Sierra Leone at 55: Its history, politics, links to Nigeria

Sierra Leone at 55: Its history, politics, links to Nigeria

Wednesday, April 27, 2016 12:45 pm



Today (27 April 2016) is the 55th independence anniversary of Sierra Leone, a country that (even before its political self determination in 1961) has a long historical relationship with Nigeria

By Eromosele Ebhomele

The name ”Sierra Leone” means Lion Mountain and 15th century Portuguese explorers gave it to the mountain just beyond the Rokel River estuary around which they built a harbour. The Bulom and the Temne were, according to,g the original inhabitants of this fine natural harbour, in a kingdom that was originally established by the Mani. The other indigenous inhabitants of the territory included the Mende – presently the largest among the groups, the Loko, the Limba, the Vai and the Susu most of whom belong to the Manding ethno-linguistic family.

European interest in the place was mostly as a source of slaves, but they were also attracted by other commodities like ivory, and camwood, for which, they were prepared to venture deep into the interior up to Port Loko. However, they (especially the British) built their fortresses mainly on the islands that remained under the control of the local chiefs. Islam arrived the area around the 18th century following the Fulani (Called Fula today in S.Leone) jihad in the Fouta-Djalon.

Albert Margai

Albert Margai

With the fight of the abolitionists to end slavery and slave trade, a settlement named Freetown and run by the Sierra Leone Company was started in the area, to which slaves from Britain and Nova Scotia in Canada were brought. When the company handed the settlement to the British government, it enjoyed the added importance of hosting slaves captured from slave ships. Many of these slaves were of Yoruba origin, but there were also others of Aku, Ibo, Congo, and Hausa descent among them. This interesting mix of ethnic blends later called Creole, was accorded the added advantage of education provided by the Church Missionary Society (CMS), thereby producing an educated Christian elite speaking English and a form of Pidgin called Krio. (Some remained Islamic in religion). The children of the Temne and others who lived in the Freetown area easily intermingled and got absorbed into the Creole society, forming a vibrant group of traders and businessmen involved in commerce and taking up government jobs in much of the other West African colonies.

In fact, Sierra Leone, through its early education system produced Nigeria’s first set of the clergy, educationists, administrators and others.

See also relevant stories, Sierra Leone at 55: The Nigerian connection here: http://t

And Christopher Kolade: What Nigeria gained from Fourah Bay here:

Although the Creoles were critical of the British government especially through the Sierra Leone Weekly News (paper), their loyalty to the Queen was not shaken. Trade with the British was still beneficial to them, and the government allowed only limited intervention in local traditions like in cases of mediation during conflicts, the signing of treaties and the extension of British customs duties. However, the local people were mostly relegated to the junior posts in the colonial government.

Joseph Momoh

Joseph Momoh

In 1898 the Creoles were accused of complicity with the Temne and the Mende in the “Hut Tax War” in which many Europeans and Creoles were killed. With the construction of the railway line to Pandembu by 1908 the fortunes of the Creoles faced a further decline as they were forced to compete with more established British companies like John Holt, Lever Bros, Paterson Zochonis etc. In spite of their loyalty during the First World War the Creoles still found it difficult to win the trust of the British. Moreover, by the early 19th century the Lebanese were already wrestling with them over control of the retail trade. They therefore redirected their energies into education and ventured their first faltering steps into politics by supporting the National Congress of British West Africa whose leader was a Creole – Dr. Herbert Bankole-Bright – was later elected member of the Legislative council.

Another political group that gained popularity in the country by 1938 was the West African Youth League, after the return of its leader Wallace Johnson from abroad. (He later helped to organise the Pan African Congress of Trade Unions in 1945.) Together with Bankole-Bright who was then the leader of the National Council for the Colony of Sierra Leone (NCCSL), he opposed the granting of a majority of seats to the Protectorate under the proposed 1947 Stevenson constitution. Consequently, they, including the Creoles were eclipsed when progress towards self-government began.

In 1951 Dr. Milton Margai formed the Sierra Leone Peoples’ Party (SLPP). The founding members included Albert Margai (the brother of Milton) Siaka Stevens (former Secretary General of the Mine-workers Union) and others. The NCCSL suffered a resounding defeat to the SLPP at the 1952 elections, giving way to SLPP members in the enlarged legislative Council to be selected to serve as ministers on the Executive council in 1953. Dr. Margai himself became the chief Minister in 1954. However, the Creoles retained a disproportionately high representation in the civil service, even though the reconstitution of the Fourah Bay College and its amalgamation with Njala University College to form the University of Sierra Leone had increased the chances of the rest of the people to advance their education.

The economy seemed to enjoy a period of boom with increases in the production of iron ore and diamond. However, economic benefits did not seem to be trickling down to ameliorate living conditions in the country. The result was a labour strike in 1955 followed by unrest in the north, affecting mostly the chiefs whose authority was more dependent on the British. Local farmers refused to pay taxes, disobeyed orders to perform communal labour and also discontinued their customary tributes to the chiefs who depended on the British for their security in power. As the rioting retrogressed the chiefs’ properties around the country were destroyed, prompting far-reaching reforms in the existing system of local governance. The new 1956 constitution also declared that representation in the House of representatives, which replaced the Legislative council, was to be by election. It however, reserved seats in the house for paramount chiefs. In the 1957 elections Dr. Milton Margai’ SLPP won a majority and so he became the first Premier. Meanwhile, the United Progressive Party became the official Opposition under the leadership of Cyril Rogers-Wright (and later Wallace Johnson).

Milton Margai

Milton Margai

In 1959 Albert Margai together with Siaka Stevens broke away from the SLPP to form the Peoples’ National Party (PNP) but when talks in London led to an agreement to grant independence to the colony, a United Front Coalition was formed with Dr. (now Sir) Milton Margai as the leader and Albert Margai as the Minister of Agriculture. In 1960 Siaka Stevens broke away and formed the All People’s Congress (APC), a party identified with a radical philosophy based on socialist ideas, to tone down the influence of the all-powerful Sir Milton Margai during the independence discussions. He quickly gathered support from the Northern province, the rural areas and parts of the Western half of the country. Backed by the belief that his support base was enough to win a national election, he initiated a campaign against the talks. He demanded that a national election be held before independence was granted to the country. To drive home his point he started an operation of violence and thuggery aimed at sabotaging the independence process. The Prime Minister ordered his arrest and that of his followers, forcing them to remain incarcerated until the granting of independence on April 27 1960.

Sierra Leon’s opposition remained very vocal throughout the decade, openly criticising the PM and members of the cabinet. In the 1962 elections Stevens and his party won 20 out of the 62 seats in parliament. Support in the North, the West and Kono district expanded as the party came to be seen as the defender of the suppressed and thus it came as no surprise when he was voted as the Mayor of Freetown.

Siaka Stevens

Siaka Stevens

When Sir Milton Margai suddenly died in office in April 1964 Albert, his brother, became the Prime Minister, but not without a lot of manoeuvring, with serious consequences for the SLPP. Incidentally, Albert Margai’s reign has been known as one of the most progressive in the History of Sierra Leone. A boom in the economy allowed him to open many schools and his legal background permitted him to recognise the benefit of a free press. He had no problem incorporating the ideas of the opposition in to government policy. Meanwhile Stevens took the time to built a formidable political machinery that galvanised support from all the corners of the country. In spite of Margai’s advantage of incumbency, Siaka Stevens won the 17 March 1967 election even though it was not by a large margin.

First Military Intervention
A military intervention under Brig. David Lansana (a supporter of Albert Margai) quickly took over the reign of power on March 21 1967 before the Governor General could swear in Stevens as the new Premier. A counter coup by junior officers seized power from Lansana two days later, arrested him together with Albert Margai, removed the Governor General Sir Henry lightfoot–Boston and suspended the constitution. A few days later on March 30, Brig. Juxon Smith led another coup. They lasted in power for a year before being overthrown by warrant officers.

Siaka Stevens and the APC were brought back to power with Chief Justice Teja-Sie as the Governor General in 1968.

Return of Civilian Regime
The new government passed through a period of instability culminating in another coup attempt that forced Stevens to declare a republican constitution under the commonwealth in April 1971. Stevens was sworn in as the first President of Sierra Leone on April 21 1971. Political agitation continued throughout the reign of Stevens clouding both the 1973 and 1977 elections. The SLPP was the loser in both as the APC used its position of incumbency to ensure its strangle hold on power – in spite of the nation wide instability. In May 1978, the APC-dominated parliament passed a law making Sierra Leone a one party state. The civil service and the judiciary subsequently suffered flagrant interference from APC party politicians. SLPP members in parliament were allowed to remain as APC supporters and some were given cabinet positions.

In 1973 Siaka Stevens and William Tolbert of Liberia signed a treaty forming the Mano River Union to facilitate trade between the two countries – with Guinea joining in 1980. In 1975 Sierra Leone joint ECOWAS and in 1980 the OAU was hosted in Freetown in spite of a general criticism about the ability of the country to withstand the financial burden.

At the APC national Convention in August 1985, Major-General Joseph Saidu Momoh was elected as the Secretary General of the party. It was evident to everyone that Stevens had been grooming him for succession to the throne in the place of Sorie Ibrahim Koroma who was the first Vice-President of the republic and expected successor, as stated in the 1978 constitution. Instead Koroma resigned together with Stevens giving room for general Momoh who then won the November elections as the only contesting candidate with over 99% of the vote.

The new President’s strong links with the army and his verbal attacks on corruption earned him much needed initial support in the country. During the last days of Stevens, negotiations had been opened with the IMF and World Bank that ended up in the acceptance of IMF conditionalities and the floating of the national currency the Leone. Together with the lack of new faces in the new cabinet, criticisms soon arose that Momoh was simply perpetrating the rule of Stevens. To counteract them, Momoh called early general elections. He returned many of the old faces to power but his firm control of the situation prompted Stevens to belief that Momoh was not the person he had believed to be. The man was simply not controllable. A coup attempt led by Stevens’ former bodyguard was foiled, but some 60 people including top cabinet members were arrested and unconfirmed rumours held that Stevens was under house arrest. 16 were later charged, six were hanged, six sentenced to life imprisonment, and four released. A cabinet reshuffle was necessary to bring into place staunch Momoh supporters.

The next couple of years were characterised by allegations of corruption, which Momoh defused by sacking the culprits who included top cabinet ministers. To formalise his war against corruption he announced a “Code of Conduct for Political Leaders and Public Servants” He initially refused to accept multi-party democracy in 1990 because he thought it would further polarise the country on ethnic grounds, but in August he conceded to constitutional reforms that limited the Presidency to two five-year terms and multi-party democracy. The new constitution was approved by a 60% vote in a 75% turn out. By September six political associations grouped together to form the United Front of Political Opposition Movements (UNIFOM).

In 1991 a small group of diamond diggers and youth under the control of Foday Saybana Sankoh began an insurgency in the diamond rich district of Kono around the borders with Liberia. Sankoh was a British trained former army corporal who had also undergone guerrilla training in Libya. His group called itself the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and they were financially backed by rebel leader (later president) Charles Taylor of Liberia. Taylor’s aim was for the RUF to attack the bases of Nigerian dominated peacekeeping troops in Freetown who were opposed to his rebel movement in Liberia.

Another Army Revolt/Civil War
On 29 April 1992, an army revolt over salary problems quickly galvanised into a bloodless coup that deposed Momoh from power. The coup leader Captain Valentine Strasser together with five others formed a National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC), suspended the constitution, banned all political activity, but maintained relations with ECOWAS and support for ECOMOG which was fighting in Liberia. He later signed legislation that was to reduce the role of the armed forces in national administration. The NPRC was designated the council of state and the cabinet was replaced by a council of secretaries headed by a chief Secretary of State – named as John Benjamin.

In December 1992 a coup attempt led by Sgt. Lamin Bangura was foiled and it led to the summary execution of 17 of the coup plotters. When Britain announced the suspension of all economic aid to the country in protest against its human rights record, attempts were quickly made to remedy the situation by the release of many political prisoners. However, by mid 1993 press censorship was imposed, but shortly afterwards a plan to hand over the government to civilian rule was announced for 1996. James Jonah was appointed chairman of the new Interim National Electoral Commission, in charge of the demarcation of electoral boundaries and vote registration.

New proposals for a constitutional review stated that the term of office of the president was to be reduced to two four-year terms, candidacy was only for Sierra Leoneans over the age of 40 (thus excluding Strasser and others in the NPRC) and the establishment of two houses in parliament: a house of representatives elected by universal adult suffrage for a term of five years and a senate of 30 members including regional representatives and five presidential nominees.

Valentine Strasser

Valentine Strasser

By October 1994 the intensification of the civil war prevented the reorganisation of districts for council elections. Earlier, senior members of the armed forces had been dismissed due to their inability to contain the fighting in the country. In January 1996 Julius Maada Bio, who claimed that Strasser was attempting to amend the age restriction aspect of the constitution in order to perpetrate his hold on power, deposed him in another coup. He therefore made sure the elections proceeded as scheduled.

The SLPP presented a formidable force, winning 36.1% of the seats in the legislature and 35.8% of the presidential votes for its candidate Alhaji Ahmed Tejan Kabbah. In a second round of voting – since no candidate got to the required 50% margin – conducted on March 15, Kabbah defeated Karefa-Smart by obtaining 59% of the votes. On March 29 Kabbah was sworn in as President and in July the 1991 constitution was reinstated.

After barely a year in office – on May 25 1997, Kabbah was deposed in yet another coup, this time led by Maj. Johnny Paul Koromah. He claimed that Kabbah was unable to implement the peace agreement reached with the RUF and therefore blamed his regime for the continued state of war in the country. The Nigerian government’s immediate reaction was a demand for a return to democratic rule. ECOWAS immediately ordered the extention of the powers of ECOMOG to be extended to Sierra Leone to prevent total breakdown of law and order. Koromah declared a state of emergency and Nigeria reinforced the troop level to manage the violent rioting and looting that had become the order of the day in Freetown. In the ensuing military conflict 62 people were killed and 300 Nigerian troops were held hostage. Because of the support he had received from the RUF, Koromah declared himself the new Chairman of the 20-member Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), and Foday Sankoh as the Vice-Chairman.

A campaign of civil disobedience continued throughout the country in protest against the coup. The Kamajors, a group of traditional fighters who Kabbah had trained remained loyal to him in the Southeast town of Zimmi, while members of the disbanded legislature defied a ban on political activity and continued to meet, proposing a government of national unity in which all parties, including the RUF would be represented. They also proposed an ECOMOG and UN manned peacekeeping force to occupy the national territory. The regime was completely isolated under ECOWAS enforced embargo and facing serious food and petroleum shortages.

In Late July 1997 the AFRC and the ECOWAS four-nation committee made up of Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Guinea met in Abidjan to discuss a cease-fire. Discussions failed by the end of July as attacks continued from both camps. Koromah refused to hand over power or lift the ban on political activity. ECOWAS reinforced the embargo and increased air bombardments. The AFRC had to succumb to the demands to relinquish power, but there remained problems with the terms of the agreement. Seeing that Koromah was becoming more vulnerable, the international community mounted more pressure on the regime. The British press reported that Kabbah had hired Sandline International to assist the Kamajors. By the end of January 1998 ECOMOG under the command of Col. Maxwell Khobe liberated Freetown. The embargo was relaxed and a task force was established to supervise government activities. The Kamajors continued their attack and by mid February Bo and Koindu were liberated.

Return of Democracy
On March 10 1998 Kabbah staged a triumphant return to Freetown and was sworn back into office. However, the assistance of some 7000 mainly Nigerian ECOMOG troops was needed to prop him in power. He subsequently named Col. Maxwell Khobe as his chief of national security. In July Sankoh was sentenced to death and Momoh received a ten years prison sentence. The RUF reacted strongly to the sentence on Sankoh, abducting minors for combat and transportation purposes. By January 1999 the RUF and its supporters had retaken Koindu, Makeni and Lunsar and were threatening Waterloo close to Freetown. Within three weeks thousands of civilians were killed including hundreds of Ecomog and RUF rebels.

ECOMOG soon secured an upper hand and started pushing the rebels out of town. Their retreat was characterised by a scorched earth policy that left wide scale destruction and most buildings alight. It became evident that civilians were taking too much of the toll and so UN and OAU mediation efforts were summoned to arrest the situation. Foday Sankoh was released in April 1999 and in July 1999 a new agreement signed in Lome, acceded to a power-sharing arrangement in which he was to be the Vice-President of the republic and also in charge of mineral resources. The RUF was also awarded three other cabinet posts and they were asked to form a political party, later called RUFP. A general amnesty passed on the belligerent parties, was met with serious objection from the UNHCR, based on the human rights record of the parties involved.

The Security Council ordered a United Nations peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) to start by the end of 1999, but the troops were sent into the theatre of war in dribs and drabs, thus creating a less than positive impact on the situation. In an attempt to open a demobilisation camp in Makeni, Unamsil forces caused a rumour to be spread that the Kono diamond district was under siege. Panic spread and fighting broke out with 500 peacekeeping troops (mainly Zambians) abducted. Weapons, including Unamsil supplies and transport vehicles were taken over by the RUF. Information from the UN office misread the situation around the capital reported that RUF was marching on Freetown. A peaceful demonstration on Sankoh’s house to protest the impending showdown on March 8 later turned violent and Sankoh’s bodyguard opened fire killing 22 people. Sankoh escaped into the forest only to be caught some days later and jailed together with other RUF leaders. Government sources then spread rumours that Sankoh had been killed with the aim of demoralising his troops. However, he was later to be tried along with 49 other members of the RUF for murder and robbery by a local tribunal, pending the commencement of the Special Court hearing on charges of crimes against humanity.

In a surprising turn of events Koromah suddenly regrouped his troops to support the course of the government. 1000 British service men also flew in and extended their support to Unamsil and they joined forces to fight the RUF. Support within the RUF split into two groups following the heavy casualty being inflicted by the loyal forces. Issa Sesay’s group advocated for a halt to hostilities in order to save his men. The second group opposed this choosing instead to cut off support lines from Guinea. They suffered heavy casualty as the Guinean army responded forcefully. Desertion increased within RUF ranks and eased the job of Unamsil in demobilising the troops. By June 2001 Unamsil had overrun Kambia, Makeni, and the diamond fields of Kono. Reports registered in October 2001 showed that about 60% of the estimated 25000 RUF troops had been disarmed and demobilised and were in the process of reintegration.

By January 2002 Unamsil had reached its maximum capacity of 17500 troops and Kofi Anan announced that the special tribunal for Sierra Leone had also received enough funds to commence its work. It was to be held in Freetown and to be presided by both local and international judges. Presidential and parliamentary elections were held on May 14, 2002, in polls that were largely accepted to be free and fair. Kabbah was returned to power with over 70% of the votes cast. Ernest Koroma came second with 22% of the votes, while Johnny Paul Koroma came third with 6%. The RUF was barely able to secure 1.8% mainly from the Makeni district. However, the security forces including the military and the police voted forJohnny Paul, a situation which did not augor well for the incoming Kabbah regime.

Parliamentary results showed that Kabbah’s SLPP won 83 out of the 112 seats, Ernest Koroma’s APC won 27 seats, JP Koroma’s PLP won two seats and the RUF none. Kabbah appointed Solomon Berewa from the Ministry of Justice to the post of his Vice-President. UNAMSIL originally scheduled to withdraw by the end of September, was asked to stay on and longer and effect a phased withdrawal in order to avoid creating a sudden vacuum that could be conducive for the eruption of sporadic violence. For a while the country was at peace, except for the increase of refugees coming in from the violence in neighbouring Liberia.

In 2007, Ernest Bai Koroma emerged the winner, in an elections internationally acclaimed to ba free, fair and credible. He defeated Solomon Berewa, who was Late Presient Tejan Kabbak’s vice. Since then, Koroma had embarked on massive infrastructural developments, particularly road rehabilitation and construction.

He was re-elected in 2012, defeating Rt Bg Maada Bio, who was the country’s military head of state in the 90’s. In 2013, the country was rated as the fastest growing economy in West Africa, but was severely plagued by Ebola in 2014. It was declared Ebola free recently by the World Health Organization WHO, with elections coming up in 2018.

-With research materials from:

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