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Assessment for Mende in Sierra Leone

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Mende in Sierra Leone, 31 December 2003, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/469f3acd14.html [accessed 24 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Sierra Leone Facts
Area:    71,740 sq. km.
Capital:    Freetown
Total Population:    5,000 (source: UN, 1995, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

By the end of 2000, the situation in Sierra Leone seemed to be stabilizing, with an end to the conflict declared in January of 2002. However, the long history of conflict and fragile, short-term cease fires in the country are reasons for concern. The conflict has devastated Sierra Leone, and this could lead to more protests and maybe a new round of conflict in the future. The Mende who fought in the civil war were apparently fighting for political reasons, not for ethnic Mende interests. Significant healing needs to take place in Sierra Leone, and many refugees must return home. Until the situation has been stable for a longer period of time, it is not possible to accurately gage the potential for further Mende action.

Analytic Summary

The Mende are one of the largest groups in Sierra Leone, comprising approximately one-third of the population. The have long resided in the southern half of what is now Sierra Leone (REGIONAL = 1 and TRADITN = 1). The Mende are distinctive from other groups in the region in terms of their language (LANG = 1), but not in terms of their religion and customs (BELIEF and CUSTOM = 0). Dyalanke, Koranko, and Vai all belong to the Mande language group. The Mende have had a long history of vying for control of Sierra Leone, and they have long-standing disputes with the Temne, the other large ethnic group in the country. These disputes, culminating in the recent civil war in Sierra Leone, have given the Mende a strong sense of ethnic attachment (COHESX9 = 5).

When Milton Margai's political party won the elections in 1951, the Mende began to increase their influence both in the civil service and the army. As a result, benefits accrued to Mende-dominated areas. After the country's independence in 1961, the Mende-dominated regimes (particularly under the rule of Albert Margai, 1964-67) tended to oppose Creole domination of the civil service. Subsequently, Creoles supported the All-People's Congress (APC), led by Siaka Stevens (an ethnic Limba). Under the APC regimes headed by Stevens (1971-85) and Joseph Saidu Momoh (1985-92), the Creoles retained strong influence. During the 1970s, the Temne joined the Mende in opposition to the government. After Stevens appointed a Temne vice president in 1978, the Temne appeared to have emerged as the second most influential group (next to ethnic Limba) in the regime. The Limba were pre-eminent in the state, the party, and the army from the time Stevens seized power in 1968 until the early 1990s.

On April 30, 1992, The National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC), led by Capt. Valentine Strasser, seized power in a coup. Over time, Strasser favored the Mende over other ethnic groups in both his government and the military. He was overthrown in a coup in January 1996 by his deputy. The deputy, Julius Bio, proceeded with plans for elections, and a civilian government was installed in March 1996. Sierra Leone was led by Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, a civilian, until May 1997 when he was overthrown by a military coup.

Much of the instability of the regimes since the Strasser coup in 1992 can be blamed on a protracted civil war, which began in March 1991. A rebellion, led by Foday Sankoh (Revolutionary United Front-RUF), began in the south-eastern region of the country and by March 1995, it had affected all but one district of the country. Fighting was the most intense in the southeast and northeast, and until the 1997 coup, was not evident in the capital, Freetown. The RUF leadership was composed mainly of Temne, and most reports indicated that troops were also mainly Temne. Sankoh himself and most of his lieutenants were Temne, and they were fighting against what they claimed was the hegemony of Mende in the country. The RUF complained that the predominantly-Mende SLPP (Sierra Leone People's Party) had been marginalizing non-Mende and using ethnic criterion in appointing ministers. With the coup of May 1997, however, the RUF had been ordered by Sankoh to support the new military government led by Major Johnny Koroma. Koroma, as well as the majority of his allies in the RUF, were Temne. The rebels were then associated with the military government while the Kamajors, organized militias based on traditional hunting groups, were fighting the government and RUF. The Kamajors, composed mainly of Mende, were organized in 1994 to help the government fight the RUF at a time when government forces were disheartened and facing defeat by the rebels. One of the complaints of the military against the Kabbah regime was that he gave too much power to the Kamajors at the expense of the military.

Between 10 and 15 thousand people were killed between 1991 and 1998, including some from starvation, and as of 1998, about half of the country's population of four million have been displaced at one time or another during the conflict. Those who have suffered the most in the war appear to be civilians from the northeast and southeast. Reports indicated that RUF rebels, disgruntled soldiers, and army deserters have carried out attacks against civilians. There were about 260,000 refugees in Liberia and Guinea during the height of the war 1993-1995 and at least 700,000 Sierra Leoneans were internally displaced. Fighting has affected all but one district of the country, and throughout the war the worst affected districts have been Moyamba, Bo, Kenema, Kailahun, Tonkolili, Kono, and Pujehun. A peace agreement signed between the civilian government of Kabbah and RUF leader Sankoh on November 30, 1996, did not last above a few weeks, although there was great hope for the country at its signing.

The situation in Sierra Leone stabilized in the summer of 1998. The Nigerian/ECOMOG forces in February 1998 succeeded in ousting Koroma from power, and Koroma's AFRC forces as well as his RUF allied fled to the north and east of the country. For several months after their overthrow, the AFRC and RUF committed atrocities against civilians of these regions leaving thousands dead or injured and an additional 166,000 internally displaced. Reports of atrocities diminished after June 1998. President Kabbah was restored to power in March 1998, and RUF leader Foday Sankoh was returned to the country after Koroma's ouster.

The current situation in Sierra Leone is very difficult to judge. The years of fighting have resulted in very little information leaving the country. Beyond the large number of refugees who have fled the fighting, there has been no indication that the Mende are disadvantaged demographically or ecologically compared to other groups in the country (DEMSTR03 = 0). Although the current situation is still somewhat unclear, the government seems to have regained some control of Sierra Leone. The government is comprised mostly of Temne, and the Mende have been historically excluded from political life (POLDIS03 = 2). The Mende have not been victims of current or historical economic discrimination (ECDIS03 = 0). There are no reports of cultural discrimination currently facing the group. While groups such as Amnesty International have reported large-scale government repression in Sierra Leone, the Mende are not mentioned as either the perpetrators or victims of this repression. Large-scale communal warfare continued until late 2000 between the warring sides of the civil war. While not purely ethnic in nature, the main participants in this war are Mende and Temne (COMCON00= 6).

The Mende have traditionally supported the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP), which has ruled the country as recently as 1997. When in power, this party has favored the Mende, and this has led to ethnic tensions in the country. The Mende have also relied on groups such as Amnesty International and United Nations Peacekeepers to protect them from the civil unrest. Without information on the Mende's grievances, it is almost impossible to speculate about their demands beyond the assumption that the Mende want protection from other ethnic groups in the country, mainly the Temne.

The Mende have a long history of protest and militant activity. Protests have been reported as far back as pre-colonial times (PROT45X = 2). While the majority of this activity has been limited to conventional political organizing, extended periods of protests and demonstrations over government neglect were reported during the 1990s (PROT90X and PROT95X = 3). These protests escalated to rebellious activity in the late 1990s (REBEL95X = 3). Because the recent situation in Sierra Leone has become so poor, it is impossible to determine if the Mende are currently acting as a group in any form, especially since power struggles between different chiefs within the Mende group have occurred (PROT03 = 0, REB03 = 0). In 2002, a chief, Kpulun, who was supposed to be reinstated to power had someone appointed to his position. This raises tensions within the group as confusion exists amongst the leadership.

References

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) The World Factbook 1992, 2004 Washington, D.C.

"Sierra Leone; Trouble Brewing: District Officer Ignores Govt. Order" Standard Times. Africa News. 9 Aug. 2002

Lexis-Nexis 2001-2003

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