What is today Sierra Leone has been inhabited for
thousands of years by various peoples. When the coast became
known in Europe through Portuguese seafarers in the 1460s,
the area consisted of a number of independent kingdoms such
as Bollum, Loko, Buore and Sherbro.
In the 18th century, British traders established
themselves along the coast, essentially at the later capital
Freetown, which became the British Crown Colony in 1808. In
1896, the inland was also placed under British rule as a
protectorate, formally ruled separately by the Crown colony
Freetown. In 1951, the patronage of Sierra Leone was merged
with the colony of Freetown. After 1945 constitutional
reforms and internal self-government were introduced.
Sierra Leone became an independent country in 1961 and a
republic in 1971. The country was haunted by corruption,
civil war in the period 1991–2002 and an Ebola epidemic in
2014–2015, and is one of the world's poorest countries. See
abbreviationfinder for geography, history, society, politics, and economy of Sierra Leone.
Archaeological finds show that the modern Sierra Leone
has been inhabited for thousands of years, both with the
permanent residence of some peoples, and the occasional
migration of others.
When the coast became known in Europe through Portuguese
seafarers in the 1460s, the area consisted of a number of
independent, and mostly small, kingdoms such as Bollum, Loko,
Buore and Sherbro. The trade routes were hunting and
fishing, agriculture and animal husbandry.
In the 700s, the Trans- Saharan trade extended to Sierra
Leone, and salt was bought for gold and coal nuts. At the
same time, Islam was brought to the country. Only with the
arrival of the Portuguese was the country involved in any
significant trading activity. The Portuguese established
trading stations, and in the 1600s Sierra Leone participated
in the extensive slave trade in West Africa. The Portuguese
named the area Serra Lyoa, later changed to today's name.
In the 18th century British traders established
themselves along the coast, essentially at the later capital
Freetown, and were granted a license to create trading
stations. In 1787, the British acquired a land for the use
of freed slaves, in parallel with a similar US action in
The first were brought to the peninsula at the later
Freetown in 1787 and 1792. The slaves came first from North
America, then from Jamaica, later from slave ships stopped
by the British Navy in African waters after Britain
abolished slavery in 1807. The area was hence called
Freetown, and several smaller settlements were founded, such
as Waterloo, Hastings and Leicester.
Having been ruled by a private company, Freetown became
the British Crown Colony in 1808 and used as a base in the
fight against the slave trade. The French Navy attacked
Sierra Leone in 1794. Until 1864, when the last slave ship
was broken up, over 50,000 so-called "recaptives"
were landed and released in Freetown. The freed slaves and
their descendants, from a variety of peoples and language
groups throughout West Africa, developed their own culture
and language: Creole, or Krio, as it is specifically known
as in Sierra Leone.
This group had relatively high education, including from
the well-known Fourah Bay College (established in 1827), and
constituted a West African elite. They were used as
officials in British colonies throughout West Africa and
established themselves as traders, both in Sierra Leone and
the rest of the region.
In 1896, the interior was also placed under British rule
as a protectorate, formally governed separately by the Crown
Colony of Freetown. In 1898, a rebellion against the British
government's introduction of tax was abolished. Unlike in
Freetown, the British did not promote education and other
development in the protectorate. For several periods in the
19th century, the British colony of the Gold Coast (Ghana)
was ruled from Sierra Leone. In 1951, the British
protectorate of Sierra Leone was merged with the colony of
Freetown. Officials from Sierra Leone became aware of
developments in other British-controlled territories,
including India and South Africa, and political
In 1920 the National Council of British West Africa
was formed. After 1945 constitutional reforms and
internal autonomy were introduced, and the legislative
assembly established in 1924 was replaced by a House of
Representatives in 1957.
Sierra Leone was declared an independent state on April
27, 1961. Sir Milton Margai, the leader of the Sierra
Leone People's Party (SLPP), was prime minister from
1958. When he died in 1964 he was succeeded by his brother
Albert Margai. In the 1962 election, the SLPP gained a new
majority; in 1967, the opposition party won the All
People's Congress (APC), led by Siaka Stevens. A
military coup prevented him from taking power, and only
after a new coup in 1968 was he deployed.
The 1970s were marked by political turmoil, with coup and
murder attempts against Stevens, and several exceptions were
introduced. In 1971, the country became a republic, with
Siaka Stevens as president. In 1978, APC was made the
country's only permitted party following a constitutional
amendment. Stevens retired in 1985, taking over his
hand-picked successor, Chief of Defense General Joseph Saidu
Around 1990, there was increasing pressure for
democratization, and in 1991 a new constitution was passed
that allowed free party formation. Before multi-party
elections could be held, a new military coup came in 1992,
carried out by a group of younger officers who ousted
President Momoh. Captain Valentine Strasser was inaugurated
as the new head of state, and chair of the new National
Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC). In 1993, the state of
emergency was abolished; political parties were again
allowed in 1995.
Prior to the planned elections in 1996, Strasser was
deposed in a palace coup and replaced by Brigadier General
Julius Maada Bio. However, the democracy process did not
stop, and parliamentary elections were held in a situation
of widespread violence, where the RUF sought to threaten
people from participating. The SLPP became the largest
party, and party candidate Ahmad Tejan Kabbah won the
presidential election. The military junta surrendered power
to civilian leadership.
Kabbah was deposed in a new coup in 1997 when a group of
officers, led by Major Johnny Paul Koroma, seized power and
formed a junta, Armed Forces Revolutionaly Council (AFRC),
with Koroma as chairman and chief of state. President Kabbah
went into exile to neighboring Guinea. Fighting took place
between the coup makers and Nigerian military forces
stationed in Sierra Leone, and Ghana military units were
dispatched to the country in an attempt to force Koroma to
return power to the country's elected civilian leadership.
A French military operation evacuated foreign nationals.
The West African cooperation organization ECOWAS imposed
financial sanctions against the military junta, with support
from the UN and the Organization of African Unity (OAU).
Civil War (1991–2002)
The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel group
started operations in eastern Sierra Leone in 1991, after
moving in from neighboring Liberia where it had established
itself in the shelter of the civil war there. The RUF was
started by a former government soldier, Foday Sankoh, who
claimed to want to fight the central elite and its abuse of
power. Sankoh was in close contact with the Liberian rebel
group NPFL, led by Charles Taylor.
RUF was feared in its homeland and notorious abroad for
its violence against the civilian population as it took
control of villages and rural areas east and southeast of
the country. Extensive use of torture - including
amputations and rape - was put into use. The struggles
between the RUF and the government forces continued
throughout the 1990s and revolved, among other things, on
control of the diamond mines; Illegal export of diamonds was
RUF's primary source of income. The UN imposed sanctions for
a period on the sale of Sierra Leonean diamonds.
The trade of so-called "blood diamonds" from Sierra Leone
(and Liberia) led to international work (the Kimberly
process) requiring traceability and systems for
certification of the origin of diamonds. The fighting spread
to large parts of the country and almost a million people
were displaced from their homes. Most who fled the country
sought refuge in Guinea, others in Liberia.
The Civil War evolved into a humanitarian crisis in
Sierra Leone, and to heavy strains on neighboring countries
that received large numbers of refugees. At the same time,
there were fears that the war could have regional
implications, especially in relation to the war in Liberia
and later unrest in Guinea. Both ECOWAS, the OAU and the UN,
as well as individual states, engaged in attempts to settle
the civil war, which took place throughout the 1990s, in
parallel with political processes of elections and several
coups in Sierra Leone.
In 1991, ECOWAS deployed a peacekeeping force in Sierra
Leone, the ECOWAS Cease-Fire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG),
first as an intervention force substantially manned by
Nigerian soldiers and mainly financed by Nigeria - with the
origin of a military cooperation agreement between the two
countries. The Sierra Leonean government engaged the South
African security company Executive Outcome to assist in the
training of its forces. In 1997, the UN Security Council
decided to impose an oil and arms embargo on Sierra Leone,
and authorized ECOWAS through ECOMOG to follow it up. In
2000, this was supplemented by a ban on illegal export of
diamonds, which helped to finance the war. Exports were
banned in 2001, while the arms embargo was sharpened.
In the fall of 1996, a peace agreement was signed between
the government and the RUF in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.
Following the military coup that brought Paul Koroma to
power in 1997, a government was formed that also included
representatives from the RUF, and soldiers from the RUF were
taken into a new government force. A ceasefire between
ECOWAS and the AFRC in Conakry in the fall of 1997 opened
for the deployment of UN observers. The AFRC also agreed to
reinstate President Kabbah's government, but did not fulfill
After fierce fighting, ECOMOG forces captured Freetown in
February 1998, displacing the military junta and RUF from
the city, and Kabbah was reinstated. AFRC / RUF forces
resumed Freetown in January 1999; hundreds of ECOMOG
soldiers were killed in fighting, and the rebels stepped up
their attacks against the civilian population, which
included the abduction of children. A new peace agreement
signed in Lomé, Togo, in July 1999 was criticized for giving
the RUF government participation, as well as rebel soldiers
amnesty for war crimes.
In 1998, the UN Security Council decided to create an
observer force next to ECOMOG: United Nations Observer
Mission in Sierra Leone (UNOMSIL), with a set of up to 70
observers. As a result of the fighting in the capital in
January 1999, they were evacuated and the United Nations
decided to deploy a military force in its place: United
Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) - deployed from
November. Both UN operations had a smaller number of
Norwegian officers (observers). In April, UNAMSIL took over
the mission of ECOMOG, which was dissolved; parts of the
West African force joined the UN force. UNAMSIL came into
conflict with the RUF, which took nearly 500 UN soldiers
hostage, including one Norwegian. Several UN soldiers were
abused; some murdered.
In May 2000, the United Kingdom deployed a military force
in Sierra Leone, in Operation Palliser: first and foremost
to evacuate and British and other Western citizens, secondly
to help improve the security situation in Freetown and
surrounding areas. RUF leader Sankoh was arrested in May
2000, a new peace treaty signed in Abuja, Nigeria in
November and the civil war formally ended in 2001. UN-led
disarmament was completed only in 2004. UNAMSIL completed
its mission in 2005 and was replaced of a United Nations
civilian operation, the United Nations Integrated Office in
Sierra Leone (UNIOSIL) from 2006.
After the Civil War (2002–)
RUF established the Revolutionary United Front Party
(RUFP) ahead of the 2002 elections, but was left without
representation. SLPP got a clear majority. Kabbah was
elected president and re-elected. A Truth and Reconciliation
Commission, set up as part of the post-war political
process, submitted its report in 2005. Parliamentary and
presidential elections in 2007 were won by APC and its
presidential candidate Ernest Bai Koroma. He was re-elected
to a final term in November 2012.
The election was known by observers in its order, and was
a confirmation of the positive development in the country
after the Civil War. While the 2002 election was organized
by the UN under the protection of the UN force, in 2007 it
was held by a national election commission. Nonetheless,
there were scattered episodes of violence in the wake of the
election, aimed at representatives of the departed regime.
A special court was established in 2002, with the support
of the UN and with both national and international judges,
to conduct a post-war settlement which is estimated to have
claimed 50,000 lives. Several key members of the RUF were
indicted in 2003, including Foday Sankoh. Liberia's former
president Charles Taylor was charged and extradited from
Nigeria in 2006. Sankoh died in prison in 2003, before the
trial against him surfaced. The court handed down its first
verdicts in 2007, when three of the main defendants were
found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity,
including child soldiers' recruitment and murder.
The case against Taylor was moved to The Hague for the
sake of Sierra Leone-Liberia relations after the Special
Court discontinued its action in 2009. In 2010, the United
Nations Security Council abolished the last remaining
sanctions against Sierra Leone: a weapons embargo and a
travel ban for insurgents.
In 2014, Sierra Leone was hit hard by an outbreak of
Ebola. Over 12,000 people were infected and nearly 4,000
people died from the disease.