Sierra Leone History


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

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