Sierra Leone is in West Africa and is bordered by Liberia to the southeast, Guinea to the north and east, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west and southwest. Its area is 71,740 sq. km. The population is estimated at 7,838,523 million (2018). A former British colony, it is now a constitutional republic.
Sierra Leone’s climate is tropical with diverse environmental zones. The capital is Freetown, which is the economic center and largest city. Kenema, Koidu Town, Makeni, and Bo are other major cities. The country has rich natural resources and diverse ethnic groups.
Findings show the area was inhabited for at least 2,500 years by movements from other parts of Africa. Iron use began in the 9th century and by 1,000 AD, coastal tribes practiced agriculture. The dense forests protected Sierra Leone from African pre-colonial empires and Islamic colonization. In the 1700s, these influences arrived in the area.
The first European contact with West Africa was in Sierra Leone. Pedro da Cintra, a Portuguese explorer, mapped the hills around modern day Freetown in 1462.
Portuguese traders built a fort in 1495 that acted as a trading post. The Dutch and French also used Sierra Leone as a slave trading point. The English followed in 1562.
Freedom From Enslavement
The St. George’s Bay Company came up with a plan in 1787 to settle London’s “Black Poor” in Sierra Leone. Many arrived off the coast that year along with tradesman. These were primarily African Americans who were promised their freedom for fighting with the British in the American Revolution.
Hostility from native people and disease killed nearly all of these first colonists. Another group of 1,200 Black Nova Scotians, most escaped U.S. slaves, established a settlement in Freetown in 1792. Other groups of freed African joined them and the settlement became the first haven of this type in Africa.
The Sierra Leone Company refused to permit settlers to take land freely. In 1799, the settlers revolted, but this was put down by 500 Jamaican Maroons who came from Nova Scotia.
Thousands of formers slaves were returned to Freetown. Most stayed in the country despite being from many African areas. Together they became known as the Krio or Creole people.
Krio became a main language and spread across the area. These settlers adopted British traditions and blacks voted in elections for the first time in the 1790s.
When the Sierra Leone Company collapsed, an African Institution met in 1807 to focus more on the local economy. The group was split by the companies holding monopolies and the British who attempted to encourage local entrepreneurs.
Freetown was the residence of the British governor of the Gold Coast, Gambia, and Sierra Leone in the early 20th century. Sierra Leone was also British West Africa’s education center.
There were several unsuccessful revolts by native people against the domination of the Krio and British rulers. In 1898, the Hut Tax war was a notable revolt. Bai Bureh was the first leader to fight the British tax on dwellings. Native chiefs generally saw this as an attack on their power. Bureh declared war after the British called for his arrest. Other native chiefs supported him with weapons and warriors. Initially, Bureh’s fighters had the advantage, but he was captured in 1898 and exiled to the Gold Coast.
This defeat ended resistance to colonialism on any large scale, but unrest and rioting occurred. In 1955 and 1956, riots involved tens of thousands of natives.
In 1935, the Sierra Leone Selection Trust was granted a monopoly on mining that was to last 98 years.
An Independent Nation Led by Sir Milton Margai
The British divided Sierra Leone into a Protectorate and a Colony in 1924 with separate political systems. The two entities had strained relations and in 1947, heated debate arose when proposals to re-unite them were introduced. The Creoles opposed unification because it would reduce their power. Chiefs and the Protectorate elite joined to oppose the Creoles. They eventually won over moderate Creoles which set Sierra Leone up for achieving independence.
A new constitution was drafted in 1951 which united the two parts and framed decolonization. Sierra Leone was given local power in 1953. Sir Milton Margai was elected Sierra Leone’s Chief Minister. A parliamentary system was established within the Commonwealth of Nations. The first parliamentary elections took place in 1957. The most popular political party at the time, the SLPP, won most of the seats in parliament. In a landslide, Margai was re-elected as Chief Minister.
Conferences were held in 1960 with the British and the Sierra Leonean delegation was led by Margai. The delegation composed of other prominent politicians in Sierra Leone. In 1961, Sierra Leone gained independence from the U.K. The first general elections took place in 1962 and Margai was elected as the first Prime Minister. His party, the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), won most of the elected positions.
Margai did not display his power lavishly and was not corrupt. The government was based on the separation of powers and the rule of law. There were multi-party institutions. His appointments were made with an eye toward satisfying ethnic groups and he built coalitions.
In 1964, Margai died and an internal crisis began in the SLPP. The parliament held an emergency session to select his replacement. The major candidates were Margai’s brother and the finance minister, Sir Albert Margai, and Dr. John Karefa-Smart, a foreign minister. Sir Albert Margi was elected to be the new Prime Minister.
Albert Margai Administration
After Sir Albert was sworn in as the second Prime Minister, he dismissed Karefa-Smart and other officials he viewed as a threat to his administration. He also opposed allowed the country’s chiefs to have executive powers. The ruling houses of Sierra Leone viewed him as a threat and he became unpopular. To push his reforms, Sir Albert brought in younger, western-educated members of the party. This split the party between traditionalists and new, younger leaders. Margai also opposed Creole dominance in the civil services, causing many Creoles to lose their positions. He was accused of favoring the Mende ethnic group and of corruption. Mendes held the top position in the military and civil service. Margai attempted to set up a one party state, but his own party and the opposition All People’s Congress (APC) resisted.
During Margai’s tenure, the country did enjoy a free press and freedom of speech. All people in Sierra Leone had access to free and fair trials. Despite his potential to hold onto power unjustly, he held free and fair elections.
Three Military Coups, 1967-1968
In 1967, closely contested elections resulted in the Governor General Sir Henry Josiah Lightfoot Boston declaring Siaka Stevens, the APC candidate, the new prime minister. Stevens defeated Margai by a narrow margin and Margai conceded defeat. Just hours after Stevens taking office, soldiers, led by General David Lansana, took him at gunpoint. A former supporter of Margai, Lansana declared martial law and disputed the election results.
In 1968, other officers, led by Andrew Juxon-Smith, took control, arrested Lansana, and suspended the constitution. Calling itself the National Reformation Council (NRC), Juxon-Smith was selected as the Chairman. The next month, the NRC was deposed by a third army group called the Anti-Corruption Revolutionary Movement (ACRM), led by General John Amadu Bangura. Juxon-Smith and NRC leaders were imprisoned and the constitution was restored. Bangura reinstated Stevens as the prime minister.
Stevens Government and One Party State
Stevens assumed power again in 1968 and pledged to support multi-party politics. He quickly pushed the SLPP from politics with violence and intimidation. Stevens gained military support by retaining John Amadu Bangura as the military head.
Elections were held in the fall of 1968 and a cabinet was formed from all APC members. After provincial disturbances, Stevens declared a state of emergency.
In his campaign, Stevens supported socialist principals, but once in office, he implemented authoritarian tactics. While there was much disappointment in the military, none could act against Stevens. Bangura was considered the only person who could restrict Stevens. The military and people of Sierra Leone trusted Bangura. Stevens considered him dangerous to his new agenda. Bangura was arrested and accused of plotting a coup. He was later convicted and sentenced to death. In 1970, Bangura was hanged. Military officers attempted another coup in 1971, but this was not successful. These leaders were executed along with some senior government executives.
The parliament declared the country a republic in 1971 with Stevens as president and Sorie Ibrahim Koroma as vice president. Due to Stevens showing favoritism to his ethnic group and the Creoles, the Temne and Mende joined to oppose the government. When Stevens appointed a Temne as vice-president, they seemed to be more influential in government. Guinean troops were in Sierra Leone from 1971 to 1973 at Stevens’ request. Elections were held in 1973, but it was boycotted by the SLPP.
In 1973, Liberian president Tolbert and Stevens signed a treaty creating the Mano River Union to facilitate trade between the countries. Guinea joined this in 1980. Sierra Leone also joined the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) in 1975.
Another plot to overthrow Stevens failed in 1974 and its leaders were executed. Stevens was election to a second term in 1976 without any opposition. Anti-government protests took place across the country in 1977, which the army and police suppressed.
In 1977 parliamentary elections, the APC maintained control. The SLPP alleged vote-rigging and intimidation. The parliament approved a new constitution the next year and set up Sierra Leone as a one party state.
In 1985, Stevens retired, but continued to be the chair of the APC. General Joseph Saidu Momoh, the armed forces commander, was chosen as Stevens’ successor. He was loyal to Stevens and part of his ethnic group, the Limba. He was elected as the only candidate in 1985 with Francis Minah as vice president.
Momoh’s army ties and statements against corruption gave him popularity with the people. When few new people were appointed to the government, criticism rose that Momoh was simply continuing Stevens’ regime.
In 1987, an attempted coup to overthrow Momoh led to the arrest of more than 60 officials, including the vice president, who was executed in 1989 with five others.
Multi-Party Constitution and Revolutionary United Front Rebellion
Momoh established a constitutional review commission in 1990 due to pressure for reforms. The APC parliament, on recommendations from the commission, voted to re-establish the multi-party system. In 1991, opposition was again allowed.
There were allegations that the APC was obtaining weapons to attack the opposition before planned elections in 1992. Some APC officials left the party to reform the disbanded SLPP. Others resigned and formed their own parties.
Due mostly to mismanagement and corruption over the diamond resources, civil war broke out. There was also additional tension related to the civil war in neighboring Liberia. Charles Taylor, leader of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, helped form the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in northern Sierra Leone. This was done so the RUF could attack peacekeeping troops in Freetown opposed to Taylor’s movement.
The RUF attacked villages in eastern Sierra Leone in 1991. Due to corruption and economic problems, the army could not resist the attacks. Within a month, the RUF controlled much of eastern Sierra Leone, including diamond and cash crop areas. The RUF used child soldiers as part of its strategy.
In 1992, several army officers were frustrated by the failure of the government to pay salaries and dealing with rebels, launched a coup. This sent Momoh to Guinea in exile. The officers set up the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC). Colonel Yahya Kanu, the coup leader, was not officially declared the NPRC leader.
After accusations he tried to negotiate a compromise with the APC, Kanu was arrested by his junior officers. This divided the army. In 1992, Valentine Strasser took over as the NPRC leader and Sierra Leone Head of State. At 27, he was the world’s youngest head of state. A close friend, S.A.J. Musa, 25 years old, became the NPRC vice-chairman. The 1991 constitution was suspended, opposition was banned, and press and speech freedoms were curtailed. Strasser, pledging to meet creditor obligations, negotiated a Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) with the IMF and the World Bank.
In 1992, an alleged coup against the NPRC was foiled. Seventeen soldiers and former APC members deemed behind the plot were executed. In 1993, Strasser declared he would hand power over to civilian rule by 1996. Dr. James Jonah was appointed to be the chairman of the Interim National Electoral Commission (INEC).
The NPRC was ineffective in fighting the RUF. By 1995, much of the diamond rich areas in eastern Sierra Leone were in RUF hands and they were near the capital. To combat the RUF, the NPRC hired mercenaries from the private firm Executive Outcomes. They drove the RUF back to the border areas within a month and took back the diamond producing areas. Sierra Leone army captains are also credited with this success. At this time, the junta became divided between those supporting SAJ Musa and popular military commanders Nyuma and Mondeh, on the other. Many suspected Musa was plotting to overthrow Strasser. In 1995, Strasser eventually dismissed Musa from his post as NPRC deputy chairman. Julius Maada, the Secretary of State for Information and Nyuma ally, was appointed to the position. Musa was arrested and sent into exile in the U.K. Nyuma and Mondeh were becoming unhappy with Strasser’s handling of the upcoming elections.
In 1996, General Julius Maada Bio ousted Strasser in a bloodless coup with Nyuma and Mondeh’s support.
Return of Democracy and Civil War
Bio called for elections and reinstated the constitution. In elections in 1996, Ahmad Tejan Kappah of the SLPP) defeated John Karefa-Smart of the United National People’s Party (UNPP). Bio handed power over to the new president, whose SLPP party also won a majority of parliament seats.
Soldiers in the army’s lower ranks had poor benefits and salaries. Discontent was high. Major Johnny Paul Koroma was imprisoned for an alleged coup plot. In 1997, a group of junior officers loyal to him created the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) led by Tamba Gborie and Alex Tamba Kabbah. The AFRC freed Koroma and he became their chairman and head of state. Gborie became the deputy in command of the AFRC. Koroma suspended the constitution, closed private radio stations, banned protests, and invited the RUF to join the new government. The RUF leader, Foday Sankoh was vice-chairman of the new AFRC-RUF coalition government. RUF fighters came to Freetown in the thousands. A group of fighters from the Mende group, the Kamajors, under Samuel Hinga Norman’s command, remained loyal to president Kabbah. They defended the second largest city, Bo, and continued attacks against the AFRC and RUF.
ECOMOG forces, led by Nigeria, ousted the junta after 10 months in office. Kabbah and the democratically elected government returned to office in 1998. Those accused of helping the AFRC were detailed. Several soldiers accused of helping the AFRC were convicted and executed. In 1999, the AFRC again attempted to overthrow the government, but were unsuccessful In the process, they killed approximately 3,000 people, raped women, conscripted children, amputated limbs, and destroyed much of the property around Freetown.
The U.N. agreed to send a force to restore order. In December of 1999, the first troops of the 6,000 strong force arrived. The force was later increased to 13,000. After nearly all Nigerian forces left in May, 2000, the RUF fought with U.N. troops and took 500 hostages. This collapsed the peace agreement and led to renewed fighting.
The situation deteriorated and the British deployed forces to evacuate foreign nationals. The British exceeded this mandate and actively fought the RUF to try to restore order. This was the main reason for the ceasefire that ended the war.
British Army elements are still in Sierra Leone to help train the armed forces. Other administrators from Britain are there to help with aid and infrastructure projects.
Approximately 50,000 were killed during the ten year civil war. Hundreds of thousands of others were forced to become refugees in Liberia and Guinea. In 2001, U.N. forces moved into rebel areas to disarm them. In 2002, the war was declared over and Kabbah was elected president in May of that year. The disarmament process was complete by 2004 and a war crimes court started trial of both sides’ leaders. U.N. forces left Sierra Leone in 2005.
The country held parliamentary and presidential election in 2007, but no candidate for president won a majority. In a runoff, Ernest Bai Koroma was elected president. In 2012, Koroma was re-elected as the country’s president, receiving more than 58 percent of the votes.
Geography and Climate
Located on Africa’s west coast, Sierra Leone borders Guinea, Liberia, and the Atlantic Ocean.
Sierra Leone’s area is 71,740 sq. km. There are four geographical regions. The plateau in eastern Sierra Leone has high mountains interspersed. Mount Bintumani is the highest point at 1,948 meters.
In the center, there is a region of low plains with farmland and forests which cover 43 percent of Sierra Leone. The north part of this is considered part of the Guinean forest-savanna mosaic ecoregion. The 400 km of Atlantic coastline in the west gives that area tourist potential and marine resources. Freetown, the capital, is on a coastal peninsula on Sierra Leone Harbor.
There is a tropical climate with two seasons, which are the rainy from May to December, and the dry from December to May.
Forested areas have been drastically diminished by mining, logging, and slash and burn deforestation. This has destroyed the African Wild Dog’s habitat and it is now considered removed from the country.
The civil war ended any potential for a forest management system until it ended in 2002. Since the war ended, the rates of deforestation have increased.
The number of illegal fishing vessels has increased in recent years, which has depleted stocks of fish. This is serious because loss of fishing income affects the survival of coastal residents.
Government and Politics
Sierra Leone’s government is a constitutional republic. The president is directly elected along with the unicameral parliament. The 1991 constitution sets out three government branches, which are the legislative, executive, and the judicial.
The parliament has supreme legislative powers. Executive power rests with the president and his cabinet. The Chief Justice is head of the judicial branch. Ernest Bai Koroma is the current president.
The president heads the government, the armed forces and acts as the head of state. The cabinet is appointed by the president and approved by parliament. The president is limited to two five year terms and is elected by popular vote. For election without a run-off, a candidate must receive 55 percent of the vote. The current vice-president is Samuel Sam-Sumana.
The judicial power rests with the judicial branch and is headed by the Chief Justice and the Sierra Leone Supreme Court. Other courts below this are the High Court of Justice, the Court of Appeal, the magistrate courts, and traditional rural courts. Justices are appointed by the president and approved by parliament. The Chief Justice is Umu Hawa Tejan Jalloh who took office in 2008. She is the first woman in the country to be Chief Justice.
Sierra Leone has diplomatic relations with Libya, China, Cuba, Iran, the U.K., and the U.S. The U.K. has provided key aid and military training since intervening to end the civil war in 2000.
The current government continues the former president’s focus on better relations with other West African nations. Several groups have been formed to promote regional unity.
The country belongs to the African Union, U.N. the African Development Bank, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and the Non-Aligned Movement.
Provinces and Districts
There are three provinces in Sierra Leone, which are the Northern, Southern and Eastern. There is one additional area called the Western Area. These are further divided into 12 districts, which are subdivided into chiefdoms with the exception of the Western Area.
Freetown has a population of just over 1 million and is the economic center, largest city, and capital of Sierra Leone. A major center for the diamond trade, Koidu Town is the fourth largest city.
While the country is still emerging from its civil war, the economy is showing signs of transition. Confidence continues to rise, which helps recovery. Mining has been the economic base of the country and it is still one of the top 10 diamond producing nations in the world. Mineral exports are a main earner of foreign currency.
The value of Sierra Leone’s diamond production is between $250-300 million annually. Some of this is smuggled. There have been efforts to improve formal export and certification since the end of the civil war.
Most of the country’s economic infrastructure was destroyed in the civil war. Outside sources have allowed the country to begin to recover since the war ended in 2002. Limited corruption will be a key factor in the recovery’s success.
Sierra Leone’s deposits of rutile, a titanium ore, are some of the largest in the world. Commercial mining began in early 1979 by a consortium of European and U.S. owners. In 1990 88,000 tons were exported. The operations were suspended during the civil war, but resumed in 2005.
Challenges still exist for the economy. Unemployment is high and reforms implementation has been slow.
The Bank of Sierra Leone is the central bank, located in Freetown. The Leone is the country’s currency. There is a floating exchange rate system where foreign currencies can be exchanged at commercial banks, recognized bureaus, and most hotels. Credit card use is limited.
A predominantly Muslim nation, Islam’s followers are 60 percent of the population. Those who follow indigenous religions are 30 percent and 10 percent are Christians.
Religious freedom is guaranteed in the constitution. This is generally respected and religion has not led to significant conflict in Sierra Leone, unlike other nations.
Sierra Leone’s population has been estimated at 5.7 million. There are no serious ethnic or religious divisions in Sierra Leone.
English is the country’s official language, but Krio is the most widely understood language.
16 ethnic groups are recognized by the government. Menda and Temne are the two largest and each comprise over 30 percent of the people of Sierra Leone. Most of the country’s politics is geared around competition between Mende in the south-east and Temne in the north.
At 8 percent, the Limba are the third largest group. They are mostly found in the Northern Province. The Kono are the fourth largest at 5 percent.
The Krio, the descendants of freed slaves, are the fifth largest and are mostly found in and around Freetown. The Krio culture is more Western.
The Kono group is the sixth largest and is located mostly in the eastern district. The Kono are most of the diamond miners.
Other smaller groups are the Fula, Kuranko, Loko, Susu, yalunka, Kissi, Sherbro, and Vai.
Education is compulsory for the primary and secondary levels, but teacher and school shortages have made this difficult to implement. The literacy rate is 43.3 percent. The civil war destroyed 1,270 schools. While the situation has improved since the war’s end, problems still exist.
Major universities are the University of Sierra Leone and Njala University. There are other training colleges and seminaries in Sierra Leone.
Most medical care in Sierra Leone is charged to the patient. Life expectancy at birth is 57.39 years, and the infant mortality rate is 73.29 deaths for every 1,000 live births. Epidemics are common, including cholera, lassa fever, meningitis, and yellow fever. HIV/AIDS prevalence is 1.5 percent among adults.
Military and Law Enforcement
The military is officially known as the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF). The president is the commander in chief.
The Sierra Leone Police (SLP) is responsible for law enforcement.
Sierra Leone has a strong journalistic tradition and was a journalism hub for Africa in the 1860s. Radio became the primary method of media communication when it was introduced in the 1930s. Television broadcasts began in 1963.
Radio is the most popular media due to 85 percent of people having radio access. 72 percent reportedly listen to the radio daily. The U.N. Mission in Sierra Leone (UNIOSIL) operates most of the popular stations and broadcasts in many languages.
Most people do not watch television outside of the capital. There are two television stations, one is government run and the other is private. Internet access exists but is spares. There is a city wide wireless network in Freetown.
Sierra Leone has ten regional airports and one international airport. The main airport for domestic and international travel is the Lungi International Airport. The EU has prohibited Sierra Leone registered airlines from operating in the EU due to substandard safety.
Sierra Leone has the largest natural harbor in the world. Major port cities are Bonthe, Freetown, Pepel, and Sherbro Island.
Of the 11,700 km of highways, 936 km are paved. These link Sierra Leone to other regional countries.
Football is Sierra Leone’s most popular sport. The national team is known as the Leone Stars and has never qualified for the FIFA World Cup. It did participate in the African Cup of Nations in 1994 and 1996.
The top football league, the Sierra Leone National Premier League, is controlled by the Sierra Leone Football Association. The cricket team is among the best in West Africa.