A history of Sierra Leone
Archaeological finds show that Sierra Leone has been inhabited continuously for at least 2,500 years, populated by successive movements from other parts of Africa.
European contacts with Sierra Leone were among the first in West Africa. In 1462 Portuguese explorer Pedro da Cintra mapped the hills surrounding what is now Freetown Harbour, naming the oddly shaped formation Serra Lyoa (Lion Mountains).
At this time, the country was inhabited by numerous politically independent groups. Several different languages were spoken, but there was similarity of religion. Sierra Leone’s dense tropical rainforest partly isolated it from other African cultures and from the spread of Islam.
Portuguese ships began visiting regularly in the late 15th century, and for a while they maintained a fort on the north shore of the Freetown estuary. The estuary is one of the few good harbours on West Africa’s surf-pounded “Windward Shore” (Liberia to Senegal), and also has a good watering spot; it soon became a favourite destination of European mariners.
When Europeans first arrived at Sierra Leone, slavery among the African peoples of the area was rare. The one particular type of slavery that they did mention was this:
“a person in trouble in one kingdom could go to another and place himself under the protection of its king, whereupon he became a “slave” of that king, obliged to provide free labour and liable for sale.”
If the Africans were not much interested in acquiring slaves, the Portuguese—as well as the Dutch, French, and English who arrived later—certainly were.
Export slavery remained a major business in Sierra Leone from the late 15th century to the mid 19th century. According to Fyfe, “it was estimated in 1789 that 74,000 slaves were exported annually from West Africa, about 38,000 by British firms.”
Mane Invasions (16th Century)
In the mid 16th century, some events of profound importance in the modern history of Sierra Leone occurred: these were the Mane invasions. The Mane (also called Mani), are southern members of the Mande language group; they were a warrior people: well-armed, and well-organized.
By 1545 they had reached Cape Mount, not far from the south-eastern corner of present-day Sierra Leone. Their conquest of Sierra Leone occupied the ensuing 15 to 20 years, and resulted in the subjugation of all or nearly all of the indigenous coastal peoples—who were known collectively as the Sapes—as far north as the Scarcies. The present ethnogeography of Sierra Leone is largely a reflection of these momentous two decades. The degree to which the Mane supplanted the original inhabitants varied from place to place. Thus in the present-day Temne we have a people who partly withstood the Mane onslaught: they kept their language, but became ruled by a line of Mane kings. The present-day Loko and Mende are the result of a more complete submersion of the original culture: their languages are similar, and both essentially Mande. In their oral tradition the Mende still describe themselves as being a mixture of two peoples: they say that their original members were hunters and fishers who populated the area sparsely in small peaceful settlements; they say that their leaders came later, in a recent historical period, bringing with them the arts of war, and also building larger, more permanent villages. This history receives support from the facts that their population consists of two different racial types, and their language and culture show signs of a layering of two different forms: they have both matrilineal and patrilineal inheritance, for instance.
The Mane invasions militarised Sierra Leone. The Sapes had been un-warlike, but after the invasions, right until the late 19th century, bows, shields, and knives of the Mane type had become ubiquitous in Sierra Leone, as had the Mane battle technique of using squadrons of archers fighting in formation, carrying the large-style shields. Villages became fortified. The usual method of erecting two or three concentric palisades, each 12 to 20 feet (4 to 7 m) high, created a formidable obstacle to attackers—especially since, as some of the English observed in the 19th century, the thigh-thick logs planted into the earth to make the palisades often took root at the bottom and grew foliage at the top, so that the defenders occupied virtually a living wall of wood. A British officer who observed one of these fortifications around the time of the 1898 Hut Tax war ended his description of it thus:
“No one who has not seen these fences can realize the immense strength of them. The outer fence at Hahu I measured in several places, and found it to be from 2 to 3 feet thick, and most of the logs, or rather trees, of which it was formed, had taken root and were throwing out leaves and shoots.”
After the invasions, the Mane sub-chiefs among whom the country had been divided began fighting among themselves. This pattern of activity became permanent: even after the Mane had blended with the indigenous population—a process which was completed in the early 17th century—the various kingdoms in Sierra Leone remained in a fairly continual state of flux and conflict, the principal objective of which was plunder, not the acquisition of territory. Despite their many political divisions, the people of the country were united by cultural similarity.
1600 – 1787
In the 17th century, Portuguese imperialism waned and, in Sierra Leone, the most significant European group became the British. By, at latest, 1628, they had a “factory” (their name for a trading post) in the vicinity of Sherbro Island, which is about 50 km south-east down the coast from present-day Freetown.
A company called the Royal Adventurers of England Trading into Africa received a charter from Charles II of England in 1663 and subsequently built a fort in the Sherbro and on Tasso Island in the Freetown estuary. They were plundered by the Dutch in 1664, the French in 1704, and by pirates in 1719 and 1720. After the Dutch raid, the Tasso Island fort was moved to nearby Bunce Island which was more defensible.
The Europeans made payments, called Cole, for rent, tribute, and trading rights, to the king of an area. At this time the local military advantage was still on the side of the Africans, and there is a report, for instance, from 1714, of a king seizing Company goods in retaliation for a breach of protocol. Local Afro-Portuguese often acted as middlemen, the Europeans advancing them goods and they trading them to the local people, most often for ivory. In 1728 an overly aggressive Company governor united the Africans and Afro-Portuguese in hostility to him; they burnt down the Bunce Island fort and it was not rebuilt until about 1750. The French wrecked it again in 1779.
During the 17th century the Temne ethnolinguistic group was expanding. Around 1600 a Mani still ruled the Loko kingdom (the area north of Port Loko Creek) and another ruled the upper part of the south shore of the Freetown estuary. The north shore of the estuary was under a Bulom king, and the area just east of Freetown on the peninsula was held by a non-Mani with a European name, Dom Phillip de Leon (he may however have been a subordinate to his Mani neighbour). By the mid-17th century this situation had changed: Temne, not Bullom was spoken on the south shore, and ships stopping for water and firewood had to pay customs to the Temne king of Bureh who lived at Bagos town on the point between the Rokel River and Port Loko Creek. (The king may actually have still considered himself a Mani—in fact Temne chiefs to this day are called by Mani-derived titles—but his people were Temne. The Bureh king in place in 1690 was called Bai Tura—”Bai” is a Mani form.)
The Temne had thus expanded in a wedge toward the sea at Freetown, and now separated the Bulom to the north from the Mani and other Mande speakers to the south and east.
In this period there are several reports of women occupying high positions. The king of the south shore used to leave one of his wives to rule when he was absent, and in the Sherbro there were woman chiefs. In the early 18th century a Bulom named Seniora Maria had her own town near Cape Sierra Leone.
During the 17th century, Muslim Fula from the Upper Niger and Senegal rivers moved into an area called Futa Jalon in the mountainous region north of present-day Sierra Leone. They were to have an important impact on the peoples of Sierra Leone because they increased trade and also produced secondary population movements into Sierra Leone. The Muslim Fula at first cohabited peaceably with the Susu, Yalunka, and non-Muslim Fula already at Futa Jalon, but around 1725 embarked on a war of domination over them. As a result many Susu and Yalunka migrated to other parts of Sierra Leone, some as far south as the Temne town of Port Loko, only 60km from the Atlantic.
Freetown Colony 1792-1800
The basis for the Freetown Colony began in 1791 with Thomas Peters, an African American who had served in the Black Pioneers and settled in Nova Scotia as part of the Black Loyalist migration. Peters travelled to England in 1791 to report grievances of the Black Loyalists who had been given poor land and faced discrimination. Peters met with British abolitionists and the directors of the Sierra Leone Company. He learned of the Company’s plan for a new settlement at Sierra Leone. The directors were eager to allow the Nova Scotians to build a settlement at Sierra Leone; the London-based and newly created Sierra Leone Company had decided to create a new colony but before Peter’s arrival had no colonists. Lieutenant John Clarkson was sent to Nova Scotia to register immigrants to take to Sierra Leone for the purpose of starting a new settlement. Clarkson worked with Peters to recruit 1,196 former American slaves from free African communities around Nova Scotia such as Birchtown.
Sixty-four settlers died en route to Sierra Leone, and even Lieutenant Clarkson was ill during the voyage. Upon reaching Sierra Leone, Clarkson and some of the Nova Scotian ‘captains’ “despatched on shore to clear or make roadway for their landing”. Clarkson told the men to clear the land until they reached a large cotton tree. After the work had been done and the land cleared all the Settlers, men and women, disembarked and marched towards the thick forest and to the cotton tree, and their preachers (all African Americans) began singing:
Awake and Sing Of Moses and the Lamb
Wake! every heart and every tongue’
To praise the Saviour’s name
The day of Jubilee is come;
Return ye ransomed sinners home
On March 11, 1792, Nathaniel Gilbert, a white preacher, prayed and preached a sermon under the large Cotton Tree, and Reverend David George preached the first recorded Baptist service in Africa. The land was dedicated and christened ‘Free Town’ according to the instructions of the Sierra Leone Company Directors. This was the first thanksgiving service in the newly christened Free Town and was the beginning of the political entity of Sierra Leone. Eventually John Clarkson would be sworn in as first governor of Sierra Leone. Small huts were erected before the rainy season. The Sierra Leone Company surveyors and the Settlers built Freetown on the American grid pattern, with parallel streets and wide roads, with the largest being Water Street.
After the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, the British Naval Squadron was stationed in Freetown to intercept and seize slave ships participating in the illegal slave trade. The slaves that were held on these vessels were released into Freetown and were called ‘Captured negroes’, ‘Recaptives’ or ‘Liberated Africans’.
Colonial era (1800-1961)
In 1800 Sierra Leone was still only a small colony extending a few up the peninsula from Freetown. The bulk of the territory that makes up present-day Sierra Leone was still the sovereign territory of indigenous peoples such as the Mende and Temne, and was little affected by the tiny population of the Colony. Over the course of the 19th century that gradually changed: the British and Creoles in the Freetown area increased their involvement in—and their control over—the surrounding territory by engaging in trade, treaty making, and military expeditions. Trade was the driving force; the treaties and military expeditions were undertaken primarily to promote and increase it.
In the decades following Britain’s prohibition of the slave trade in 1807, the treaties sometimes also required chiefs to desist from slave trading. Suppression of slave trading and suppression of inter-chiefdom war went hand-in-hand because the trade thrived on the wars (and caused them). Thus, to the commercial reasons for pacification could be added anti-slavery ones.
When friendly persuasion failed to secure their interests, the British were not above (to borrow Carl von Clausewitz’s phrase) “continuing diplomacy by other means”. At least by the mid-1820s, the army and navy were going out from the Colony to attack chiefs whose behaviour did not conform to British dictates. In 1826, Governor Turner led troops to the Bum-Kittam area, captured two stockaded towns, burnt others, and declared a blockade on the coast as far as Cape Mount. This was partly an anti-slaving exercise and partly to punish the chief for refusing territory to the British. Later that year acting-Governor Macaulay sent out an expedition which went up the Jong river and burned Commenda, a town belonging to a related chief. These excursions were typical of those that continued throughout the century: army or frontier police, with naval support if possible, would bombard a town and then usually torch it after the defenders had fled or been defeated. Where possible, local enemies of the party being attacked were invited by the British to accompany them as allies.
In the 1880s, Britain’s intervention in the hinterland received added impetus because of the “Scramble for Africa”: an intense competition between the European powers for territory in Africa. In this case the rival was France. To forestall French incursion into what they had come to consider as their own sphere, the British government renewed efforts to finalise a boundary agreement with France and on 1 January 1890 instructed Governor Hay in Sierra Leone to get from chiefs in the boundary area friendship treaties containing a clause forbidding them to treat with another European power without British consent.
Consequently, in 1890 and 1891 Hay and two travelling Commissioners, Garrett and Alldridge, went on extensive tours of what is now Sierra Leone obtaining treaties from chiefs. Most of these were not, however, treaties of cession; they were in the form of cooperative agreements between two sovereign powers.
In January 1895 a boundary agreement was signed in Paris, roughly fixing the line between French Guinea and Sierra Leone. The exact line was to be determined by surveyors later. As Christopher Fyfe notes, “The delimitation was made almost entirely in geographical terms—rivers, watersheds, parallels—not political. Samu chiefdom, for instance, was divided; the people on the frontier had to opt for farms on one side or villages on the other.”
More generally, the arbitrary lumping together of disparate native peoples into geographical units decided on by the colonial powers has been an on-going source of trouble throughout Africa. These geographical units are now attempting to function as nations but are not naturally nations, being composed in many cases of peoples who are traditional enemies. In Sierra Leone, for example, the Mende, Temne, and Creoles remain as rival power blocs between whom lines of fission easily emerge.
In August 1895 an Order-in-Council was issued in Britain authorising the Colony to make laws for the territory around it, extending out to the agreed-upon boundary (which corresponds closely to that of present-day Sierra Leone). On 31 August 1896 a Proclamation was issued in the Colony declaring that territory to be a British “Protectorate”. The Colony remained a distinct political entity; the Protectorate was governed from it.
Most of the Chiefs whose territories the “Protectorate” subsumed did not enter into it voluntarily. Many had signed treaties of friendship with Britain, but these were expressed as being between sovereign powers contracting with each other; there was no subordination. Only a handful of Chiefs had signed treaties of cession, and in some of those cases it is doubtful whether they had understood the terms. In remote areas no treaties had been obtained at all.
Strictly speaking, a Protectorate does not exist unless the people in it have agreed to be protected. The Sierra Leone Protectorate was more in the nature of a unilateral acquisition of territory by Britain. Almost every chieftaincy in Sierra Leone responded to the British aggregation of power with armed resistance. The Protectorate Ordinances (passed in the Colony in 1896 and 1897) abolished the title of King and replaced it with “Paramount Chief”; chiefs and kings had formerly been selected by the leading members of their own communities, now all chiefs, even paramount ones, could be deposed or installed at the will of the Governor; most of the judicial powers of the chiefs were removed and given to courts presided over by British “District Commissioners”; the Governor decreed that a house tax of 5s to 10s was to be levied annually on every dwelling in the Protectorate. To the chiefs, these reductions in their power and prestige were unbearable. When, in 1898, attempts were made to actually collect the tax, they rose up, first in the north, led by a dominant Temne chief called Bai Bureh, and then in Mende country to the south. The two struggles took on quite different characteristics.
Bai Bureh’s forces conducted a disciplined and skilfully executed guerrilla campaign which caused the British considerable difficulty. Hostilities began in February; Bureh’s harassing tactics confounded the British at first but by May they were gaining ground. The rainy season interrupted hostilities until October, when the British resumed the slow process of eliminating the African’s stockades. When most of these defences had been eliminated, Bureh was captured or surrendered (accounts differ) in November.
The Mende war was a mass uprising, planned somehow to commence everywhere on 27 and 28 April, in which almost all “outsiders”—whether European or Creole—were seized and summarily executed. Although more fearsome than Bai Bureh’s rising, it was amorphous, lacked a definite strategy, and was suppressed in most areas in two months. Some Mende rebels in the centre of the country were not beaten until November, however; and Mende king Nyagua’s son Maghi, in alliance with some Kissi, fought on in the extreme east of the Protectorate until August 1899.
The two risings together are referred to as the Hut Tax War of 1898. The principals, Bai Bureh, Nyagua and Be Sherbro (Gbana Lewis), were exiled to the Gold Coast on 30 July 1899; a large number of their subordinates were executed.
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 also served as the educational centre of British West Africa. 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.
After the Hut Tax War there was no more large-scale military resistance to colonialism. Resistance and dissent continued, but took other forms. Vocal political dissent came mainly from the Creoles, who had a sizeable middle and upper class of business-people and European-educated professionals such as doctors and lawyers. In the mid 19th century they had enjoyed a period of considerable political influence, but in the late 19th century the government became much less open to them. They continued to press for political rights, however, and operated a variety of newspapers which governors considered troublesome and demagogic. In 1924 a new constitution was put in place, introducing elected representation (3 out of 22 members) for the first time. Prominent among the Creoles demanding change were the bourgeois nationalist H.C. Bankole-Bright, General Secretary of the Sierra Leone Branch of the National Congress of British West Africa (NCBWA), and the socialist I.T.A. Wallace-Johnson, founder of the West African Youth League (WAYL). African resistance was not limited to political discussion. For instance, Sierra Leone developed an active trade union movement whose strikes were often accompanied by sympathetic rioting among the general population.
Besides the colonial employers, one of the main targets of popular hostility was the tribal chiefs who the British had transformed into functionaries in the colonial system of indirect rule. Their role was to provide policing, collect taxes, and obtain corvee labour for the colonialists; in return the colonialists maintained them in a privileged position over the other Africans. Chiefs not willing to play this role were replaced by more compliant ones. According to Kilson the attitude of the Africans toward their chiefs became ambivalent: frequently they respected the office but resented the exactions made by the individual occupying it. Of course, from the chiefs’ point of view, the dilemma of an honourable ruler faced with British ultimatums can not have been easy.
Throughout the 20th century, there were numerous riots directed against tribal chiefs. These culminated in the Protectorate-wide riots of 1955-1956, which were suppressed only by a considerable slaughter of peasants by the army. After those, riots reforms were introduced: the forced labour system was completely abolished and reductions were made in the powers of the chiefs.
In 1924, Sierra Leone was divided into a Colony and a Protectorate, with separate and different political systems constitutionally defined for each. Antagonism between the two entities escalated to a heated debate in 1947, when proposals were introduced to provide for a single political system for both the Colony and the Protectorate. Most of the proposals came from the Protectorate. The Krio, led by Isaac Wallace-Johnson, opposed the proposals, the main effect of which would have been to diminish their political power. It was due to the astute politics of Sir Milton Margai that the educated Protectorate elite was won over to join forces with the paramount chiefs in the face of Krio intransigence. Later, Sir Milton used the same skills to win over opposition leaders and moderate Krio elements for the achievement of independence.
In November 1951, Sir Milton Margai oversaw the drafting of a new constitution, which united the separate Colonial and Protectorate legislatures and—most importantly—provided a framework for decolonization. In 1953, Sierra Leone was granted local ministerial powers, and Sir Milton Margai, was elected Chief Minister of Sierra Leone. The new constitution ensured Sierra Leone a parliamentary system within the Commonwealth of Nations. In May 1957, Sierra Leone held its first parliamentary election. The SLPP, which was then the most popular political party in the colony of Sierra Leone, won the most seats in Parliament. Margai was also re-elected as Chief Minister by a landslide.
1960 Independence Conference
On April 20, 1960, Sir Milton Margai led the twenty-four members of the Sierra Leonean delegation at the constitutional conferences that were held with Queen Elizabeth II and British Colonial Secretary Iain Macleod in the negotiations for independence held at the Lancaster House in London. All of the twenty-four members of the Sierra Leonean delegation were prominent and well-respected politicians including Sir Milton’s younger brother lawyer Sir Albert Margai, the outspoken trade unionist Siaka Stevens, SLPP strongman Lamina Sankoh, outspoken Creole activist Isaac Wallace-Johnson, Paramount chief Ella Koblo Gulama, educationist Mohamed Sanusi Mustapha, Dr John Karefa-Smart, professor Kande Bureh, lawyer Sir Banja Tejan-Sie, former Freetown’s Mayor Eustace Henry Taylor Cummings educationist Amadu Wurie, and Creole diplomat Hector Reginald Sylvanus Boltman.
On the conclusion of talks in London, Britain agreed to grant Sierra Leone Independence on the 27 of April 1961, however, the outspoken trade unionist Siaka Stevens was the only delegate who refused to sign Sierra Leone’s declaration of Independence on the grounds that there had been a secret defence pact between Sierra Leone and Britain; another point of contention by Stevens was the Sierra Leonean government’s position that there would be no elections held before independence which would effectively shut him out of Sierra Leone’s political process. Upon their return to Freetown on May 4, 1960, Stevens was promptly expelled from the People’s National Party (PNP).
On 27 April 1961, Sir Milton Margai lead Sierra Leone to Independence from Britain and became the country’s first Prime Minister. It retained a parliamentary system of government and was a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. In May 1962 Sierra Leone held its first general election as an Independent nation. The Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) won plurality of seats in parliament and Sir Milton Margai was re-elected as prime minister. The years just after independence were prosperous with money from mineral resources being used for development and the founding of Njala University.
An important aspect of Sir Milton’s character was his self-effacement. He was neither corrupt nor did he make a lavish display of his power or status. Sir Milton’s government was based on the rule of law and the notion of separation of powers, with multiparty political institutions and fairly viable representative structures. Margai used his conservative ideology to lead Sierra Leone without much strife. He appointed government officials with a clear eye to satisfy various ethnic groups. Margai employed a brokerage style of politics by sharing political power between political groups and the paramount chiefs in the provinces.
Siaka Stevens, in 1961, formed an alliance with several prominent northern politicians like Sorie Ibrahim Koroma, Christian Alusine-Kamara Taylor, Mohamed.O.Bash-Taqi, Ibrahim Bash-Taqi S.A.T. Koroma and C.A. Fofana to form their own political party called the All People’s Congress (APC) in opposition of the SLPP government. Stevens took advantage of the dissatisfaction with the ruling SLPP among some prominent politicians from the Northern part of Sierra Leone to form the APC; and Stevens used the Northern part of Sierra Leone as his political base.
Upon Sir Milton’s death in 1964, his half-brother, Sir Albert Margai, was appointed as Prime Minister by parliament. Sir Albert’s leadership was briefly challenged by Sierra Leone’s Foreign Minister John Karefa-Smart, who questioned Sir Albert’s succession to the SLPP leadership position. Soon after Margai was sworn in as Prime Minister, he immediately dismissed several senior government officials who had served under his elder brother in government, as he viewed them as traitors and a threat to his administration.
Unlike his late brother, Sir Albert proved unpopular and resorted to increasingly authoritarian actions in response to protests, including enacting several laws against the opposition All People’s Congress (APC) and attempting to establish a single-party state. Unlike his late brother Milton, Sir Albert was opposed to the colonial legacy of allowing the country’s Paramount Chiefs executive powers and he was seen as a threat to the existence of the ruling houses across the country. In 1967, Riots broke out in Freetown against Sir Albert’s policies; in response he declared a state of emergency across the country. Sir Albert was accused of corruption and of a policy of affirmative action in favour of his own Mende ethnic group.
Sir Albert had the opportunity to perpetuate himself in power, but he elected not to do so even when the opportunities presented themselves. He had the police and the army on his side and nothing could have prevented him from achieving his ambition to hold on to power, but he chose not to and called for a free and fair elections.
Following the Freetown riots, the APC, with its leader Siaka Stevens, narrowly won a small majority seats in Parliament over the SLPP in a closely contested 1967 Sierra Leone general election and Stevens was sworn in as Prime Minister of March 21, 1967. Within hours after taking office, Stevens was ousted in a bloodless military coup led by the commander of the army Brigadier General David Lansana, a close ally of Sir Albert Margai who had appointed him to the position in 1964. Brigadier Lansana placed Stevens under house arrest in Freetown and insisted the determination of office of the Prime Minister should await the election of the tribal representatives to the house. On March 23, 1967, A group of senior military officers in the Sierra Leone Army led by Brigadier Anrew Juxon-Smith overrode this action by seizing control of the government, arresting Brigadier Lansana, and suspending the constitution. The group constituted itself as the National Reformation Council (NRC) with Brigadier Anrew Juxon-Smith as its chairman and Governor-General. In April 1968, a group of senior military officers who called themselves the Anti-Corruption Revolutionary Movement led by Brigadier General John Amadu Bangura overthrew the NRC junta. The ACRM juntas arrested many senior NRC members. The democratic constitution was restored, and power was handed back to Stevens, who at last assumed the office of Prime Minister.
Stevens assumed power again in 1968 with a great deal of hope and ambition. Much trust was placed upon him as he championed multi-party politics. Stevens had campaigned on a platform of bringing the tribes together under socialist principles. During his first decade or so in power, Stevens renegotiated some of what he called “useless prefinanced schemes” contracted by his predecessors, both Albert Margai of the SLPP and Juxon-Smith of the NRC. Some of these policies by the SLPP and the NRC were said to have left the country in an economically deprived state. Stevens reorganized the country’s refinery, the government-owned Cape Sierra Hotel, and a Cement factory. He cancelled Juxon-Smith’s construction of a Church and Mosque on the grounds of Victoria Park. Stevens began efforts that would later bridge the distance between the provinces and the city. Roads and hospitals were constructed in the provinces, and Paramount Chiefs and provincial peoples became a prominent force in Freetown.
Under the pressure of several coup attempts, real and perceived, Stevens’ rule grew more and more authoritarian, and his relationship with some of his ardent supporters deteriorated. He removed the SLPP party from competitive politics in general elections, some believed, through the use of violence and intimidation. To maintain the support of the military, Stevens retained the popular John Amadu Bangura as the head of the Sierra Leone Armed Forces.
After the return to civilian rule, by-elections were held (beginning in autumn 1968) and an all-APC cabinet was appointed. Calm was not completely restored. In November 1968, unrest in the provinces led Stevens to declare a state of emergency. Brigadier General Bangura, who had reinstated Stevens as Prime Minister, was widely considered the only person who could put the brakes on Stevens. The army was devoted to Bangura, and it was believed, in some quarters, that this made him potentially dangerous to Stevens. In January 1970, Bangura was arrested and charged with conspiracy and plotting to commit a coup against the Stevens government. After a trial that lasted a few months, he was convicted and hanged On 29 March 1970 in Freetown.
On March 23, 1971, soldiers loyal to the executed Brigadier John Amadu Bangura held a Mutiny in Freetown and other parts of the country in opposition of Stevens’ government. Several soldiers were arrested for their involvement in the mutiny, including Corporal Foday Sankoh who was jail for seven years at the Pademba Road Prison, after he was convicted of treason. Guinean troops requested by Stevens to support his government were in the country from 1971 to 1973.
In April 1971, a new republican constitution was adopted under which Stevens became President. In the 1972 by-elections the opposition SLPP complained of intimidation and procedural obstruction by the APC and militia. These problems became so severe that the SLPP boycotted the 1973 general election; as a result the APC won 84 of the 85 elected seats. An alleged plot to overthrow president Stevens failed in 1974 and its leaders were executed. In March 1976, Stevens was elected without opposition for a second five-year term as president. On 19 July 1975, 14 senior army and government officials including Brigadier David Lansana, former cabinet minister Dr. Mohamed Sorie Forna (father of writer Aminatta Forna), former cabinet minister and journalist Ibrahim Bash-Taqi and Lieutenant Habib Lansana Kamara were executed after being convicted for allegedly attempting a coup to topple president Stevens’ government.
In 1977, a nationwide student demonstration against the government disrupted Sierra Leone politics. However, the demonstration was quickly put down by the army and Stevens’ own personal SSD security forces, which he had created to maintain his hold on power. A general election was called later that year in which corruption was again endemic; the APC won 74 seats and the SLPP 15. In 1978, the APC dominant parliament approved a new constitution making the country a one-party state. The 1978 constitution made the APC the only legal political party in Sierra Leone. This move led to another major demonstration against the government in many parts of the country but again it was put down by the army and the SSD police. Stevens is generally criticised for dictatorial methods and government corruption, but reduced ethnic polarisation in government by incorporating members of various ethnic groups into his all-dominating APC government.
The first elections under the new one-party constitution took place on 1 May 1982. Elections in about two-thirds of the constituencies were contested. Because of irregularities, the government cancelled elections in 13 constituencies. By-elections took place on 4 June 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, Stevens’ own choice, as the party candidate to succeed Stevens. As head of the Sierra Leone Armed Forces, Major General Momoh was very loyal to Stevens who had appointed him to the position. Like Stevens, Momoh was also a member of the minority Limba ethnic group. Momoh was elected President in a referendum on 1 October 1985. A formal inauguration was held in January 1986, and new parliamentary elections were held in May 1986.
President Momoh’s strong links with the army and his verbal attacks on corruption earned him much needed initial support among Sierra Leoneans. With the lack of new faces in the new APC cabinet under president Momoh and the return of many of the old faces from Stevens government, criticisms soon arose that Momoh was simply perpetuating the rule of Stevens. The next couple of years under the Momoh administration were characterised by corruption, which Momoh defused by sacking several senior cabinet ministers. To formalise his war against corruption, President Momoh announced a “Code of Conduct for Political Leaders and Public Servants.” After an alleged attempt to overthrow President Momoh in March 1987, more than 60 senior government officials were arrested, including Vice-President Francis Minah, who was removed from office, convicted for plotting the coup, and executed by hanging in 1989 along with 5 others.
In October 1990, due to mounting pressure from both within and outside the country for political and economic reform, president Momoh set up a constitutional review commission to review the 1978 one-party constitution. Based on the commission’s recommendations a constitution re-establishing a multi-party system was approved by the exclusive APC Parliament by a 60% majority vote, becoming effective on 1 October 1991. There was great suspicion that president Momoh was not serious about his promise of political reform, as APC rule continued to be increasingly marked by abuses of power.
Several senior government officials in the APC administration of Momoh like Salia Jusu Sheriff, Abass Bundu, J.B. Dauda and Sama Banya resigned from the APC government respectively to resuscitate the previously disbanded SLPP. While other senior government officials like Thaimu Bangura, Edward Kargbo and Desmond Luke resigned from the APC and formed their own respective political parties to challenge the ruling APC.
Civil War (1991-2001)
The brutal civil war that was going on in neighbouring Liberia played an undeniable role in the outbreak of fighting in Sierra Leone. Charles Taylor—then leader of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia—reportedly helped form the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) under the command of former Sierra Leonean army corporal Foday Saybana Sankoh, an ethnic Temne from Tonkolili District in Northern Sierra Leone. Sankoh was a British trained former army corporal who had also undergone guerrilla training in Libya. Taylor’s aim was for the RUF to attack the bases of Nigerian dominated peacekeeping troops in Sierra Leone who were opposed to his rebel movement in Liberia. The government of Sierra Leone, overwhelmed by a crumbling economy and corruption, was unable to put up significant resistance. During the first year of the war, the RUF took control of large swathes of territory in eastern and southern Sierra Leone, which were rich in alluvial diamonds. The government’s ineffective response to the RUF, and the disruption in government diamond production, precipitated a military coup d’état in April 1992 by the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC). By the end of 1993, the Sierra Leone Army (SLA) had succeeded in pushing the RUF rebels back to the Liberian border, but the RUF recovered and fighting continued. In March 1995, Executive Outcomes (EO), a South Africa-based private military company, was hired to repel the RUF. Sierra Leone installed an elected civilian government in March 1996, and the retreating RUF signed the Abidjan Peace Accord. Under UN pressure, the government terminated its contract with EO before the accord could be implemented, and hostilities recommenced.
In May 1997 a group of disgruntled SLA officers staged a coup and established the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) as the new government of Sierra Leone. The RUF joined with the AFRC to capture Freetown with little resistance. The new government, led by Johnny Paul Koroma, declared the war over. A wave of looting, rape, and murder followed the announcement. Reflecting international dismay at the overturning of the civilian government, Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) forces intervened and retook Freetown on behalf of the government, but they found the outlying regions more difficult to pacify.
In January 1999, world leaders intervened diplomatically to promote negotiations between the RUF and the government. The Lome Peace Accord, signed on 27 March 1999, was the result. Lome gave Foday Sankoh, the commander of the RUF, the vice presidency and control of Sierra Leone’s diamond mines in return for a cessation of the fighting and the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force to monitor the disarmament process. RUF compliance with the disarmament process was inconsistent and sluggish, and by May 2000, the rebels were advancing again upon Freetown. As the UN mission began to fail, the United Kingdom declared its intention to intervene in the former colony and Commonwealth member in an attempt to support the weak government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. With help from a renewed UN mandate and Guinean air support, the British Operation Palliser finally defeated the RUF, taking control of Freetown. On 18 January 2002, President Kabbah declared the Sierra Leone Civil War over.
More than 17,000 “blue helmets” were deployed at the height of Sierra Leone’s civil war to disarm rebel militias and return this West African nation to stability. 31 March 2014 marked the official end of the UN Integrated Peace building Office in Sierra Leone (UNIPSIL), the third and final phase of the UN involvement in the country.
Thousands of children were recruited and used by all sides during Sierra Leone’s conflict including the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), and the pro-government Civil Defence Forces (CDF). As a result of the First Liberian Civil War, 80,000 refugees fled neighbouring Liberia for the Sierra Leone – Liberian border. This displaced population, composed almost entirely of children, would prove to be an invaluable asset to the invading rebel armies because the refugee and detention centres, populated first by displaced Liberians and later by Sierra Leoneans, helped provide the manpower for the RUF’s insurgency. The RUF, in particular, took advantage of the refugees, who were abandoned, starving, and in dire need of medical attention, by promising food, shelter, medical care, and looting and mining profits in return for their support. When this method of recruitment failed, as it often did for the RUF, youths were often coerced at the barrel of a gun to join the ranks of the RUF. After being forced to join, many child soldiers learned that the complete lack of law – as a result of the civil war – provided a unique opportunity for self-empowerment through violence and thus continued to support the rebel cause. Children were often forcibly recruited, given drugs and used to commit atrocities. Thousands of girls were also recruited as soldiers and often subjected to sexual exploitation. Many of the children were survivors of village attacks, while others were found abandoned. They were used for patrol purposes, attacking villages, and guarding workers in the diamond fields. In his book A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Child Soldier, Ishmael Beah chronicles his life during the conflict in Sierra Leone. Although the factual integrity of these memoirs has been contested in certain cases, the story is reputed to give a good account of the experience of Child Soldiering.
In June 2007, the Special Court for Sierra Leone found three accused men from the rebel Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law, including the recruitment of children under the age of 15 years into the armed forces. With this, the Special Court became the first-ever UN backed tribunal to deliver a guilty verdict for the military conscription of children.
This article is adapted from the Wikipedia entries listed below.
History of Sierra Leone: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Sierra_Leone
Sierra Leone Civil War: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sierra_Leone_Civil_War
Military Uses of Children: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_use_of_children
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