European interest in this part of Africa dates back to 1495 when the Portuguese built a fort on the site where Freetown now stands. From Sierra Leone, the first slaves were transported to America. The United Kingdom, after having abolished slavery in 1772, brought a group of ex-slaves to Sierra Leone. They founded a community that would later grow into Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.
In 1896, Sierra Leone was declared a British protectorate. In 1961, Sierra Leone became an independent state (member of the British Commonwealth).
Sierra Leone became a republic in 1971. Since independence, the country has experienced many economic problems, political unrest and several coups. Nevertheless, the people of Sierra Leone were known as educated and skilful craftsmen, excellent traders and great artists. More important proved to be the actions from the early 1990s of a rebel movement, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), led by Foday Sankoh.
This front recruited young people who were unemployed or otherwise in trouble. This 'lumpen youth' became the nucleus of a highly destructive and violent movement, which succeeded in plunging the country into an orgy of violence. The army fought the RUF in an equally violent manner. Citizens tried to protect themselves from both the RUF and the army by setting up self-defence groups.
RUF, army and African interventions
Under pressure from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the international community, an agreement was reached in Abidjan in 1997, including a ceasefire and a plan for peace. However, nothing came of it. The RUF refused to disarm and the government army also resisted. When the army staged a coup, President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah (democratically elected in 1996) fled across the border.
Order was restored to Sierra Leone by ECOWAS troops, especially its Nigerian contingent. The capital Freetown was recaptured and President Kabbah was able to return. In 1999, a new peace agreement was signed in Lomé. To enforce it, the United Nations deployed a peacekeeping force: the UN Aid Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL). With 17,000 soldiers, this peacekeeping force was the largest in the world and the largest ever deployed in Africa.
However, unrest continued in Sierra Leone. In 2000, large-scale fighting broke out between rebels, government troops and UN peacekeepers. It was mainly thanks to British military intervention that order could be restored and the peace process continued (Abuja Accords). Since 2001, things have been calmer in the country.
The large-scale international presence brought Sierra Leone towards a more or less normal situation. Because of the general normalisation and the much improved security situation, UNAMSIL was withdrawn on 31 December 2005.
Since the departure of UNAMSIL, the authorities of Sierra Leone are fully responsible for internal security and border control. Since January 2006, the government of Sierra Leone has been assisted in this task by a UN Integrated Office in Sierra Leone (UNIOSIL), with the aim of contributing to openness and freedom in the presidential elections in early 2007. The office will also assist the authorities in improving the human rights situation and achieving the Millennium Development Goals. UNIOSIL's aim is to tackle the causes of the conflict, which included poverty, unemployment and hopelessness, corruption and a weak state. UNIOSIL is assisted by an International Military Advisory and Training Team (IMATT). IMATT intends to stay in Sierra Leone until 2010 in order to professionalise the Sierra Leonean army.
Special court Sierra Leone
The UN peacekeeping force in Liberia (UNMIL) is responsible for the security of the Special Court of Sierra Leone, established in 2004. This court was established to try those responsible for human rights violations committed during the civil war in that country. In June 2007, the trial of Charles Taylor, former Prime Minister of Liberia, started in The Hague on charges of war crimes against Sierra Leone. In August, the opposition leader Ernest Bai Koroma was elected president; his party also won the majority in parliament.
In January 2008, the court in The Hague resumed Charles Taylor's trial after a six-month delay. In April 2009, three RUF members were sentenced to lengthy prison terms for atrocities committed during the civil war. The UN lifted its final sanctions against Sierra Leone in September 2010. President Koroma was re-elected president in November 2012. In April 2012, Charles Taylor was found guilty of all charges against him and sentenced to 50 years in prison. This sentence was confirmed on appeal in September 2013. Taylor is serving his sentence in a British prison. From 2014 to 2016, Sierra Leone was gripped by the deadly Ebola virus, resulting in more than 11,000 deaths. In 2018, Julius Maada Bio of the People's Party of Sierra Leone won the presidential election with a high turnout, despite some allegations of voter intimidation. The next presidential election is scheduled for March 2023.
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