Rapaport Magazine
Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone, Past and Present

By Sayre Priddy
RAPAPORT... From its days as a hub in the transatlantic slave trade to present times, Sierra Leone has always been a place familiar with controversy.

In 1446, the coast of Sierra Leone was first sighted by Europeans, and in 1462, Portuguese explorer Pedro da Cintra visited and mapped the rugged land. He called it “Serra Lyoa” — meaning Lion Mountains — which eventually evolved to Sierra Leone.


Less than a hundred years later, European traders were increasingly active in the area, exchanging goods for ivory, gold and slaves. In fact, according to Cyril P. Foray in the Historical Dictionary of Sierra Leone, “The West Coast of Africa proved particularly fertile in its supply of human cargo and Sierra Leone with its harbor facilities and well-populated adjacent territories provided ideal conditions for trade in goods and slaves.”

This practice would continue until 1787, when British abolitionists chose Sierra Leone as the place to resettle freed British loyalist slaves. In May 1787, 400 freed slaves from the United States, Nova Scotia and Great Britain arrived in Sierra Leone and established the Province of Freedom on the coast.
While the settlement population was largely decimated during the first years due to disease and native attacks, in 1792, nearly 1,200 freed slaves arrived and Freetown was established. Fifteen years later, in 1807, Great Britain declared slavery illegal and on January 1, 1808, the still-struggling coastal settlement became a British colony.

Sierra Leone became the local base for Britain’s enforcement of its antislavery policy and thousands of slaves were liberated in Freetown, according to the U.S. State Department’s Sierra Leone background note. Many freed slaves chose to stay in Sierra Leone and accordingly, the country grew. In 1896, a British Protectorate was proclaimed over neighboring interior portions of the region as well.


While there were several failed rebellions against the British, most of the early part of the twentieth century in Sierra Leone was nonviolent. After World War II, the British government introduced new constitutions in the West African colonies and in 1951, Sierra Leone adopted a constitution that began the process of decolonization.

On April 27, 1961, Sierra Leone achieved independence and Sir Milton Margai of the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) served as Prime Minister. Margai died in 1964 and was succeeded by his half-brother, Sir Albert Margai.

Following very close elections in March 1967, Siaka Stevens, Freetown mayor and All Peoples Congress (APC) leader, was appointed Prime Minister by the governor general, a representative of the British Monarch. This triggered three military coups in quick succession and Stevens didn’t assume office until April 1968. Stevens and the APC swept the 1973 elections and in 1978, Steven amended the constitution to outlaw all parties other than the APC. In the mid-1980s, Major General Joseph Saidu Momoh was picked to succeed Stevens, and he assumed the office on October 1, 1985. Momoh’s administration was marked by growing corruption and poverty.


In early 1991, Sierra Leone was plunged into civil war when the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), headed by longtime dissident Foday Sankoh, started launching attacks from the eastern part of the country, near the Liberia border. While the government tried to defend itself, fighting continued and the rebels soon gained control of the Kono district diamond mines, pushing the army back toward Freetown.

Two years earlier, Liberia itself had slipped into civil war when Charles Taylor launched an uprising against the government. According to an August 7, 2003, obituary of Sankoh in The Economist, Sankoh and Taylor had met while both were training in Muammar Qaddafi’s Libyan guerilla camps and became allies. Taylor allegedly helped Sankoh set up RUF and later supplied RUF with arms, which were paid for with proceeds from the Sierra Leone diamond fields.

In October 1991, Momoh amended the constitution to reestablish a multiparty system. Yet, on April 29, 1992, the army itself overthrew the government as Captain Valentine Strasser and other officers launched a coup and established the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) to govern the land. Momoh went into exile in Guinea. The RUF continued their attacks, however, and in 1995, according to the U.S. State Department, mercenaries from Executive Outcomes were hired to drive the rebels back.

The NPRC ceded power to a civilian government and Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, a former UN diplomat, was elected president in April 1996. The RUF did not participate in the elections and refused to recognize the results. Nevertheless, on November 30, 1996, Kabbah and Sankoh signed a peace agreement, the Abidjan Accord. However, on May 25, 1997, the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), led by Major Johnny Paul Koroma, overthrew Kabbah and joined forces with the RUF. In October 1997, the United Nations imposed sanctions and the Nigerian-led Military Observer Group (ECOMOG) of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) was authorized to subdue the rebels. Kabbah was reinstated in March 1998.

Early the next year, the RUF launched a fierce attack on Freetown, briefly capturing parts of the city and leaving thousands dead before being pushed back by ECOMOG troops. Subsequently, a diplomatic effort was launched to end the hostilities and on July 7, 1999, the Lomé Peace Agreement was signed. The pact included a general amnesty for those who had committed atrocities in the war and made Sankoh vice president.

In October 1999, the United Nations (UN) Security Council established the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), which would eventually be the UN’s largest peacekeeping mission ever, with more than 17,000 troops at its peak. In May 2000, the RUF renounced the ceasefire and briefly held hundreds of UN personnel hostage.

Sankoh and other senior RUF officials were soon arrested — and removed from their government positions — and more negotiations for a new ceasefire and disarmament took place. In July 2000, the UN Security Council imposed an embargo on the sale of rough diamonds from Sierra Leone in an effort to cut off RUF funding.

Nevertheless, it would take the signing of two more cease-fire agreements, both in Abuja, in November 2000 and May 2001, before the disarmament process achieved any meaningful progress.

In early 2002, nearly 75,000 ex-fighters had been disarmed and demobilized and on January 18, 2002, President Kabbah declared the civil war to be officially over. In the nearly 11 years that the war had been waged, tens of thousands were killed and over one-third of Sierra Leone’s population — more than 2 million people — was displaced.

A Slow Recovery

In May 2002, Sierra Leone held general elections and President Kabbah was reelected. Later that summer, both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone were established and began operation. In November 2002, UNAMSIL began a gradual withdrawal of some of its peacekeepers.

The Special Court issued its first war crimes indictments in March 2003, naming Sankoh and Koroma, among several others. In June, the UN ban on the sale of rough from Sierra Leone expired and was not renewed. Around that same time, Koroma was reportedly killed in Liberia. Sankoh died of a heart attack on July 29, 2003, while awaiting trial in prison in Freetown.
In December 2005, the last of the UN peacekeepers left the country and on January 1, 2006, the peace-building United Nations Integrated Office in Sierra Leone (UNIOSIL) was established. Presidential and legislative elections in Sierra Leone are slated for July 28, 2007, when Kabbah will step down.

Ominously, UNIOSIL recently released the opinion that “the general culture of political intolerance emerging in the country is a cause for great concern. The perception among opposition parties that the ruling party may be using its incumbency by leveraging public resources to its advantage while denying the opposition a level playing field remains and may lead to heightened tensions if not addressed at this early stage.”

Note: The exact dates for many of the events in the preceding article vary according to source, precluding absolute accuracy.

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - January 2007. To subscribe click here.

Comment Comment Email Email Print Print Facebook Facebook Twitter Twitter Share Share
Comments: (0)  Add comment Add Comment
Arrange Comments Last to First