Sierra Leone: An Independent Nation

An Independent Nation

On Apr. 27, 1961, Sierra Leone became independent, with Margai as prime minister. He died in 1964 and was succeeded by his brother, Albert M. Margai. Following the 1967 general elections, Siaka Stevens of the All Peoples Congress party (APC), a Temne-based party, was appointed prime minister by the governor-general (a Sierra Leonian who represented the British monarch). However, a military coup led by Brig. David Lansana in support of Margai ousted Stevens a few minutes after he took the oath of office.

The Lansana government itself was soon toppled and replaced by a National Reformation Council (NRC) headed by Col. Andrew Juxom-Smith. In 1968, an army revolt overthrew the NRC and returned the nation to parliamentary government, with Stevens as prime minister. The following years were marked by considerable unrest, caused by ethnic and army disaffection with the central government. After an attempted coup in 1971, parliament declared Sierra Leone to be a republic, with Stevens as president. Guinean troops requested by Stevens to support his government were in the country from 1971 to 1973. Stevens's APC swept the 1973 parliamentary elections, creating a de facto one-party state; a 1978 referendum made the APC the only legal party. Maj. Gen. Joseph Saidu Momoh succeeded Stevens as president in 1986.

In 1991 a referendum was passed, providing for a new constitution and multiparty democracy. However, in 1992, Momoh was overthrown in a military coup. Capt. Valentine Strasser soon became president, but he was ousted in Jan., 1996, and replaced by Brig. Gen. Julius Maada Bio. Promises of a return to civilian rule were fulfilled by Maada Bio, who handed power over to Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, of the Sierra Leone People's party, after the conclusion of elections in early 1996. Kabbah's government reached a cease-fire in the war with the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), which had launched its first attacks in 1991; rebel terror attacks continued, however, aided by Liberia.

Kabbah was overthrown in May, 1997, by the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), a military junta headed by Lt. Col. Johnny Paul Koroma. The junta soon invited the RUF to participate in a new government. The United Nations imposed sanctions against the military government in Oct., 1997, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) sent in forces led by Nigeria. The rebels were subdued in Feb., 1998, and President Kabbah was returned to office in March.

Fighting continued, however, in many parts of the country, with reports of widespread atrocities. Over 6,000 people were killed in fighting in the Freetown area in Jan., 1999, alone. In March, Nigeria announced it would withdraw its forces by May. A peace accord was signed in July between President Kabbah and Foday Sankoh of the RUF. The agreement granted the rebels seats in a new government and all forces a general amnesty from prosecution. The government had largely ceased functioning effectively, however, and at least half of its territory remained under rebel control.

In October, the United Nations agreed to send peacekeepers to help restore order and disarm the rebels. The first of the 6,000-member force began arriving in December, and the Security Council voted in Feb., 2000, to increase the UN force to 11,000 (and subsequently to 13,000). In May, when nearly all Nigerian forces had left and UN forces were attempting to disarm the RUF in E Sierra Leone, Sankoh's forces clashed with the UN troops, and some 500 peacekeepers were taken hostage as the peace accord effectively collapsed.

An 800-member British force entered the country to secure W Freetown and evacuate Europeans; some also acted in support of the forces (including Koroma's AFRC group) fighting the RUF. After Sankoh was captured in Freetown, the hostages were gradually released by the RUF, but clashes between the UN forces and the RUF continued, and in July the West Side Boys (part of the AFRC) clashed with the peacekeepers. In the same month the UN Security Council placed a ban on the sale of rough diamonds from Sierra Leone in an attempt to undermine the funding of the RUF. In late August, Issa Sesay became head of the RUF; also, British troops training the Sierra Leone army were taken hostage by the West Side Boys, but were freed by a British raid in September.

General elections scheduled for early 2001 were postponed in Feb., 2001, due to the insecurity caused by the civil war. In May, 2001, sanctions were imposed on Liberia because of its support for the rebels, and UN peacekeepers began to make headway in disarming the various factions. Although disarmament of rebel and progovernment militias proceeded slowly and fighting continued to occur, by Jan., 2002, most of the estimated 45,000 fighters had surrendered their weapons. In a ceremony that month, government and rebel leaders declared the civil war to have ended; an estimated 50,000 persons died in the conflict. Subsequently, a tribunal established (2002–9) by Sierra Leone and the United Nations tried and convicted Issa Sesay and two other surviving leaders of the RUF of war crimes.

Elections were finally held in May, 2002. President Kabbah was reelected, and his Sierra Leone People's party won a majority of the parliamentary seats. In June, 2003, the UN ban on the sale of Sierra Leone diamonds expired and was not renewed. The UN disarmament and rehabilitation program for Sierra Leone's fighters was completed in Feb., 2004, by which time more 70,000 former combatants had been helped.

UN forces returned primary responsibility for security in the area around the capital to Sierra Leone's police and armed forces in Sept., 2004; it was the last part of the country to be turned over. Some UN peacekeepers remained to assist the Sierra Leone government until the end of 2005; the last UN peacekeeping office in the country closed in Mar., 2014. Parliamentary elections in Aug., 2007, gave a majority of the seats to opposition All People's Congress (APC), and after a runoff, Ernest Bai Koroma, of the APC, was elected president. The UN Security Council lifted its remaining sanctions on the country, including the arms embargo, in Sept., 2010. Koroma was reelected in Nov., 2012, and the APC again won a legislative majority. Vice President Samuel Sam-Sumana went into hiding and sought political asylum in Mar., 2015, after he was dismissed from the APC and feared for his safety; he was then dismissed from the vice presidency. In 2013–15 an Ebola epidemic in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone killed some 11,300 people; nearly 4,000 died in Sierra Leone before the spread of the disease was controlled. Julius Maada Bio, the candidate of the Sierra Leone People's party and a former general who had briefly ruled after the coup in 1996, was elected president in Apr., 2018, after a runoff in which he received almost 52% of the vote. The APC, however, won a majority of the elected legislative seats in March. In office, Bio launched a significant anticorruption investigation that ensnared a number of high-ranking officials from the previous government.

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