Sierra Leone, Part I
The U.N. is in the midst of a disaster in the tiny African nation of
Sierra Leone. Hundreds of peacekeepers have been taken
hostage and anarchy reigns throughout the country. The British
have sent hundreds of their own troops to evacuate its citizens.
The resolution of this latest conflict will speak volumes about all
future U.N. missions in Africa. Should they fail here, the fate of
the whole continent, already in serious question, could be sealed.
In light of the importance of the area today, I thought it would
be useful to provide you with a little historical background to the
current state of affairs in Sierra Leone. The origins of the
Republic of Sierra Leone go back to about 2500 BC, but we will
concern ourselves with just the last 200 years.
By the end of the 18th century, abolitionists were looking for
refuges for freed slaves and in 1808 the British declared the port
city of Freetown (the current capital of Sierra Leone) as a Crown
Colony. The British created a naval base there from which they
policed the African coast in an effort to enforce the 1807 British
law banning the slave trade. Between 1808 and 1860, the Brits
freed thousands of Africans from slave traders and settled them
in the colony. In the interior, however, it was a different story
and the slave trade continued until about 1928.
Sierra Leone means "lion''s mountain," possibly because of the
shape of the coastal peninsula which resembles that of a lion.
Maybe...if you''re high on drugs. Its neighbors are Guinea and
Liberia and the total area of Sierra Leone is about the size of
English is the official language and agriculture employs about
68% of the work force. Diamond mining is also a big industry
and has been a major flash point in the current civil war.
But, regardless of whether you are a farmer or a miner, you are
dirt poor if you live in Sierra Leone. The average per capita
income is a whopping $160, making the country one of the five
poorest in the world. Some say that the economy never
recovered from the 1973-74 oil crisis. It was then that smugglers
commandeered most of the industries such as diamond
Thus, to be born in Sierra Leone is not a good thing. The
average life expectancy at birth is 37 years (I saw another study
that listed it as 48) and only 31% of the population of 4.8 million
can read (just 18% of females).
Islam is practiced by about 60% of the people, with African
religions followed by 30% and Christianity 10%.
The majority of the people are "Mende." Mende''s have "Hale''s,"
or secret societies, which lay down various rules like sanctioning
acceptable forms of behavior. Officials serve as contacts with
spirits who affect human affairs while, in the past, chiefs
depended for their authority on support from the men''s hale,
Poro. The women''s society is Sande. At puberty, almost all
boys and girls join one or the other with initiation taking place in
secret. Initiates are taken to a camp in the forest where they live
in seclusion for weeks. Rather barbaric, if I may say so myself.
In the urban areas, it is now increasingly difficult to carry out
Brief Chronology of Key Events
1961 - April 27 Sierra Leone becomes independent from Britain.
1967 - Military coup overthrows civilian government.
1968 - Civilian rule is restored.
1971 - Becomes a republic under a new constitution with a
1978 - Facing growing opposition from professionals and trade
unions, President Siaka Stevens declares a one-party
1985 - Stevens forced to resign and turns over reigns to hand-
picked successor, Joseph Momoh.
1991-96 - Civil War in Liberia spills over into Sierra Leone.
Valentine Strasser leads a 1992 coup against Momoh.
The Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a rebel army
led by Foday Sankoh, emerges and, coupled with
forces loyal to Liberia''s Charles Taylor and predatory
warlords, lay waste to vast stretches of the countryside.
1996 - Ahmad Kabbah wins the presidency in a multi-party
1997 - Kabbah flees after a military coup. Sankoh, the RUF
leader, had been placed under house arrest during a visit
to Nigeria. Forces loyal to Sankoh lead the overthrow
of Kabbah. The U.N. Security Council imposes fuel,
arms and travel bans on junta.
1998 - A Nigerian-led West African intervention force drives
junta and rebel allies from capital Freetown in February
and reinstates Kabbah in March. Rebels are accused of
hacking off civilians'' limbs. 24 junta loyalists executed
for treason. Sankoh is extradited from Nigeria to
Freetown, convicted in October of treason and sentenced
to death. He appeals. Rebels still control key diamond-
Next week, we''ll continue the story.
Sources: "Africana," Henry Louis Gates and Kwame Appiah
"Encyclopedia of African Peoples," The Diagram
Parts of chronology courtesy of New York Times.