What is today Sierra Leone has been inhabited for thousands of years by various peoples. When the coast became known in Europe through Portuguese seafarers in the 1460s, the area consisted of a number of independent kingdoms such as Bollum, Loko, Buore and Sherbro.
In the 18th century, British traders established themselves along the coast, essentially at the later capital Freetown, which became the British Crown Colony in 1808. In 1896, the inland was also placed under British rule as a protectorate, formally ruled separately by the Crown colony Freetown. In 1951, the patronage of Sierra Leone was merged with the colony of Freetown. After 1945 constitutional reforms and internal self-government were introduced.
Sierra Leone became an independent country in 1961 and a republic in 1971. The country was haunted by corruption, civil war in the period 1991–2002 and an Ebola epidemic in 2014–2015, and is one of the world’s poorest countries. See abbreviationfinder for geography, history, society, politics, and economy of Sierra Leone.
Archaeological finds show that the modern Sierra Leone has been inhabited for thousands of years, both with the permanent residence of some peoples, and the occasional migration of others.
When the coast became known in Europe through Portuguese seafarers in the 1460s, the area consisted of a number of independent, and mostly small, kingdoms such as Bollum, Loko, Buore and Sherbro. The trade routes were hunting and fishing, agriculture and animal husbandry.
In the 700s, the Trans- Saharan trade extended to Sierra Leone, and salt was bought for gold and coal nuts. At the same time, Islam was brought to the country. Only with the arrival of the Portuguese was the country involved in any significant trading activity. The Portuguese established trading stations, and in the 1600s Sierra Leone participated in the extensive slave trade in West Africa. The Portuguese named the area Serra Lyoa, later changed to today’s name.
In the 18th century British traders established themselves along the coast, essentially at the later capital Freetown, and were granted a license to create trading stations. In 1787, the British acquired a land for the use of freed slaves, in parallel with a similar US action in neighboring Liberia.
The first were brought to the peninsula at the later Freetown in 1787 and 1792. The slaves came first from North America, then from Jamaica, later from slave ships stopped by the British Navy in African waters after Britain abolished slavery in 1807. The area was hence called Freetown, and several smaller settlements were founded, such as Waterloo, Hastings and Leicester.
Having been ruled by a private company, Freetown became the British Crown Colony in 1808 and used as a base in the fight against the slave trade. The French Navy attacked Sierra Leone in 1794. Until 1864, when the last slave ship was broken up, over 50,000 so-called “recaptives” were landed and released in Freetown. The freed slaves and their descendants, from a variety of peoples and language groups throughout West Africa, developed their own culture and language: Creole, or Krio, as it is specifically known as in Sierra Leone.
This group had relatively high education, including from the well-known Fourah Bay College (established in 1827), and constituted a West African elite. They were used as officials in British colonies throughout West Africa and established themselves as traders, both in Sierra Leone and the rest of the region.
In 1896, the interior was also placed under British rule as a protectorate, formally governed separately by the Crown Colony of Freetown. In 1898, a rebellion against the British government’s introduction of tax was abolished. Unlike in Freetown, the British did not promote education and other development in the protectorate. For several periods in the 19th century, the British colony of the Gold Coast (Ghana) was ruled from Sierra Leone. In 1951, the British protectorate of Sierra Leone was merged with the colony of Freetown. Officials from Sierra Leone became aware of developments in other British-controlled territories, including India and South Africa, and political consciousness grew.
In 1920 the National Council of British West Africa was formed. After 1945 constitutional reforms and internal autonomy were introduced, and the legislative assembly established in 1924 was replaced by a House of Representatives in 1957.
Sierra Leone was declared an independent state on April 27, 1961. Sir Milton Margai, the leader of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), was prime minister from 1958. When he died in 1964 he was succeeded by his brother Albert Margai. In the 1962 election, the SLPP gained a new majority; in 1967, the opposition party won the All People’s Congress (APC), led by Siaka Stevens. A military coup prevented him from taking power, and only after a new coup in 1968 was he deployed.
The 1970s were marked by political turmoil, with coup and murder attempts against Stevens, and several exceptions were introduced. In 1971, the country became a republic, with Siaka Stevens as president. In 1978, APC was made the country’s only permitted party following a constitutional amendment. Stevens retired in 1985, taking over his hand-picked successor, Chief of Defense General Joseph Saidu Momoh.
Around 1990, there was increasing pressure for democratization, and in 1991 a new constitution was passed that allowed free party formation. Before multi-party elections could be held, a new military coup came in 1992, carried out by a group of younger officers who ousted President Momoh. Captain Valentine Strasser was inaugurated as the new head of state, and chair of the new National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC). In 1993, the state of emergency was abolished; political parties were again allowed in 1995.
Prior to the planned elections in 1996, Strasser was deposed in a palace coup and replaced by Brigadier General Julius Maada Bio. However, the democracy process did not stop, and parliamentary elections were held in a situation of widespread violence, where the RUF sought to threaten people from participating. The SLPP became the largest party, and party candidate Ahmad Tejan Kabbah won the presidential election. The military junta surrendered power to civilian leadership.
Kabbah was deposed in a new coup in 1997 when a group of officers, led by Major Johnny Paul Koroma, seized power and formed a junta, Armed Forces Revolutionaly Council (AFRC), with Koroma as chairman and chief of state. President Kabbah went into exile to neighboring Guinea. Fighting took place between the coup makers and Nigerian military forces stationed in Sierra Leone, and Ghana military units were dispatched to the country in an attempt to force Koroma to return power to the country’s elected civilian leadership.
A French military operation evacuated foreign nationals. The West African cooperation organization ECOWAS imposed financial sanctions against the military junta, with support from the UN and the Organization of African Unity (OAU).
Civil War (1991–2002)
The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel group started operations in eastern Sierra Leone in 1991, after moving in from neighboring Liberia where it had established itself in the shelter of the civil war there. The RUF was started by a former government soldier, Foday Sankoh, who claimed to want to fight the central elite and its abuse of power. Sankoh was in close contact with the Liberian rebel group NPFL, led by Charles Taylor.
RUF was feared in its homeland and notorious abroad for its violence against the civilian population as it took control of villages and rural areas east and southeast of the country. Extensive use of torture – including amputations and rape – was put into use. The struggles between the RUF and the government forces continued throughout the 1990s and revolved, among other things, on control of the diamond mines; Illegal export of diamonds was RUF’s primary source of income. The UN imposed sanctions for a period on the sale of Sierra Leonean diamonds.
The trade of so-called “blood diamonds” from Sierra Leone (and Liberia) led to international work (the Kimberly process) requiring traceability and systems for certification of the origin of diamonds. The fighting spread to large parts of the country and almost a million people were displaced from their homes. Most who fled the country sought refuge in Guinea, others in Liberia.
The Civil War evolved into a humanitarian crisis in Sierra Leone, and to heavy strains on neighboring countries that received large numbers of refugees. At the same time, there were fears that the war could have regional implications, especially in relation to the war in Liberia and later unrest in Guinea. Both ECOWAS, the OAU and the UN, as well as individual states, engaged in attempts to settle the civil war, which took place throughout the 1990s, in parallel with political processes of elections and several coups in Sierra Leone.
In 1991, ECOWAS deployed a peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone, the ECOWAS Cease-Fire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), first as an intervention force substantially manned by Nigerian soldiers and mainly financed by Nigeria – with the origin of a military cooperation agreement between the two countries. The Sierra Leonean government engaged the South African security company Executive Outcome to assist in the training of its forces. In 1997, the UN Security Council decided to impose an oil and arms embargo on Sierra Leone, and authorized ECOWAS through ECOMOG to follow it up. In 2000, this was supplemented by a ban on illegal export of diamonds, which helped to finance the war. Exports were banned in 2001, while the arms embargo was sharpened.
In the fall of 1996, a peace agreement was signed between the government and the RUF in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Following the military coup that brought Paul Koroma to power in 1997, a government was formed that also included representatives from the RUF, and soldiers from the RUF were taken into a new government force. A ceasefire between ECOWAS and the AFRC in Conakry in the fall of 1997 opened for the deployment of UN observers. The AFRC also agreed to reinstate President Kabbah’s government, but did not fulfill its obligations.
After fierce fighting, ECOMOG forces captured Freetown in February 1998, displacing the military junta and RUF from the city, and Kabbah was reinstated. AFRC/RUF forces resumed Freetown in January 1999; hundreds of ECOMOG soldiers were killed in fighting, and the rebels stepped up their attacks against the civilian population, which included the abduction of children. A new peace agreement signed in Lomé, Togo, in July 1999 was criticized for giving the RUF government participation, as well as rebel soldiers amnesty for war crimes.
In 1998, the UN Security Council decided to create an observer force next to ECOMOG: United Nations Observer Mission in Sierra Leone (UNOMSIL), with a set of up to 70 observers. As a result of the fighting in the capital in January 1999, they were evacuated and the United Nations decided to deploy a military force in its place: United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) – deployed from November. Both UN operations had a smaller number of Norwegian officers (observers). In April, UNAMSIL took over the mission of ECOMOG, which was dissolved; parts of the West African force joined the UN force. UNAMSIL came into conflict with the RUF, which took nearly 500 UN soldiers hostage, including one Norwegian. Several UN soldiers were abused; some murdered.
In May 2000, the United Kingdom deployed a military force in Sierra Leone, in Operation Palliser: first and foremost to evacuate and British and other Western citizens, secondly to help improve the security situation in Freetown and surrounding areas. RUF leader Sankoh was arrested in May 2000, a new peace treaty signed in Abuja, Nigeria in November and the civil war formally ended in 2001. UN-led disarmament was completed only in 2004. UNAMSIL completed its mission in 2005 and was replaced of a United Nations civilian operation, the United Nations Integrated Office in Sierra Leone (UNIOSIL) from 2006.
After the Civil War (2002–)
RUF established the Revolutionary United Front Party (RUFP) ahead of the 2002 elections, but was left without representation. SLPP got a clear majority. Kabbah was elected president and re-elected. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up as part of the post-war political process, submitted its report in 2005. Parliamentary and presidential elections in 2007 were won by APC and its presidential candidate Ernest Bai Koroma. He was re-elected to a final term in November 2012.
The election was known by observers in its order, and was a confirmation of the positive development in the country after the Civil War. While the 2002 election was organized by the UN under the protection of the UN force, in 2007 it was held by a national election commission. Nonetheless, there were scattered episodes of violence in the wake of the election, aimed at representatives of the departed regime.
A special court was established in 2002, with the support of the UN and with both national and international judges, to conduct a post-war settlement which is estimated to have claimed 50,000 lives. Several key members of the RUF were indicted in 2003, including Foday Sankoh. Liberia’s former president Charles Taylor was charged and extradited from Nigeria in 2006. Sankoh died in prison in 2003, before the trial against him surfaced. The court handed down its first verdicts in 2007, when three of the main defendants were found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including child soldiers’ recruitment and murder.
The case against Taylor was moved to The Hague for the sake of Sierra Leone-Liberia relations after the Special Court discontinued its action in 2009. In 2010, the United Nations Security Council abolished the last remaining sanctions against Sierra Leone: a weapons embargo and a travel ban for insurgents.
In 2014, Sierra Leone was hit hard by an outbreak of Ebola. Over 12,000 people were infected and nearly 4,000 people died from the disease.