A Brief History of Sierra Leone

The Portuguese visited the West African Coast in the 1500s, which thereafter became a source of slaves for the Europeans.

Sierra Leone ("Lion Mountain" in Portuguese) is possibly named for the roar of thunder in the mountains behind Freetown, or because the mountain is shaped like a lion. This is the only place in West Africa where mountains rise up from the ocean. Sierra Leone has an annual average rainfall of 3,150 mm., making it one of the wettest places along the West African Coast.

Today, Sierra Leone has a population of six million people and is represented by over 15 different ethnic groups. In 2003, the United Nations declared Sierra Leone the poorest country in the world, a status that remains today.

Yet, Sierra Leone has always been rich in natural resources including produce: cocoa, coffee, piassava, kola nut, palm kernel, palm oil and peanut and minerals: gold, diamonds (home of the second largest diamond ever found on earth), bauxite, rutile, and iron ore.

European contacts with Sierra Leone were among the first in West Africa. In 1652, the first enslaved Africans 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 the words of Dr. Opala, "the Gullah of the SC and GA Sea Islands, are directly descended from the slaves who labored on the rice plantations, and their language reflects significant influences from Sierra Leone and surrounding areas" (Joseph Opala 1986: The Gullah). http://www.yale.edu/glc/gullah/author.htm

In 1789, the British helped 400 free slaves from 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 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 liberated Africans, or Krios as they came to be called, were from all areas of Africa. Cut off from their homes and traditions by their 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.

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 the Krio domination. However, most of the 20th century history of the colony was peaceful, 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.

1961 On April 27th, Sierra Leone becomes an Independent State within the Commonwealth led by Dr. Milton Margai of the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP).

1964 Sir Milton Margai died and is succeeded by his half brother, Dr. Albert Margai.

1967 In March, All Peoples Congress (APC), led by Siaka Stevens won the general election, but was prevented from taking power by a military coup.

1968 In April, following an army mutiny, a civilian government was restored with Dr. Stevens, as Prime Minister. A period of political instability followed, culminating in an attempted military coup in March 1971 that was put down with the aid of troops from Guinea.

1971 In April, Sierra Leone was declared a republic, with Dr. Stevens elected as executive president.

1978 A new constitution was approved in June which provided for a one party system. APC thus became the sole legal party. On June 14, Dr. Stevens was sworn in for a 7 year presidential term. SLPP members of Parliament joined the APC party.

1985 Major General Joseph Saidu Momoh was inaugurated as President after Siaka Stevens' death.

1991 A new constitution was formally adopted. In late September, six newly created political associations allied themselves as UNIFOM and demanded that the government give way to an interim administration. At the same time, the Liberian civil war spilled over the border into Sierra Leone. Charles Taylor prepared to take over the diamond fields in Kono, Sierra Leone.

1992 On April 29th, the government was replaced by Captain Valentine Strasser in a coup d'etat. Momob fled to Guinea on April 30th and Strasser announced the formation of the NPRC, which suspended the 1978 and 1991 constitutions, dissolved the House of Representatives, suspended all political activity, and imposed a state of emergency and curfew.

1992 On May 6th, Strasser was sworn in as head of state.

1995 In March, Musa was ordered to retire after Strasser rejected his proposal for the installation of a transitional civilian government.

1996 In January, Strasser was deposed by military officers, led by Bio in a bloodless coup. Bio assumed the office of head of state.
February 26--Presidential and legislative elections took place.
March 29--Ahmed Tejan Kabbah of the SLPP was inaugurated as president.
July--The Constitution of 1991 was formally re-instated.
November--President Kabbah and the rebel leader Sankoh signed a peace agreement in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire. Known as the Abidjan Accord, it provided for the immediate cessation of hostilities and a schedule for disarmament, demobilization, and reconstruction.

1997 On May 25th, President Kabbah's government was overthrown by a group of low ranking army officers who formed the AFRC. Major Johnny Paul Koroma, who was set free from prison on the day of the coup, headed the AFRC. The constitution was suspended, political parties were banned, and all demonstrations were prohibited.
June 17--Major Koroma was sworn in as head of state. The RUF joined forces with the AFRC to form the People's Army. Foday Sankoh was named vice-chairman of the AFRC and prominent members of the RUF were appointed to the AFRC's ruling council.

1998 In Mid February, ECOMOG troops liberated Freetown, and proceeded to secure most major towns and roads in the country.
March 10--President Kabbah returned to the country.
July--RUF rebel leader Foday Sankoh returned to Sierra Leone from detention in Nigeria. New press regulations were introduced.

1999 On January 6th, rebels entered parts of Freetown.
January 11--ECOMOG troops launched an offensive, and rebels retreated to the east.
January 31--ECOMOG reclaimed all of Freetown.
May 18--A Cease-fire Agreement was signed by the Government of Sierra Leone and RUF.
July 7--A Peace agreement was signed in Lome by the Government of Sierra Leone and RUF.
October--Fighting occurred between RUF and AFRC forces in Makeni and Lunsar.
November 2--Present Kabbah forms his new cabinet which incorporated members of the RUF.
November--RUF provisionally registered as a political party - the Revolutionary United Front Party (RUFP). The United Nations began deploying peacekeeping troops, the largest depolyment in the history of the UN.

2000 In January, ECOMOG began to withdraw its troops from Sierra Leone.

2001 In February, Parliament approved the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Bill.

2002 In January, the disarmament process was completed.
May--Presidential elections were held, and President Kabbah was re-elected. The Sierra Leonean Parliament elections were held on May 14, 2002. The Parliament was comprised of 124 members, with Paramount Chiefs appointed to 12 seats. In the parliamentary elections, the SLPP obtained 83 seats, the APC 27 seats, and the PLP 2 seats.

2003 In January, there were indications that Johnny Paul Koroma was planning a coup, following an attack on Wellington army barracks in Freetown. Police and army units raided properties belonging to him and detained 100 people, of which 16 were charged.
March--The Special Court began pre-trial hearings, and indicted seven men in connection with human rights abuses. Those accused were both ex-rebels and Government supporters. The state of emergency laws, that had limited some of the Constitutions provisions, were lifted on March 1st, 2002.

"As a result of the rebel war in Sierra Leone, over 50,000 died and over 15,000 people were maimed, while hundreds of communities were destroyed." For more information, please go to http://www.indyweek.com/durham/2002-02-06/first.html


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