Policy & History

Sierra Leone Background

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 coast.

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. 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 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.”

Under the constitution, the term of office of the President and the life of Parliament, originally due to expire in March 2001, were each extended twice for 6 months. Presidential and parliamentary elections were held in May 2002.

We would like you to have a pleasant and safe stay in Sierra Leone.  When traveling abroad, we urge you to check http://travel.state.gov for the latest information on your destination.  Also, please make sure you register your travel with the Embassy so we can contact you with new information as it arises.

We maintain lists of local lawyers, physicians and hospitals.  Also, from time to time, we post announcements,  also known as “warden messages,” many of which contain advice about your security in Sierra Leone.

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