European contacts 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
In 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.
In closely contested elections in March 1967, the All Peoples Congress
(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. Another group of officers soon
staged another coup, only to be later ousted in a third coup, the “sergeants’
revolt,” and Stevens at last, in April 1968, assumed the office of Prime
Minister under the restored constitution. Siaka Stevens remained as head
of state until 1985. Under his rule, in 1978, the constitution was amended
and all political parties, other than the ruling APC, were banned.
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.
In October 1991 Momoh had the constitution amended once again, re-establishing
a multi-party system. Under Momoh, APC rule was increasingly marked by
abuses of power. Earlier in 1991, in March, a small band of men who called
themselves the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) under the leadership of
a former-corporal, Foday Sankoh, began to attack villages in eastern Sierra
Leone on the Liberian border. Fighting continued in the ensuing months,
with the RUF gaining control of the diamond mines in the Kono district
and pushing the Sierra Leone army pack towards Freetown. 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.
The NPRC proved to be nearly as ineffectual as the Momoh government
in repelling the RUF. More and more country fell to RUF fighters, so that
by 1995 they held much of the countryside and were on the doorsteps of
Freetown. To retrieve the situation, the NPRC hired several hundred mercenaries
from the private firm Executive Outcomes. Within a month they had driven
RUF fighters back to enclaves along Sierra Leone’s borders.
As a result of popular demand and mounting international pressure, the
NPRC agreed to hand over power to a civilian government via presidential
and parliamentary elections, which were held in April 1996. Ahmad Tejan
Kabbah, a diplomat who had worked at the UN for more than 20 years, won
the presidential election. Because of the prevailing war conditions, parliamentary
elections were conducted, for the first time, 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, the
RUF launched another attempt to overthrow the government. Fighting reached
parts of Freetown, leaving thousands dead and wounded. ECOMOG forces drove
by the RUF attack several weeks later.
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 made Sankoh Vice President and gave other RUF
members positions in the government. 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. ECOMOG forces departed in April
2000. 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 against the
RUF violations outside Sankoh's house in Freetown. As a result, Sankoh
and other senior members of the RUF were arrested and the group was stripped
of its positions in government.
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 began to reassert its authority in formerly rebel-held areas.
By early 2002, some 72,000 ex-combatants have been disarmed and demobilized,
although many still awaited re-integration assistance. On January 18, 2002
President Kabbah declared the civil war officially over.
In May 2002 President Kabbah and his party, the SLPP, won landslide
victories in the presidential and legislative elections. Kabbah was re-elected
for a five year term. The RUF political wing, the RUFP, failed to win a
single seat in parliament. The elections were marked by irregularities
and allegations of fraud, but not to a degree to significantly affect the
On July 28th, 2002 the British withdrew a 200-man military contingent
that had been in country since the summer of 2000, leaving behind a 140-strong
military training team to work to professionalize the Sierra Leone army.
The Lome Accord 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. Subsequently, the Sierra Leonean government asked
the UN for help to establish to help set up a Special Court for Sierra
Leone, which would 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."
Both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Special Court began
operating in the summer of 2002.
In November 2002, UNAMSIL began a gradual reduction from a peak level
of 17,500 personnel. Under pressure from the British, the withdrawal slowed,
so that by October 2003 the UNAMSIL contingent still stood at 12,000 men.
The withdrawal plan, however, calls for a full withdrawal, contingent on
the security environment, by the end of 2004.
On January 13, 2003 a small group of armed men tried unsuccessfully
to break into an armory in Freetown. Former AFRC-junta leader Johnny Paul
Koroma, went into hiding, after being linked to the raid. In March the
Special Court for Sierra Leone issued its first indictments for war crimes
during the civil war. Foday Sankoh, already in custody, was indicted, along
with notorious RUF field commander Sam “Mosquito” Bockarie, Johnny Paul
Koroma, the Minister of Interior and former head of the Civil Defense Force,
Hinga Norman, and several others. Norman was arrested when the indictments
were announced, while Bockarie and Koroma remained at large (presumably
in Liberia). On May 5th Bockarie was killed in Liberia, probably on orders
from President Charles Taylor, who expected to be indicted by the Special
Court and feared Bockarie’s testimony. Several weeks later word filtered
out of Liberia that Johnny Paul Koroma had been killed, as well, although
his death remains unconfirmed. In June the Special Court announced Taylor’s
indictment. Sankoh died in prison in Freetown on July 29th from a heart
attack. He had been ailing for some time.
In August, 2003 President Kabbah testified before the Truth and Reconciliation
Commission on his role during the civil war. Instead of acting in a statesman-like,
unifying manner, he answered questions in a partisan, defensive style.
He blamed the international community for ignoring Sierra Leone during
much of the civil war, without acknowledging its assistance in the late
1990’s that ended the fighting.