The region now called Sierra Leone was on the southern edge of the great Empire of Mali, which flourished between the 13th and 15th centuries. Early inhabitants included the Temne, the Sherbro and the Limba, who were organised into independent chiefdoms. Mandingo/Malinké traders had also entered the region early on and integrated with indigenous peoples.
Contact with Europeans began in 1462 with the arrival of Portuguese navigators who called the area Serra Lyoa (Lion Mountain), which was later modified to Sierra Leone. Around 120 years later, Sir Francis Drake stopped here during his voyage around the world; however, the British did not control the area until the 18th century when they began to dominate the slave trade along the West African coast.
The American War of Independence in the 1770s provided an opportunity for thousands of slaves to gain freedom by fighting for Britain. When the war ended, over 15, 000 ex-slaves made their way to London, where they suffered unemployment and poverty. In 1787 a group of philanthropists purchased 52 sq km of land near Bunce Island in present-day Sierra Leone from a local chief for the purpose of founding a ‘Province of Freedom’ for the ex-slaves. This became Freetown. That same year, the first group of about 400 men and women (300 ex-slaves and 100 Europeans, mainly prostitutes) arrived.
Within three years all but 48 settlers had deserted or had died from disease or in fights with the local inhabitants. But in 1792 the determined British philanthropists sent a second band of settlers, this time 1200 ex-slaves who had fled from the USA to Nova Scotia. Later, they sent 550 more from Jamaica. To the chagrin of the philanthropists, some settlers, both white and black, joined in the slave trade. In 1808 the British government took over the Freetown settlement and declared it a colony.
By the early 1800s, slavery had been abolished in Britain. Over the next 60 years British ships plied the West African coast, trying to intercept slave ships destined for America. Freetown became the depot for thousands of ‘recaptives’ from West Africa, as well as many migrants from the hinterland. By 1850 over 100 ethnic groups were represented in the colony. They lived in relative harmony, each group in a different section of town.
Like the previous settlers, the recaptives became successful traders and intermarried. All nonindigenous blacks became collectively known as Krios. British administrators favoured the Krios and appointed many to senior posts in the civil service.
Near the end of the 19th century, the tide began to turn against the Krios, who were outnumbered 50 to one by indigenous people, and in 1924 the British administrators established a legislative council with elected representatives, to the advantage of the more numerous indigenous people. Many Krios, who monopolised positions within the civil service, reacted by allying with the British. While other colonies clamoured for independence, they proclaimed loyalty to the Crown, and one group even petitioned against the granting of independence.
At independence in 1961, it seemed that Western-style democracy would work. There were two parties of equal strength, but they became divided along ethnic lines. The Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) was the party of the Mendes (the dominant ethnic group in southern Sierra Leone) and represented the tribal structure of the old colony. The All People’s Congress (APC), formed by trade unionist Siaka Stevens, became identified with the Temnes of the north and voiced the dissatisfaction of the small modernising elite. The Krio community threw its support behind the SLPP, whose leader, Milton Margai, became the first prime minister.
Following Margai’s death in 1964, his brother Albert took over and set about replacing the Krios in the bureaucracy with Mendes. The Krios took revenge in the 1967 elections by supporting the APC, which won a one-seat majority. A few hours after the results were announced, a Mende military officer led a coup, placing Siaka Stevens under house arrest. Two days later fellow officers staged a second coup, vowing to end the corruption that was so widespread under the Margai brothers.
Stevens went into exile in Guinea and with a group of Sierra Leoneans began training in guerrilla warfare techniques for an invasion. This became unnecessary when a group of private soldiers mutinied and staged a third coup 13 months later – an African record for the number of coups in such a short period.
Stevens returned and formed a new government, but his first decade in office was turbulent. He declared a state of emergency, banned breakaway parties from the APC and put a number of SLPP members on trial for treason. Meanwhile, the economy continued to deteriorate. The iron-ore mine closed, diamond revenues dropped, living costs increased, students rioted and Stevens again declared a state of emergency. The 1978 election campaign almost became a civil war, and the death toll topped 100. Stevens won, and Sierra Leone became a one-party state.
Despite the one-party system, the 1982 elections were the most violent ever. Stevens was forced to give Mendes and Temnes equal representation in the cabinet, although this did not stop the deterioration of economic and social conditions. With virtually no support left, Stevens finally stepped down in 1985 at the age of 80, naming as his successor Major General Joseph Momoh, head of the army since 1970.
Under Momoh, the economy continued its downward spiral. By 1987 the inflation rate was one of the highest in Africa, budget deficits were astronomical, and smugglers continued to rob Sierra Leone of up to 90% of its diamond revenue.
Things worsened in late 1989 when civil war broke out in neighbouring Liberia. By early 1990, thousands of Liberian refugees had fled into Sierra Leone. The following year, fighting spilled across the border and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), Sierra Leonean rebels who were opposed to Momoh, took over much of the eastern part of the country.
The Momoh government used the war in the east as an excuse to postpone elections, but finally, in September 1991, a new constitution was adopted to allow for a multiparty system. Before an election date could be announced, though, a group of young military officers overthrew Momoh in April 1992. The National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) was set up, and 27-year-old Captain Valentine Strasser was sworn in as head of state. Elections and a return to civilian rule were promised for 1995.
Soon, though, optimism began to fade. A major drain on resources was the continuing fighting in the east against the RUF, which expanded its control over the diamond- producing areas, robbing the government of a wealth of revenue. They were bolstered after the coup by supporters of the Momoh regime and by escaping rebels from Liberia. It soon became apparent that none of these groups was fighting for a political objective, but rather their goal was to control the diamond and gold fields. By late 1994 northern and eastern parts of the country had descended into near anarchy, with private armies led by local warlords, government soldiers, rebel soldiers and deserters from the Sierra Leonean and Liberian armies roaming the area at will and terrorising local communities.
In January 1996 Brigadier General Julius Maada Bio overthrew Strasser in a coup. Despite NPRC efforts to postpone them, previously scheduled elections went ahead, and in March, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah – the leader of the SLPP – was elected president. Kabbah’s government continued peace talks with the RUF, which had been initiated by the previous military government, but his efforts bore little fruit.
On 25 May 1997, a group of junior military officers sympathetic to the RUF staged a coup in Freetown. President Kabbah fled to neighbouring Guinea, and a wave of looting, terror and brutality engulfed the capital. Guerrilla warfare spread throughout much of the country, perpetrated by the RUF and the occupying junta. By early 1998 there were few areas that had not been affected. Food and fuel supplies were scarce almost everywhere, and thousands of Sierra Leoneans had fled the country.
In February 1998 a Nigerian-led West African peacekeeping force, Ecomog (Ecowas Monitoring Group), succeeded in ousting the junta and in taking control of Freetown and many upcountry areas – although not before fleeing rebels had looted and destroyed much in their path. President Kabbah was reinstated in March, but the situation refused to stabilise. On 6 January 1999, with nearly a quarter of the entire Nigerian military serving in Sierra Leone, the RUF staged its boldest assault yet on Freetown, code-named Operation No Living Thing. In the ensuing weeks the city was virtually destroyed and over 6000 people killed before Ecomog again forced the rebels from the capital.
The bloody battle prompted the government to sign the controversial Lomé Peace Agreement with the RUF on 7 July 1999. Under the agreement, the RUF leader Foday Sankoh was to become the country’s vice-president and the cabinet minister in charge of diamond production, but over the next year the RUF repeatedly violated the agreement. In May, shortly after his soldiers shot and killed 19 anti-RUF demonstrators, Sankoh was arrested for plotting a coup.
As part of the Lomé Peace Agreement, the UN deployed a peacekeeping mission, Unamsil, in Sierra Leone that became the largest and most expensive ever deployed by the body. Unamsil’s disarmament of the RUF (over 40, 000 firearms were destroyed) finished in February 2002, officially ending the war. Elections held that May garnered an 80% turnout and were deemed Sierra Leone’s most fair and trouble-free in years. Kabbah was re-elected to a five-year term, while the RUF’s political party didn’t win a single seat in parliament. That summer an independent war crimes court and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission began and by autumn Unamsil began reducing its 17, 500 personnel.
The only hitch in the country’s new stability occurred on 13 January 2003, when Johnny Paul Koroma, a member of parliament and one of the 1997 coup leaders, organised an unsuccessful break-in at a Freetown armoury. He fled to Liberia, where unconfirmed reports claimed he died. Sankoh died of natural causes soon after. The first local elections in over 30 years were held in 2004 and the Special Court for Sierra Leone also issued its first indictments. The 11 people charged so far include leaders from all sides of the conflict, as well as former Liberian president Charles Taylor. The last Unamsil soldiers left Sierra Leone at the end of 2005 and were replaced by Uniosl, the United Nations Integrated Office for Sierra Leone, which will promote government accountability, reinforce human rights, oversee development, and prepare the nation for the 2007 elections.