone
since November 30, 1996."
The country has remained under a state of emergency
since 1999. Under the constitution, the term of office of the President and the
life of Parliament, originally due to expire in March 2001, have each been extended
twice for 6 months. Presidential and parliamentary elections have been announced
for May 2002.