Report to the Japanese Government on the Situation in Sierra Leone: A Brief Overview

The People of Sierra Leone

The population of Sierra Leone in 1996 is about four million. There are thirteen indigenous ethnic groups, the largest of which are the Mende (32%), Temne (31%), and Limba (9%). The Krios, descendants of freed slaves living primarily in Freetown, comprise two percent of the population. The Lebanese community, which plays a prominent role in commerce, amounts to 0.5% or about 20,000 people. Sierra Leone is traditionally a rural nation. Until the civil chaos of the 1990's displaced many thousands from their rural homes, the majority lived in small towns and farming villages. In 1990, Freetown, the capital city, had a population of about 500,000, and Bo, the second largest city, about 50,000, but those figures will undoubtedly rise after the violence has ended, and some people elect to remain in the urban areas, rather than return to their rural villages. There is a distinction between the indigenous tribes, or ethnic groups, in the north and those in the south. In the north, where the Temne predominate, cultural influences from what is now Guinea, Senegal, and Mali have historically been quite strong. The north leans more heavily toward Islam, and the institution of kingship with all its elaborate trappings and ceremonies has been more important there. In the south, where the Mende predominate, the cultures generally have more in common with the forest regions in what is now Liberia and Cte d'Ivoire. Christianity, introduced by American missionaries in the 19th century, has spread rapidly, though Islam is also present. The Mende and other southern ethnic groups traditionally relied more heavily on the male secret societies (Poro, Wunde) for governmental functions, and the Mende have developed elaborate masquerades and music and dance performances in connection with these societies. The Temne, though dedicated to their own language and cultural traditions, have tended not overwhelm their neighbours in the north. The Limba, Koranko, Loko, Yalunka, and Susu all continue to speak their own languages and hold to their own customs. The Mende, on the other hand, have traditionally regarded their own language and culture as superior to those of their neighbours, and the Sherbro, Krim Vai, Gola and Kissi languages in the south are all in various stages of retreat. Even the Kono, a large and proud ethnic group wedged between the north and south, have begun adopting Mende as a second language. The Krios are descended from four groups of freed slaves brought to Freetown between 1787 and about 1850. During the 19th century, they emulated Victorian England in virtually every detail of their public lives, but they have always retained many distinctive African traditions in the private, informal aspects of life. The Krios long dominated the professions and the civil service, and once formed a powerful interest group in competition with the indigenous or "upcountry" peoples, but since independence in 1961 their influence has gradually waned. The Mandingos and Fulas are two important non-indigenous African ethnic groups in Sierra Leone. Both come from the north, principally Guinea, and both are deeply devoted to Islam. The Mandingos and Fulas are traditionally traders and craftsmen. The Fulas are also cattle herders, and engage in many types of wage labour. The Lebanese began entering Sierra Leone at the turn of the century, doing petty trading, at first, but gradually advancing into large-scale business, and, today, they dominate commerce. The vast majority of shops and large businesses in the capital and major towns are owned by Lebanese. Many of today's Lebanese were born in Sierra Leone, and young Lebanese often speak Krio better than Arabic. The Krio language is Sierra Leone's lingua franca, the only language shared by people of all ethnic groups Linguists classify Krio as a creole language, one formed through a process of hybridization. English provided most of the vocabulary, while African languages have influenced the sound system and grammar. Krio is the native language of the Krios in Freetown, and the second language for a large percentage of Sierra Leoneans upcountry. Although they once viewed Krio condescendingly as "Broken English", Sierra Leoneans increasingly regard it as a language in its own right. Krio has grown in importance since independence. The president speaks it at public meetings; the radio broadcasts programmes in Krio; and plays are regularly performed in the language. Although English is the official language used in the educational system and in formal social settings, Krio is the language of everyday life. While it is customary to speak of ethnic divisions, there are also many factors contributing to ethnic integration in Sierra Leone. There are broad cultural similarities among the indigenous ethnic groups. Intermarriage is common. The Krio language is a unifying factor, and many individuals speak two or more of the indigenous languages. Christianity and Islam cross ethnic boundaries, as do the traditional secret societies - Poro, Gbangbani, Bondo, etc. While the various ethnic groups are in competition, as is true everywhere, there is little ethnic strife in Sierra Leone as compared to many other countries.

The History of Sierra Leone

The early history of Sierra Leone can be understood in terms of waves of migration. The Limba were probably the first people to enter the country, judging by their language which is a "linguistic isolate", not closely related to any other African language. The second wave consisted of speakers of languages in the West Atlantic group - Temne, Sherbro, Krim, Gola, and Kissi. West Atlantic peoples made the "nomoli", the grotesque stone figures sometimes found by farmers digging in their fields. The final wave consisted of the speakers of Mande language - the Mende, Loko, Koranko, Yalunka, Susu, Kono, and Vai - who entered Sierra Leone within the last six hundred years. During Europe's Middle Ages, Sierra Leone lay on the periphery of the Mali Empire, centered to the northeast around the Great Bend of the Niger River. The emperors of Mali controlled the rich trading centres of Gao and Timbuktu, where Arab camel caravans arriving from North Africa exchanged swords, spices, silks, and other luxuries for gold, slaves, ivory and kola nuts, products of the forest region farther south. The Mandinka (Mandingo) people, the ruling group in Mali, entered Sierra Leone as early as the 1200's as merchants, blacksmiths, Islamic scholars, and scribes. They also led conquering armies, especially during the "Mane Invasion" about 1540. The Mandinka gradually integrated with the local people, but their culture left an indelible mark. The rituals and garments of kingship; the court music of the balanji and kora; and common family names like Mansaray, Conteh, Sesay, and Turay all come from the Mandinka. The Portuguese inaugurated Europe's "Age of Discovery" by sending sailing expeditions down the coast of West Africa. In 1462, Pedro da Sintra mapped a mountainous peninsula marking the entrance to a great harbour, calling it Serra Lyoa, or "Lion Mountain". The Portuguese played a major role in Sierra Leone for the next two centuries. First to come were official merchants trading under license from the Portuguese Crown; but Lanados, or "ship jumpers", soon took up residence and married local women. In time, a whole tribe of Afro-Portuguese, called "Filhos da Terra" ("Native Sons"), appeared. Their culture was a mixture of European and African influences - outwardly Catholic, but involving African rituals as well. Their language was the first creole speech in Sierra Leone - a hybrid of Portuguese and local African languages. The Afro-Portuguese settled on the Sierra Leone peninsula and as far upriver as Port Loko. They acted as intermediaries in the trade between Africans and Europeans. Their language, widely used for trade, has left many Portuguese -derived words in Sierra Leone's indigenous languages. The Afro-Portuguese were later absorbed into the local population as Britain gained ascendancy in the coastal trade. The British dominated the Atlantic slave trade in the 18th century, transporting more slaves than all the other European powers combined. During that period, Bunce Island owned by British firms, was the largest slave trade operation in the Sierra Leone River (now, the Freetown harbour). From about 1750, Bunce Island specialized in supplying slaves to South Carolina and Georgia, where American rice planters were willing to pay high prices for slaves coming from Sierra Leone with rice-growing experience. South of the Sierra Leone River, in the Sherbro area, a newly established group of Afro-English people dominated the costal trade, acting as intermediaries between the Africans and Europeans. Like the Afro-Portuguese before them, this new group - with names like Tucker, Rogers Caulker, and Cleveland - possessed a mixed language and culture. The roots of Krio date to this period, when a hybrid language, drawing on the speech of English sailors and African merchants, became the lingua franca of the coastal trade. The history of Sierra Leone took a decisive turn with the establishment of Freetown, a settlement for freed slaves on the Sierra Leone peninsula. The British brought four quite distinct groups of freed slaves to Sierra Leone. The Black Poor, former domestic servants who were freed when the courts forbade slavery on British soil, came in 1787. The Nova Scotians, former North American slaves who fought for the British during the American Revolution, came in 1792. The Maroons, escaped slaves who before their capture had led a free life in the mountains of Jamaica, came in 1800. But the last, and most important group, was the Recaptives, taken off slave ships captured by the British Navy after 1807, when Parliament prohibited the Atlantic slave trade. Having established their base in Freetown the Navy patrolled the African coast, bringing back captured slave vessels and releasing their human cargoes into the city. The Recaptives, who numbered more than fifty thousand, came form the whole western coast of Africa, but most especially Nigeria. The four groups gradually merged to form the Krio community. The British made Freetown a Crown Colony in 1808, and a steady stream of colonial administrators, teachers and missionaries came throughout the 19th century. By mid-century, the Krios proudly called their city the "Athens of West Africa". Fourah Bay College, founded in 1827, produced distinguished graduates who became the first Africans knighted by Queen Victoria. The Krios staffed the colonial civil service, entered the professions and the clergy, and engaged in large-scale business ventures linking Freetown with Britain and other parts of West Africa. The Krios regarded themselves as "British Africans" and, although fiercely loyal to the Crown, often came into conflict with the colonial authorities by demanding the full rights of British subjects. At the same time, they took a superior attitude to the indigenous people who were not exposed to Western civilization. Although the Krios emulated British society in every aspect of their public life, their domestic culture was a rich synthesis of European and African influences. English was reserved for formal occasions, but Krio was the language for family, close friends, and servants. The "Coast English" of the slave trade period, which formed the foundation of Krio, was enriched with new words and expressions brought by the freed slaves, especially the Yoruba from Nigeria, who formed the majority of the Recaptives. The Krios evolved an elaborate cuisine, secret societies, and ceremonies involving sacrifices to the ancestors, all drawing heavily on Yoruba culture. The British governors inn Freetown made treaties with the upcountry kings to protect the trade routes reaching the coast and to enhance Britain's role as peacemaker in local disputes. The British recognized the sovereignty of the interior rulers until 1896 when during Europe's "Scramble for Africa", they declared a "Protectorate" over the Sierra Leone hinterland. In 1898, the interior rebelled in a conflict known as the "Hut Tax War", because of the peoples' refusal to pay a house tax to support the colonial administration. The war was fought in two phases. In the north, Bai Bureh, the great Temne ruler, led warriors from several kingdoms in a long series of hit-and-run attacks on British forces, before finally succumbing to superior force. In the south, Mende warriors from numerous kingdoms, coordinated by the men's Poro Society, struck civilian targets - including British, American and Krio missionaries and traders - in an effort to purge the country of European influence. The British took ten months to suppress the rebellion and bring their new Protectorate under control. The Protectorate was governed under a system of "indirect rule", with local chiefs ruling in the traditional manner, but under the watchful eyes of British district commissioners. The British authorities broke up the large interior kingdoms and divided the Protectorate into many small "chiefdoms", each governed by a "paramount chief". They tried to select as chiefs individuals with some traditional authority, though they toppled all the kings who had fought openly against them. Each paramount chief received a ceremonial staff, and was granted the privilege of ruling for life. When a chief died, only members of the ruling house, descended through the male line from the first paramount chief selected by the British, would be qualified to stand for election by a "tribal authority" of local elders. In 1973, the British imposed a uniform system of "native administration", establishing such offices as treasury clerk, court clerk, bailiff, etc. In effect, the British created more than a hundred tiny monarchies, each with a paramount chief answerable, through a district commissioner, to the governor in Freetown. There were now two separate political entities - the Crown Colony (Freetown), under British administration, and the Protectorate (upcountry) under indirect rule. The British made efforts to bind the two together economically by building a railroad from Freetown into the interior, which was completed in 1914. This greatly facilitated the movement of people and goods between the coast and interior and helped to establish the Krio language as the lingua franca. But British rule was in many ways divisive and unprogressive. The British authorities disliked the Krios because of their constant demands, within the British legal framework, for just and equal treatment. They ridiculed the Krios' emulation of British society, and did nothing to help when the Lebanese, who came in the 1890s, gradually pushed the out of large-scale commerce. The British authorities claimed to favour the upcountry chiefs, who complained much less about government actions, but they were reluctant to provide Western education for the Protectorate. They established Bo School in 1906, but reserved it for the elite ("sons and nominees of chiefs"), and did not raise it to secondary school status until 1936. The British feared that if the Protectorate people were well educated, they would prove as troublesome as the Krios. The British began dismantling their colonial empire at the end of World War II. In Sierra Leone, the colonial authorities introduced constitutional proposals in 1947, aimed at moving the Crown Colony and Protectorate toward a unified administration. The proposals provided for a Legislative Council with a majority of Protectorate members making laws affecting both parts of Sierra Leone. The Krios, who were accustomed to a powerful voice in the Colony, were shcoked at these far-reaching proposals. They feared domination by the indigenous peoples of the Protectorate, who accounted for 98% of the population. Even the most progressive Krio leaders bitterly fought the proposals, managing to hold up their enactment for several years. But the Krios lost their battle to retain political prominence, and they would never again wield significant power.

Sierra Leone After Independence (1961 - 1992)

In 1961, Sierra Leone obtained its independence with a Westminster-style government like Canada and Australia, with a governor general, prime minister, and parliament. The first prime minister was Sir Milton Margai, a Mende and the first Protecotrate man to qualify as a medical doctor. The British had quickly assembled the new nation after World War II and then, just as quickly, left the scene, and the political confusion that erupted shortly after independence was due, in part, to inexperience with the country's new political institutions. Sir Milton Margai's time in power was remarkable free of political confrontation, but the atmosphere changed abruptly when Albert Margai, his younger brother, became prime minister after Miltons death in 1964. Albert Margai alienated many citizens by fostering an unprecedented level of official corruption, by orienting his Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) toward the south, and his own Mende in people, in particular, and by trying to amend the constitution to create a one-party state. During the 1967 general election, Albert Margai was strongly opposed by Siaka Stevens, leader of the All People's Congress (APC), a party oriented toward the north, especially the Limba and Temne. Margai and his cronies tried to rig the election, and the situation was made even more confusing because the constitution was not clear on whether the votes of the twelve paramount chiefs in parliament should be counted in forming a government. The governor general decided in favour of Stevens, but before he could take office, the military commander staged a coup, apparently intending to return Margai to power. Then a counter-coup by colonels and majors only a few hours later established a military government that ruled for one year. A second counter-coup by warrant officer in 1968 brought Stevens back from exile, and restored civilian government. Siaka Stevens ruled Sierra Leone for the next seventeen years, gradually focusing all political power on himself. In 1971, he introduced a republican constitution, providing for an executive presidency, and abolishing the post of governor general. In 1978, he brought in the one-party state under the banner of the APC, though he had opposed Albert Margai on the same issue ten years before. Steven's' time in office witnessed the rise of official corruption to levels unimaginable even during Albert Margai's years. The term "kleptocracy" was used jokingly, at first, but later, quite seriously, even in international news journals. In the early 1980s, virtually all of the country's major exports came under the control of a single businessman, an associate of Stevens, as foreign companies pulled out. Election violence became progressively worse as the opportunity for spoils in public life increased. After Stevens hosted the OAU conference in 1980, spending the country's entire foreign exchange reserves on prestige projects, and taking huge kickbacks from contractors, the country's economy fell into decline. In 1985, Stevens, then in his eighties, handed the APC party leadership and the presidency to Major General Joseph Saidu Momoh, the military force commander. The public was delighted at the change, and responded enthusiastically to Momoh's promise of a "New Order" in national life. But during his seven years in office, Momoh delayed making reforms, and the public grew weary of the continuing "kleptocracy". Moreover, Momoh undertook a strenuous structural adjustment programme demanded by the country's foreign donors, and the economy, already strained by years of official corruption, totally collapsed. There were repeated electricity blackouts and petrol and currency shortages. Civil service salaries went unpaid, and secretaries sat in government offices stripped bare of typewriters and desks. Even the paramount chiefs, the country's administrators at the local level, went unpaid for months at a time. Momoh finally attempted a decisive step in 1990, when he supported a return to multiparty democracy, and oversaw the writing of a new constitution. This would have been greeted with enormous popular approval early in his regime, but was now seen as too little too late. Most of the new parties that appeared after Momoh opened up the political process were led by corrupt former APC ministers who were investing their fortunes trying to retain power by wrapping themselves in new clothing. Sierra Leoneans saw "nothing new" in the multiparty system, and there was little interest in the elections expected at the end of 1992. But, before then, Momoh would be overthrown. Momoh's fatal error was joining other West African nations to form the ECOMOG force that intervened I Liberia's civil war. Sierra Leone had a long, undefended border with Liberia, and the army, politicized, under-equipped, and under-trained during decades of official corruption, would be useless for any significant military action. When well-armed guerrillas dispatched by Charles Taylor, the most powerful Liberian faction leader, crossed the border in March, 1991, Momoh was forced to recruit new soldiers at breakneck speed, including many urban youths who were disenchanted with their corrupt political leaders. Momoh's government predictably failed to provide these new troops with adequate logistical and medical support, and a political explosion was inevitable.

Sierra Leone's Collapse into Anarchy (1992-1996)

On April 29, 1992, young military officers in their twenties toppled Momoh's regime. Some climbed over the walls into State House, while other drove a truck mounting an antiaircraft gun trough the main gates. Troops throughout the city quickly joined in, and it was soon apparent that Momoh had been overthrown. Twenty-seven year old Captain Valentine Strasser emerged as the Chairman of the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC), the new head of state, and among his colleagues were several lieutenants, some as young as twenty-one. Strasser made a radio broadcast saying what all Sierra Leoneans knew to be true, that for twenty four years, "we have been ruled by an oppressive, corrupt, exploitative, and tribalistic bunch of crooks under the APC government. Sierra Leoneans were jubilant at the appearance of the NPRC. Since every middle-aged politician who had ever promised them positive change had let them down, they felt the youth deserved a chance to put an end to the culture of official corruption. But the NPRC ushered in a period of civil anarchy. When the young leaders in Freetown failed to set a standard of honesty, there was no controlling the young soldiers in the field who turned to looting towns and villages upcountry. And instead of cracking down on indiscipline, the NRPC blamed the atrocities on the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the ragtag Sierra Leone guerrilla movement initially backed by Charles Taylor. While the RUF was certainly guilty of its own share of attacks against civilians, government troops were no less involved. Sierra Leoneans were loath to accept that the regime that had toppled the hated APV could have collapse into anarchy, and the situation remained unclear for many people until early 1994, when traditional institutions rose up to protect civilians against government troops. When the paramount chiefs, the men's secret societies, and the traditional hunter/warriors faced off with government soldiers, Sierra Leoneans finally grasped that the problem went beyond just the RUF. The provincial towns of Bo and Kenema virtually seceded from the government, setting up their own local militias and cooperating with foreign troops from Nigeria and Guinea to ensue their protection. Sierra Leoneans began referring to those wreaking havoc in the interior as "sobels" - soldier-rebels - to indicate that the distinction between government soldiers and the RUF was hazy at best. The international community put heavy pressure on the NPRC to hand over to civilian rule, but it was the rise of people power that brought elections at the beginning of 1996. The NPRC held two "Consultative Conferences" to consider the issue of elections, one under Captain Strasser, and the other under Brigadier Bio, who overthrew him in the last months of the NPRC. During both conferences, civilians from all walks of life braved considerable risk to publicly demand elections. In the first round of election, civilians battled soldiers in the streets to protect their ballot boxes, and after that show of resolve, the second round went smoothly. When the election of a civilian president under a new multi-party constitution was finally proclaimed, Sierra Leoneans congratulated themselves at having achieved a change of government through their own collective courage and determination. Sierra Leoneans elected Ahmad Tejan Kabbah as president. Although representing the SLPP, the party traditionally oriented to the Mende, Kabbah brought northerners into his cabinet representing the PDP, the party that came second. This effort at establishing a broad-based government is important, but to rebuild his country, Kabbah must somehow demobilize the army, provide job training for disbanded troops, and create a small, dependable professional force. He must also resuscitate the economy and address the needs of a generation of youth deprived of their education and future. But, above all else, he must project an image of honesty in government for, without that he will never garner the time and popular support he needs to accomplish his many difficult tasks.


Looking back on Sierra Leone's collapse into anarchy, one can see that it was due largely to two factors. First was the manner in which the country got its independence. By imposing a new constitution, and then pulling out very soon thereafter, the British virtually invited corrupt politicians to change the system to suit their own purposes. Corrupt leaders found it easy to alter a constitution that never had time to acquire the aura of legitimacy political systems need to endure. But the second reason has to do with Sierra Leone's leaders themselves. By their blatant corruption, they destroyed respect for government. The young soldiers and RUG "rebels" who looted towns and villages were merely doing in a crude fashion what they had watched their leaders doing for years. If Sierra Leone is to rebuild, its leaders must recognize the moral implications of their actions, and citizens must become more actively involved in public affairs. But the fact that Sierra Leoneans confront huge problems in rebuilding their country should not blind us to the important assets they possess. While their original constitution was imposed on them, their new one results from their own historical experience since independence. They have shifted from a Westminster-style parliamentary system to a presidential system with a division of powers, hoping that the diffusion of political power will promote accountability. But they have also learned something about people power. The 1996 election was an entirely new development in national life - and election made by the people themselves against the wishes of powerful elements in their own government - and it threw up new leaders capable of challenging future governments as effectively as they have the NPRC. But Sierra Leone's most important asset is the fact that it actually is a nation, and not just an artificial construct. The indigenous ethnic groups share broadly similar cultures; there is no strife between Christians and Muslims; and intermarriage is common. The major ethnic groups live almost entirely within the country's borders, and the Krio language provides a common medium of political and social discourse across the whole nation. Moreover, we must recognize the Sierra Leone did not suffer a civil war, but a breakdown in law and order, and that that breakdown, as horrendous as it was, did not result in ethnic violence. All the building blocks for a successful nation are present - what is required is that Sierra Leoneans draw upon their collective experiences, of good and bad, to forge a workable government for themselves and their children.

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