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 back 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.
The NPRC proved to be nearly as ineffectual as the Momoh government in repelling the RUF. More and more country fell to RUF fighters, so that by 1995 they held much of the countryside and were on the doorsteps of Freetown. To retrieve the situation, the NPRC hired several hundred mercenaries from the private firm Executive Outcomes. Within a month they had driven RUF fighters back to enclaves along Sierra Leone’s borders.
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.
However, on May 25, 1997 Maj. Johnny Paul Koroma led the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) in overthrowing President Kabbah. The AFRC 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 back the RUF attack several weeks later.
With the assistance of the international community, President Kabbah and RUF leader Sankoh negotiated the Lomé Peace Agreement, which was signed on July 7, 1999. The accord made Sankoh Vice President and gave other RUF members positions in the government. Lomé 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, Demobilization, Disarmament, Reintegration (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 progressed, the government began to reassert its authority in formerly rebel-held areas. By early 2002, some 72,000 ex-combatants had 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 was re-elected to a five-year term along with the SLPP, which also won a landslide victory. 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. On July 28, 2002 the British withdrew a 200-man military contingent that had been in country since the summer of 2000, leaving behind a 105-strong military training team to work to professionalize the Sierra Leonean army. In November 2002, UNAMSIL gradually began drawing down personnel until the end of its formal peacekeeping mission in December 2005. Following the end of the UNAMSIL mandate, the UN established the UN Integrated Office in Sierra Leone (UNIOSIL), which assumed a peacebuilding mandate.
The 1999 Lome Accord 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. Subsequently, the Sierra Leonean Government and the UN agreed to set up the Special Court for Sierra Leone to 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." Both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Special Court began operating in the summer of 2002. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its Final Report to the government in October 2004. In June 2005, the Government of Sierra Leone issued a White Paper on the Commission’s final report which accepted some but not all of the Commission's recommendations. Members of civil society groups dismissed the government’s response as too vague and continued to criticize the government for its failure to follow up on the report’s recommendations.
In March 2003 the Special Court for Sierra Leone issued its first indictments. Foday Sankoh, already in custody, was indicted, along with notorious RUF field commander Sam "Mosquito" Bockarie, Johnny Paul Koroma, and Hinga Norman, the Minister of Interior and former head of the Civil Defense Force, among several others. Norman was arrested when the indictments were announced, while Bockarie and Koroma remained in hiding. On May 5, 2003 Bockarie was killed in Liberia, allegedly on orders from President Charles Taylor, who feared Bockarie’s testimony before the Special Court. Johnny Paul Koroma was also rumored to have been killed, though his death remains unconfirmed. Two of the accused, Foday Sankoh and Hinga Norman, have died while incarcerated. On March 25, 2006, with the election of Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo permitted transfer of Charles Taylor, who had been living in exile in the Nigerian coastal town of Calobar, to Sierra Leone for prosecution. Two days later, Taylor attempted to flee Nigeria, but he was apprehended by Nigerian authorities and transferred to Freetown under UN guard. Taylor is now being held in The Hague, where he awaits trial before the Special Court on 11 indictments of war crimes and crimes against humanity. His trial is scheduled to begin in June 2007. (Source U.S. State Department Web site, www.state.gov/countries, April 10, 2007)