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History, Independence

Siaka Stevens, Abducting children, Sierra Leone government, Kabbah, Liberian civil war

Sierra Leone became an independent nation on April 27, 1961. The constitution of 1961 extended the right to vote to women. Following the elections of 1962, Margai remained prime minister. Margai died in 1964 and was succeeded by his half-brother, Albert Margai. In 1967, as a result of disputed elections, in which Siaka Stevens, leader of the All People’s Congress (APC), was elected prime minister, the army staged a coup and organized a National Reformation Council. After a second army revolt in 1968, civilian government was restored, and Stevens was returned to power. Sierra Leone was declared a republic on April 19, 1971, and Stevens was sworn in as executive president on April 21. Opposition to the government was gradually eliminated; in elections held in May 1973, the APC was unopposed. In 1975 Sierra Leone signed a trade and aid agreement with the European Community (now the European Union) and helped form the Economic Community of West African States. The next year Stevens was reelected president.

In 1978 a new constitution made the country a one-party state, and Stevens was sworn in for a new seven-year term in office. The APC was thereafter the only legal party. In the early 1980s Sierra Leone suffered an economic slowdown, as sagging export revenues left the government unable to pay for essential imports. In November 1985 Stevens retired, and Major General Joseph Saidu Momoh was sworn in as president the following January. A coup attempt was suppressed in March 1987, and in November the president declared a state of economic emergency. Early in 1991 guerrillas spilling over from the Liberian civil war captured several towns near the Liberian border; Guinea and Nigeria supplied military aid to the Sierra Leone government to contain the threat. As government forces fought back the Liberian guerrillas, a Sierra Leonean rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), sprang up to take territory of its own, and a brutal civil war ensued. A new constitution providing for a multiparty system was adopted in September. In April 1992, however, Momoh was ousted in a military coup and replaced by Captain Valentine Strasser. Strasser’s government reduced street crime and lowered inflation from 115 percent to 15 percent, allowing the country to receive more than $300 million in global aid packages. Strasser, who at age 27 became one of the world’s youngest heads of state, was accused of restricting free press practices, having his political enemies executed, and continuing the civil war. In 1994 he endorsed a two-year transition to multiparty democracy, with elections scheduled for 1996.

Six weeks before the scheduled elections in late February, Strasser was removed from power in a bloodless coup by his defense minister, Brigadier Julius Maada Bio. Bio pledged to hold free elections as planned, but he insisted that an end to Sierra Leone’s devastating five-year-long civil war was necessary for a successful transfer to civilian rule. In a runoff vote, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah of the SLPP was elected president. In March Bio announced a two-month cease-fire pact with RUF leaders and peacefully stepped down.

Kabbah served as president until May 1997, when he was ousted in a military coup. The military junta, a coalition of disaffected junior army officers, escaped prisoners, and members of the RUF, faced immediate international condemnation and economic sanctions. In February 1998 Nigerian troops taking part in a peacekeeping force in neighboring Liberia mounted an offensive against the rebel forces and took control of Freetown. In March Kabbah returned to office from exile in Guinea.

In January 1999 the Nigerian force repelled a large-scale rebel assault on Freetown, and thousands of civilians were killed in the fighting. The rebels retreated into the rural areas of the country to regroup. By mid-1999 Kabbah’s administration controlled little more than Freetown, with various factions of the rebel forces holding most rural areas in addition to the country’s diamond mines.

In 1998 and 1999 rebel soldiers terrorized Sierra Leone’s countryside. Abducting children and forcing them into combat, they conducted a calculated campaign of atrocities. Rebels raped and mutilated thousands of civilians, often hacking off innocent people’s limbs, to send a message of intimidation to Kabbah’s government. The United Nations (UN) and other international organizations condemned the human rights abuses.

In July 1999 Kabbah and RUF leader Foday Sankoh signed a peace agreement outlining a transitional government that included several RUF members. Later that year the UN established a peacekeeping mission to help monitor the peace process and oversee the disarmament and demobilization of RUF forces. RUF rebels clashed with UN forces in the spring of 2000 and Sankoh was imprisoned after attempting to flee Freetown. After months of resumed fighting, the government and the RUF signed a cease-fire in November 2000. The cease-fire held throughout 2001, allowing UN peacekeepers to disarm tens of thousands of RUF fighters. The disarmament program was declared a success in January 2002. In peaceful elections held in May, Kabbah won a second term as president, and his party, the SLPP, won a majority of seats in the legislature. The Kabbah government also secured the UN’s help in establishing a war crimes tribunal—similar to those for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia—to try Sankoh and other rebels for alleged human rights abuses.

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