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.
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.
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 outcome. The same year the British withdrew a 200-man military contingent as a truth and reconciliation commission alongside the special court were set up.
In November 2002, UNAMSIL began a gradual reduction from a peak level of 17,500 personnel. 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.
Rich in minerals, Sierra Leone has relied on the mining sector in general, and diamonds in particular, for its economic base. In the 1970s and early 1980s, economic growth rate slowed because of a decline in the mining sector and increasing corruption among government officials. By the 1990’s economic activity was declining and economic infrastructure had become seriously degraded. Over the next decade much of Sierra Leone’s formal economy was destroyed in the country’s civil war. Since the cessation of hostilities in January 2002, massive infusions of outside assistance have helped Sierra Leone begin to recover. Full recovery to pre-war economic levels will require hundreds of millions of additional dollars and many more years of serious effort by the GOSL and donor governments. Much of Sierra Leone’s recovery will depend on the success of GOSL efforts to limit official corruption, which many feel was the chief culprit for the country’s descent into civil war. A key indicator of success will be the effectiveness of government management of its diamond sector.
About two-thirds of the population engages in subsistence agriculture. Despite the fact that most Sierra Leoneans derive their livelihood from it, agriculture accounts for only 42% of national income. The government is trying to increase food and cash crop production and upgrade small farmer skills. Also, the government works with several foreign donors to operate integrated rural development and agricultural projects.
Mineral exports remain Sierra Leone's principal foreign exchange earner. Sierra Leone is a major producer of gem-quality diamonds. Though rich in this resource, the country has historically struggled to manage its exploitation and export. Annual production estimates range between $250-300 million. However, only a portion of that passes through formal export channels (1999: $1.2 million; 2000: $7 million; 2001: $26 million; 2002: $42 million; 2003: $76 million; 2004: $127 million). The balance is smuggled out, where it is used for money laundering and the financing of other illicit activities. Recent efforts on the part of the country to improve the management of the export trade have met with some success. In October 2000, a new UN-approved export certification system for exporting diamonds from Sierra Leone was put into place that led to a dramatic increase in legal exports. In 2001, the Government of Sierra Leone created a mining community development fund, which returns a portion of diamond export taxes to diamond mining communities. The fund was created to raise local communities' stake in the legal diamond trade.
Sierra Leone has one of the world's largest deposits of rutile, a titanium ore used as paint pigment and welding rod coatings. Sierra Rutile Limited, owned by a consortium of US and European investors, began commercial mining operations near Bonthe in early 1979. Sierra Rutile was then the largest nonpetroleum U.S. investment in West Africa. The export of 88,000 tonnes realized $75 million for the country in 1990. The company and the Government of Sierra Leone concluded a new agreement on the terms of the company's concession in Sierra Leone in 1990. Rutile and bauxite mining operations were suspended when rebels invaded the mining sites in 1995. In 2003 OPIC agreed to a $25 million guarantee to Sierra Rutile to assist with the re-start of operations, which are expected to resume soon.
Since independence, the Government of Sierra Leone has encouraged foreign investment, although the business climate has been hampered by a shortage of foreign exchange, corruption, and uncertainty resulting from civil conflicts. Investors are protected by an agreement that allows for arbitration under the 1965 World Bank Convention. Legislation provides for transfer of interest, dividends, and capital.
Sierra Leone is a member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). With Liberia and Guinea, it formed the Mano River Union (MRU) customs union, primarily designed to implement development projects and promote regional economic integration. However, the MRU has so far been inactive because of domestic problems and internal and cross-border conflicts in all three countries. The future of the MRU depends on the ability of its members to deal with the fallout from these internal and regional problems. Sierra Leone continues to rely on significant amounts of foreign assistance, principally from multilateral donors. The bilateral donors include the United States, Italy, and Germany, the largest being the United Kingdom and the European Union.
Below is an analysis of Sierra Leone according to the 2005 Index of Economic Freedom, The Heritage Foundation and Wall Street Journal
Category: Mostly Unfree
Total Area: 71,740 sq. km
GDP: $ 861.8 billion
GDP growth rate: 6.3 %
GDP per capita: $164
Major exports: diamonds, coca, coffee, fish
Exports of goods and services: $13.9 million
Major export trading partners: Belgium 42.0%, Germany 28.2%, UK 3.7%, Italy 2.9%
Major imports: foodstuffs, fuel, machinery and transport equipment, manufactured goods
Imports of goods and services: $153.8 million
Major import trading partner: Germany 25.0%, UK 10.9%, Netherlands 7.5%, US 5.7%
Foreign direct investment (net): n/a
2005 Index of Economic Freedom, The Heritage Foundation and Wall Street Journal
By Purity Njeru
Ms. Njeru is an African Executive staff writer
Comment on this article!