Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main religions: Islam – primarily Sunni (60 – 70 per cent), Christianity (20 – 30 per cent), traditional religions
Main languages: English (official), Mende, Temne, Limba, Krio
No single ethno-linguistic group forms an absolute majority of Sierra Leone’s population, which according to the 2015 census consists of 15 ethnic groups. Previous censuses have tended not to collect ethnic data, possibly out of fear of creating ethnic tensions. Indeed, the 2015 census itself proved controversial, with many members of the then opposition SLPP questioning the relative composition estimates of the southern parts of the country, where most of its supporters reside, compared to the north. Notwithstanding this debate, the results of the census found that the largest communities were Mende (31.9 per cent) and Temne (31.4 per cent) (though other sources suggest Temne are the largest ethnic group) followed by Limba (8.4 per cent), Kono (5.1 per cent), Koranko (4.4 per cent), Fullah (3.8 per cent), Susu (2.9 per cent), Kissi (2.5 per cent), Loko (2.3 per cent), Madingo (2.3 per cent), Sherbro (1.9 per cent), Yalunka (0.7 per cent), Krim (0.2 per cent), Vai and other smaller communities.
The Mende inhabit the south and have benefited from the relative prosperity of their southern homeland. The Temne reside in an area inland from the coast to an area north of Mendeland; the Limba, in the Northern Province; and the Kono and Kissi in the Eastern Province. Kuranko, Fula, Loko, Susu and Mandinka also live in the north. Limba are among the earliest inhabitants of Sierra Leone and speak various dialects of a language largely unrelated to other languages in the area. They are concentrated in the north. Sherbro live in the coastal region together with the smaller groups of Vai and Gola, all of which have larger numbers living across the border in Liberia.
Krios are descendants of freed slaves who returned to Africa from the Americas, and their Krio language, based largely on English and African languages, is used as a lingua franca across the country. They live in the Freetown area, where small numbers of Lebanese, Indians and Europeans are also found. The Krio community was dominant during the colonial era but never held a monopoly of power similar to that of the Americo-Liberian elite in Liberia.
Northern-based groups such as the Fula, Temne, Loko, Mandinka and Susu, are mostly Sunni, while most of the southern or eastern Mende, Kono, Kissi, Sherbro and Krio are Christian.
Sierra Leone is home to a heterogenous mix of different ethnic groups, none of which forms an absolute majority. The largest two groups are the northern Temne and the southern Mende, which are loosely aligned with the country’s two main political parties – the All People’s Congress (APC) and the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), respectively. Historically, southerners were dominant in Sierra Leone’s government. Exploitation of northern resentment against this was a contributing factor in the brutal civil conflict that lasted over a decade, ending in 2002.
Since then, election results have led to the two main parties exchanging dominant roles in government between them. In April 2018 former army officer Julius Maada Bio, a southerner and ethnic Sherbro of the SLPP, was elected president over the candidate of the governing APC, which retained control of the legislature. Bio pledged to reform the country’s security forces, accused of a pattern of human rights violations against peaceful demonstrators, striking mine workers and others over the preceding decade. A number of investigations were opened into corruption charges against former officials of the APC government of previous two-term president Ernest Koroma. Nevertheless, the persistence of regional tensions was highlighted by the controversy surrounding the 2015 national census. The results were questioned by members of the then opposition SLPP on account of the relative population estimates of the southeast of the country, where the SLPP has traditionally enjoyed much of its support, and the northwest where many APC voters reside.
While Sierra Leone has enjoyed a long period of relative peace and stability since the end of the conflict, many underlying issues such as poverty and inequality persist. Rural-urban migration, accelerated by the conflict, has contributed to deforestation and the growth of precarious informal settlements around the capital Freetown. Heavy rains led to massive mudslides in August 2017, in which an estimated 1,000 people died and several thousand more were made homeless. And while Sierra Leone has focused on improving health services to support the recovery of its population from the trauma of civil war, important gains in this area were overwhelmed by an outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa that led Sierra Leone to declare a state of emergency in July 2014. The outbreak was eventually contained after the loss of some 4,000 lives, but the country lost many frontline health staff, who were among those most exposed to the disease.
In a region where tensions and conflict between Christians and Muslims can occur, In Sierra Leone – where around 60 per cent of the population is believed to be Muslim and another 20 to 30 per cent Christian – religion, unlike ethnicity, did not play a significant role in the country’s protracted civil war. Indeed, Sierra Leone, where according to the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, boasts a truly enviable climate of tolerance of religious diversity. The country exhibits an unusual level of cooperation, fostered in schools, through the media and by the country’s Inter-religious Council, a nation-wide NGO. The Council has played an important role in responding, alongside public officials, to incidents of conflict.
Sierra Leone is bounded by Guinea in the north and east, Liberia in the east and south, and the Atlantic Ocean to the south and west. The hills of the Freetown peninsula are the exception to otherwise swampy lowlands along the Atlantic coast. There is savannah in the north and mountainous highland plateau in the east. Sierra Leone has rich deposits of alluvial diamonds in its east, as well as minerals including rutile and bauxite. Its stunning beaches offer potential for tourism development, but this is dampened in part by the pervasive threat of malaria.
The area of present-day Sierra Leone shows evidence of human habitation since approximately 2500 BCE and of iron-working populations since 600 CE. Mande-speakers, migrating to the area from the east, inter-married with ancestors of contemporary Bullom, Kissi and Krim peoples living there; giving rise to contemporary groups such as the Mende, Vai and Loko.
No one group dominated pre-colonial Sierra Leone, and relatively large groups such as the Temne and Mende were sub-divided into smaller units. These were linked through secret societies, including the Poro, which facilitated cooperation and cohesiveness.
Portuguese explorers viewing the mountainous Freetown peninsula in the 15th century called the territory ‘Lion Mountains’, the Italian translation of which, ‘Sierra Leone’, gave the country its name. With European arrival, the slave trade quickly became established and ravaged Sierra Leone’s peoples. Local traders brought inland slaves to the coast for trade with the Europeans. In the 1700s many thousands passed through British-run Bunce Island, bound largely for the Americas. In South Carolina and Georgia, Sierra Leonean slaves were renowned for their skill in rice growing.
In 1787 British abolitionists established a colony at Freetown for former slaves and poor blacks from London. Early colonists suffered from disease and reprisal killings from the original Temne inhabitants of the Freetown peninsula, whom they had displaced when creating the colony. Beginning in 1807, Freetown served as the main base for British naval patrols to prevent slavery. Slaves encountered at sea from all over Africa were returned to Freetown, where they mixed with earlier inhabitants to form the Krio people, speaking a new lingua franca: Krio (or Creole). The Freetown peninsula became a Crown Colony in 1808 and the interior was declared a British Protectorate in 1896. Although they initially intermarried with the indigenous population, the former slaves enjoyed privileged access to British education and culture, setting themselves apart from the local majority.
In 1827, Fourah Bay College in Freetown became the first university in sub-Saharan Africa and attracted Anglophone students from across West Africa. But the British were careful not to let Krio elites dominate colonial politics or the economy, and in the early 20th century, trade fell under the control of large European companies and traders from Syria.
Slavery on the palm-oil, cocoa and coffee plantations of the interior continued until 1928, as did the selling of slaves to Fulani traders. In their interior protectorate, the British elevated indigenous chiefs to exercise indirect rule. An unpopular hut tax led to rebellions, including that led by Temne chief Bai Bureh in 1896 and a revolt among the Mende in 1898. In the 20th century, mining became increasingly important for Sierra Leone’s economy, and populations shifted from agricultural areas to centres of diamond and iron-ore mining. In 1935 the colonial government granted a 99-year mining monopoly to the Sierra Leone Selection Trust, owned by the Belgian company De Beers.
As elsewhere all across Africa, anti-colonial sentiment built, and the British colonizers began to loosen their grip. In 1949 Krio elites formed an alliance with conservative tribal chiefs called the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) that was headed by Sir Milton Margai, a Mende. As power devolved from the British, Margai became Chief Minister in 1954. Northerners increasingly resented the greater infrastructure development in the Mende and Krio strongholds of the south and west. In 1957 the SLPP fractured, with many northerners, including from the Temne, Susu, Limba and Kono peoples, eventually coalescing around the All People’s Congress (APC).
At independence in 1961, the SLPP and APC remained the two main competing parties. Milton Margai was the new country’s first prime minister, and his brother Albert succeeded him upon his death in 1964. Albert Margain increasingly replaced Krio with Mende officials, and disenchanted Krios increasingly turned to the APC. The APC narrowly won national elections in 1967, but a military coup quickly deposed newly elected Prime Minister Siaka Stevens. Another coup in 1968 reinstated him but hope for functioning democracy in Sierra Leone withered as Stevens set about establishing a repressive government apparatus. The economy entered a steep decline caused by corruption in the diamond mining industry that Stevens had nationalized, dwindling reserves of iron ore, and rising oil prices. In the face of increased opposition, Stevens used a dubious referendum to push through a new Constitution in 1978 that officially made Sierra Leone a one-party state.
Continued opposition amidst economic decline led Stevens to step down in 1985, although he remained chairman of the APC and hand-selected his successor, General Joseph Saidu Momoh, who continued Stevens’s repressive policies. Momoh put down an alleged coup attempt in 1987, arresting dozens of senior government officials in the aftermath. Sierra Leone’s mounting international debt led Momoh to agree to stringent Structural Adjustment Programmes put forward by the International Monetary Fund. He also sought to reduce domestic dissent by introducing a constitutional review process that led to reinstatement of a multi-party system in October 1991.
Revolutionary United Front
However, in March 1991, a militant organization called the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) had invaded eastern Sierra Leone from Liberia. The RUF was led by Corporal Foday Sankoh and backed by Liberian rebel leader Charles Taylor, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and Burkinabé President Blaise Compoaré. Although its leaders were largely interested in control of Sierra Leone’s lucrative alluvial diamond fields, the RUF found support among young Sierra Leoneans who were disgusted with government corruption, economic despair and poor prospects for access to land controlled by paramount chiefs. Ethnicity also played a role, as the rebels exploited northerners’ resentment of southerners’ dominance of government. As the RUF and Liberian mercenaries encroached on the main diamond areas, Sierra Leone’s army grew impatient with President Momoh. In April 1992 25-year-old Captain Valentine Strasser (a Krio) led other young officers in ousting Momoh and establishing a National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC).
Strasser’s regime proved no better at governing or at fighting the RUF, which consolidated its control of the east and trafficked diamonds to Liberia and beyond in exchange for weapons in violation of a UN embargo. The rebels forcibly recruited thousands of Sierra Leonean children, and made them commit atrocities against civilians, including their own families and communities. The RUF, but also renegade government soldiers known as ‘sobels’ (soldiers by day and rebels by night), looted and burned villages, amputated body parts from their victims, and engaged in widespread campaigns of rape, sexual mutilation, and sexual slavery. With rebels in control of much of the country and moving towards Freetown in 1995, the NPRC regime hired mercenaries from the South African firm Executive Outcomes by pledging a percentage of the country’s diamond wealth. The mercenaries were successful in retaking most of the lost territory, including the eastern diamond fields.
Strasser’s deputy, Brigadier-General Julius Maada Bio, led a coup against him in January 1996 and, under domestic and international pressure, paved the way for elections. The April 1996 poll brought SLPP leader and former UN diplomat Ahmed Tejan-Kabbah (a Mandingo) to power. Kabbah introduced a broad-based government, with members from various parties. In the war, the Kabbah government relied heavily on the Civilian Defense Forces, based on traditional hunter societies – the largest of which were the Mende Kamajors led by Chief Sam Hinga Norman. These combatants also gained a reputation for atrocities against civilians and collective punishment, especially of non-Mende villages suspected to be sympathetic to the RUF.
Following another attempted coup in August 1996, alleged ringleader Major Johnny Paul Koroma was sent to prison. Junior officers loyal to Koroma launched a successful coup in May 1997, freed him from prison and made him head of state. Kabbah fled to neighbouring Guinea as Koroma invited the RUF to join his Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) in government. Under the AFRC/RUF, Sierra Leoneans suffered a new round of depravity, violence and chaos.
ECOWAS military intervention
After Nigerian-led peacekeepers from the Economic Community of West African States ousted the AFRC/RUF regime and reinstated Kabbah in March 1998, the RUF launched a new and bloody offensive against the capital in January 1999. Driving civilians before them as a human shield, the rebels took much of the city and committed mass atrocities. Nigerian forces held western Freetown, but the international community, notably the UK and US, pressed the Kabbah government to enter into the July 1999 Lomé Peace Agreement with the RUF. The accord granted amnesty to the rebels, elevated RUF leader Foday Sankoh to the position of vice president and placed him in charge of Sierra Leone’s diamond industry. The agreement also paved the way for a UN peacekeeping mission (UNAMSIL) to replace the ECOWAS force (ECOMOG).
Foday Sankoh’s arrest
Despite gaining considerable power under the Lomé agreement, the RUF egregiously violated the accord over the course of 2000, culminating in the hostage-taking of some 500 UNAMSIL peacekeepers. This prompted UK military intervention to free the hostages and beat back the rebels. On 8 May 1999, demonstrators and other Sierra Leonean civil society leaders marched on Foday Sankoh’s residence in Freetown, where RUF members opened fire, killing around 20 protestors. The crowd stormed the house, arresting Sankoh and other senior RUF leaders.
In the face of domestic and robust international opposition, the rebel force was severely weakened. Guinean forces also attacked RUF forces in late 2000, in response to their involvement in attacks against opponents of Liberian President Charles Taylor on Guinean soil. A new peace agreement in May 2001 laid the groundwork for disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of ex-combatants and the transformation of the RUF into a political party. President Kabbah declared the war over in January 2002.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission
A Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), foreseen in the 1999 Lomé agreement, took up its work in 2002, but suffered from a lack of resources and allegations of protecting the government from criticism. The TRC presented its final report to the government in October 2004, but civil society organizations criticized the TRC for failing to make the report accessible to most Sierra Leoneans, and the government for failing to implement the TRC report’s recommendations.
Special Court for Sierra Leone
In 2002, the first staff of the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) arrived in the country. The government of Sierra Leone and United Nations established the international war crimes tribunal, staffed by internationals and Sierra Leoneans and tasked with bringing to justice those ‘bearing greatest responsibility’ for wartime atrocities. In 2003, the prosecutor issued 13 indictments for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Among the indicted were former RUF leader Foday Sankoh, Liberian President Charles Taylor, RUF commander Sam ‘Maskita’ Bockarie, AFRC leader Johnny Paul Koroma, as well as former CDF leader (and sitting Sierra Leonean Interior Minister) Sam Hinga Norman.
Sankoh subsequently died of natural causes in custody, and Bockarie was gunned down, allegedly on the orders of Taylor. According to some reports, Koroma met a similar fate, although subsequent reported Koroma sightings have left unclear whether he is dead or alive. He is still officially considered to be at large, although in 2017 Sierra Leonean media reported that he had died after a short illness. Taylor abandoned the Liberian presidency in August 2003, two months after the public unsealing of his indictment, and fled to Nigeria. Amid mounting international pressure, the Nigerian government delivered him for trial at the SCSL in March 2006. Taylor’s trial was subsequently moved to the facilities of the International Criminal Court in The Hague due to security concerns about holding the proceedings in the SCSL’s Freetown courtrooms.
Norman died of natural causes in February 2007, shortly before the verdict in the case against him and two co-accused. His CDF co-defendants were found guilty on some charges in August 2007. Three AFRC accused were found guilty in June 2007, and three RUF members in 2009. The Special Court had wound down by the end of its mandate in 2010. The trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor continued in The Hague and in 2012 he was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Ahmed Tejan Kabbah was re-elected as President in May 2002, and his Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) won a large majority in parliament. The political wing of the RUF, the RUFP, failed to win any seats at all in parliament and disbanded in July 2007, throwing its meagre weight behind the APC. International monitors declared the 2002 elections free and fair; however, there were numerous reports of election irregularities. Local government elections were held in 2004 – the first for 32 years – and were declared free and fair by national and international monitors. However, evidence of substantial electoral irregularities later emerged.
The opposition APC won parliamentary elections in August 2007 and in the simultaneous presidential vote, APC candidate Ernest Bai Koroma advanced to a September runoff against incumbent Vice President and SLPP candidate Soloman Berewa. Another major candidate, Charles Margai – the son of former Prime Minister Albert Margai – had previously left the SLPP and split the Mende vote in the first round; he endorsed the northerner Koroma (who is of mixed Temne and Limba ethnicity) in the second round. Krios also threw their support to Koroma in large numbers, and he returned his party to power for the first time since the end of the APC dictatorship in 1991. International observers declared the elections to be free and fair.
In 2004, the UN Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) gradually passed responsibility for security to the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF) and Sierra Leone Police (SLP). In December 2005, the UNAMSIL peacekeeping mission formally ended, and a smaller non-militarized UN Integrated Office in Sierra Leone (UNIOSIL) opened, assuming a peacebuilding mandate. In December 2007, the Security Council voted to gradually draw down the UNIOSIL presence and end the mission by September 2008. After the withdrawal of UNAMSIL peacekeepers, units attached to the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) have had responsibility for security at the Special Court for Sierra Leone in Freetown.
The Kabbah government gained a reputation for corruption and incompetence, and significant levels of foreign aid, notably from the UK, were squandered along with much of the country’s natural resource wealth. By 2007, Sierra Leone ranked 150th in Transparency International’s (TI) Corruption Perceptions Index of 180 countries. Upon taking office in September 2007, President Koroma pledged to crack down on corruption. He bolstered the hitherto ineffective Anti-Corruption Commission and named Zainab Bangura, former founder of the NGO Campaign for Good Governance, as foreign minister (a post she held until 2010 before becoming UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict). Although corruption remains a very serious challenge, there does appear to be some improvement: Transparency International currently ranks Sierra Leone at 130th – 20 places higher than a decade ago.
Despite fears of increasing risks of identity-based politics and political violence, in November 2012 Sierra Leone held peaceful presidential, legislative and local elections; northern President Koroma won a second term. However, in the midst of the Ebola crisis in 2015, his vice president – from the country’s powerful diamond mining region – was expelled from the governing party in an apparent power struggle.
Sierra Leone’s politics continue to fluctuate between domination by the All People’s Congress (APC) and the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), both drawing on strong regional support in the north and south of the country respectively. Despite the persistence of tribal and regional divisions, there has been no return to the violent ethnopolitics of the civil conflict. However, the country still contends with profound poverty, corruption and other governance challenges.