European contacts with Sierra Leone were among the first
in West Africa, and Sierra Leone was one of the first
West African British colonies.
Foreign settlement did not occur until 1787, when the
British prepared a refuge within the British empire for
freed slaves; that year, the site of Freetown received
400 freedmen from Great Britain. Disease and hostility
from the indigenous people nearly eliminated the first group of returnees.
Thousands of slaves were returned to or liberated in
Freetown. Most chose to remain in Sierra Leone. These
returned Africans--or Creoles as they came to be called--
were from all areas of Africa. Cut off from their homes
and traditions by the experience of slavery, they
assimilated 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 as well. 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 Creole domination. Most of the
20th century history of the colony was peaceful, however,
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.
Sir Milton's Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) led the
country to independence and the first general election
under universal adult franchise in May 1962. Upon Sir
Milton's death in 1964, his half-brother, Sir Albert
Margai, succeeded him as Prime Minister. Sir Albert
attempted to establish a one-party political system but
met fierce resistance from the opposition All Peoples
Congress (APC). He ultimately abandoned the idea.
In closely contested elections in March 1967, the APC won
a plurality of the parliamentary seats. Accordingly, the
governor general (representing the British Monarch)
declared Siaka Stevens--APC leader and Mayor of Freetown-
-as the new Prime Minister. Within a few hours, Stevens
and Margai were placed under house arrest by Brigadier
David Lansana, the Commander of the Republic of Sierra
Leone Military Forces (RSLMF), on grounds that the
determination of office should await the election of the
tribal representatives to the house. A group of senior
military officers overrode this action by seizing control
of the government on March 23, arresting Brigadier
Lansana, and suspending the constitution. The group
constituted itself as the National Reformation Council
(NRC) with Brigadier A.T. Juxon-Smith as its chairman.
The NRC in turn was overthrown in April 1968 by a
"sergeants' revolt," the Anti-Corruption Revolutionary
Movement. NRC members were imprisoned, and other army
and police officers deposed. Stevens at last assumed the
office of Prime Minister under the restored constitution.
The return to civilian rule led to bi-elections beginning
in the fall of 1978 and the appointment of an all-APC
cabinet. Tranquillity was not completely restored. In
1970, a state of emergency was declared after provincial
disturbances, and in March 1971 and July 1974, alleged
military coup plots were uncovered by the government.
The leaders of the plots were tried and executed. In
1977, student demonstrations against the government
disrupted Sierra Leone politics.
Following the adoption of the republican constitution in
April 1971, Siaka Stevens was appointed President of the
Republic by the House; he was inaugurated for a second
five-year term in April 1977. In the national election
that followed in May 1977, the APC won 74 seats and the
opposition SLPP 15. The next year, Stevens' Government
won approval for the idea of one-party government, which
the APC had once rejected. Following enactment of the
1978 constitution, SLPP members of parliament joined the APC.
The first election under the new one-party constitution
took place on May 1, 1982. Elections in about two-thirds
of the constituencies were contested. Because of
irregularities, elections in 13 constituencies were
canceled by the government. Bi-elections took place on
June 4, 1982. The new cabinet appointed after the
election was balanced ethnically between Temnes and
Mendes. It included as the new Finance Minister Salia
Jusu-Sheriff, a former leader of the SLPP who returned to
that party in late 1981. His accession to the cabinet
was viewed by many as a step toward making the APC a true national party.
Siaka P. Stevens, who had been head of state of Sierra
Leone for 18 years, retired from that position in
November 1985, although he continued his role as chairman
of the ruling APC party. In August 1985, the APC named
military commander Joseph Saidu Momoh as party candidate
to succeed Stevens; he was Stevens' own choice. Momoh
was elected President in a one-party referendum on
October 1, 1985. A formal inauguration was held in
January 1986; new parliamentary elections were held in May 1986.
In October 1990, President Momoh set up a constitutional
review commission to review the one-party 1978
constitution with a view to broadening the existing
political process, guaranteeing fundamental human rights
and the rule of law, and strengthening and consolidating
the democratic foundation and structure of the nation.
The commission, in its report presented January 1991,
recommended re-establishment of a multi-party system of
government. Based on that recommendation, a constitution
was approved by parliament in July 1991 and ratified in
September; it received presidential assent in September
and became effective on October 1, 1991. There was great
suspicion that Momoh was not serious, however, and APC
rule was increasingly marked by abuses of power. The
rebel war in the eastern part of the county posed an
increasing burden on the country, and on April 29, 1992,
a group of young RSLMF officers launched a military coup
which sent Momoh into exile in Guinea and established the
NPRC as the ruling authority in Sierra Leone.
source: U.S. State Department Background Notes 1994