The Sierra Leone Civil War

As a direct consequence of the abolitionist movement’s campaigns in Britain, the settlement called Freetown was founded 1787 for emancipated slaves. Initially consisting of the so-called black poor from Britain and Nova Scotia, it later would become home for the liberated Africans captured by the British anti-slavery squadron. Assuming status as a crown colony in 1808, Freetown was a relatively prosperous settlement with its citizens enjoying some of the highest standards of living in Africa.

Freetown, Sierra Leone 1803

This was especially true in relation to education owing to the presence since 1827 of Fourah Bay College, the first Western style university in West Africa. Sierra Leone would not take its present form until 1896 with the appropriation of Freetown’s hinterland as a British protectorate. As opposed to the Creole population in the colony of Freetown, the people inhabiting the protectorate had a low standard of living and engaged primarily in subsistence agriculture. Upon independence from Britain in 1961, Sierra Leone retained a division between the minority, urban Creole and the rural majority. The newly elected Prime Minister Milton Margai from the Protectorate would attempt to reconcile the differences, following a pragmatic and conservative pro-British policy. This would however prove to be a short-lived interregnum as Milton Margai died in 1964, his half-brother Charles Margai taking over the role of Prime Minister.

Siaka Stevens (1 Leone, 1974)

Siaka Stevens and his All People’s Congress (APC) would narrowly win the 1967 elections, establishing Sierra Leone as a republic in 1971 and himself as its president. His presidency would lay many of the proximate foundations for the later civil war, crucially weakening political institutions and government power through corruption and oppression. Following a referendum in 1978, Stevens turned Sierra Leone into a single-party state and would not retire until 1985 with the swearing in of Major-General Joseph Momoh. The new president would follow Steven’s kleptocratic way of governance, continuing the process of emasculating the Sierra Leonean state apparatus.

Following the coup d’état that had ended the life and reign of Liberia’s president William Tolbert in 1980, the country had been in the hands of a dictator named Samuel Doe. The Americo-Liberian political order that had ruled the country since it’s initial stages in the early 19th century had thus come to an end. The new order was despotic and heightened Liberia’s level of misgovernment, paving the way for the instability and factional strife that would set the stage for a protracted civil war.

Monrovia, Liberia

Supported financially by the United States, Doe had survived many attempted coups; this however would come to an end in 1989 when an investigative team uncovered gross financial mismanagement[1]. Liberian exiled college graduate – turned warlord Charles Taylor would in the same year launch an insurgency from neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire. He and his 100 men band, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), had received guerrilla training in Libya and were supported by Côte d’Ivoire’s president Félix Houphouët-Boigny[2]. Due to Doe’s repressive rule, Taylor faced no difficulties in recruiting insurgents, and in a spree of violence, he launched an offensive against the capital Monrovia in 1990. However the capital was under siege by another faction led by Prince Johnson who would in turn capture and kill the incumbent dictator.

Charles Taylor

After a Nigerian led intervention by the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) in Monrovia an interim unity government was installed. Taylor refused to take part in this unity government and set up a parallel regime in ‘Greater Liberia’ looting the rural areas for valuable commodities and signed commercial deals with Western companies[3]. With neighbouring Sierra Leone possessing some of the world’s largest diamond deposits, Charles Taylor sought to expand his commercial trading empire westwards to the diamond fields of Kono. The one-time army corporal and professional photographer Foday Sankoh had met Taylor in the Libyan training camps[4] and made his appearance on the 23rd of March 1991 as the head of the initial Revolutionary United Front (RUF) attack on Sierra Leone. Additional attacks followed soon thereafter in the easternmost section of the country and were followed by the opening of an additional front in the southern province. After years of corruption and mismanagement the Sierra Leonean regular army was inept at handling the escalating military situation and this would allow the rebel soldiers a free hand in the rural areas. Gaining control over the diamond fields, the RUF were given the means to purchase both weapons and drugs.

Diamond Exports (Source:

Crucial elements of the RUF combat operations, as recruitment was mainly done through the abduction of youth. Through violent initiation rituals aimed at alienating the recruits from their family or village community, the recruits were inducted into the guerrilla organisation and injected with narcotics during combat situations. After one year of unsuccessfully fighting the rebel forces, the incumbent APC regime was ousted through a coup d’état with a junta called the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) led by 27 year-old Captain Valentine Strasser[5]. The new regime would initially gain popularity by ending the cartels run by the APC’s business cronies that were keeping both petrol and rice prices high. They had inherited a thoroughly corrupt military, and the rebel forces had launched a campaign with the objective of stopping the harvest through the mutilation of civilians. The initial actions taken by the regime was to dismiss a significant proportion of the army’s senior ranking officers and replace them with a young and inexperienced cohort. Through a successful offensive dubbed ‘Operation Genesis’, the NPRC drove the rebel army to the easternmost Kailahun district, enabling the resumption of diamond mining operations, however the rebels would soon regain the territory, continuing the conflict in a seesaw fashion[6].

Valentine Strasser

With the financial situation of the military deteriorating due to the loss of external aid, soldiers were defecting en masse to the RUF, with the addition of civilian criminals imitating rebel behaviour in looting the adjacent areas. A new phenomenon did also appear; the soldiers would act as rebels by nightfall, pillaging their local communities.[7] At the end of 1995 the NPRC again held the upper hand after engaging a mercenary firm called Executive Outcomes (EO) to pacify the rebels.

Executive Outcomes

With domestic control established a move was made to hold elections and transfer power to civilian authorities. After an attempt to manipulate the process in his own favour, his deputy Brigadier Julius Bio overthrew Strasser in January 1996.[8] Despite rebel attempts to disrupt the elections with mutilation of victims’ limbs, they were held across Sierra Leone and by 1996 Ahmed Kabbah emerged as the country’s new president. A peace treaty between Sankoh’s RUF and Kabbah’s government were signed in Abidjan in November of that year, formally ending the war. Only six months later, after the withdrawal of EO, rebel forces under the leadership of Major Johnny Koroma ousted president Kabbah and installed a regime that he dubbed the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC). He declared that the RUF was now merged with the regular army and appointed its leader Sankoh vice-president of the AFRC. After ten months Nigerian led ECOMOG forces would again intervene in the conflict and drive the AFRC to its north-eastern heartlands, reinstating Kabbah. In terms of violence exerted against the civilian population the crescendo of the civil war would be initiated in January 1999 with the rebel offensive dubbed ‘Operation No Living Thing’. Despite being protected by a 15,000 strong Nigerian contingency[9] the rebel forces overmanned the capital and went on a two-week killing spree. Human Rights Watch published an account of the scenes playing out in Freetown: “Civilians were gunned down within their houses, rounded up and massacred on the streets, thrown from the upper floors of buildings, used as human shields, and burnt alive in cars and houses. They had their limbs hacked off with machetes, eyes gouged out with knives, hands smashed with hammers, and bodies burned with boiling water. Women and girls were systematically sexually abused, and children and young people abducted by the hundreds.”[10] The massacre would claim an estimated 20,000 civilian lives, with 700 Nigerian soldiers killed, but would also mobilise the international community to react. The United Nations Mission to Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) was sent to replace ECOMOG and a peace treaty was brokered and signed in July 1999 between president Kabbah and the RUF leader Sankoh.

British Intervention

The RUF would violate the peace treaty, but this sparked a British intervention in May 2000 that stabilised the situation and led to a cease-fire. Later that year hostilities again broke out, triggering an intervention by Guinean military forces. With the signing of the second Abuja Agreement in May 2001, the country stabilised and the Sierra Leonean president Kabbah could declare the civil war officially over on the 18th January 2002.

The Civil war had left at least 50,000 dead, tens of thousands displaced and a significant proportion of the population mutilated and crippled for the duration of their lifetime. Over a decade of fighting had ceased and what had once been one of Africa’s most developed states were left in complete shambles. The man substantially to blame for the human tragedy, Foday Sankoh, would suffer a peaceful death only 18 months later, an end he had denied to so many.

The questions posed by scholars following the conflict were substantially why and how this could take place in Sierra Leone. Two major causes sparked the conflict initially: the state’s institutional weakness after two decades of mismanagement and secondly the predatory action of external criminal militia organisations. The mercenary element of the RUF organisation cannot be overstated in regards to explaining their excessive violence. It also elucidates the organisation’s propensity to recruit child soldiers and the reason for why the conflict kept going for so long. As diamond mining is so lucrative, especially in the governance vacuum created by a war, the individual army units in the conflict had an incentive to prolong the conflict. This was especially true for the mercenary outfit known as the RUF, a proxy of the Liberian warlord Charles Taylor.

[1] Martin Meredith, The State of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence, (London: Free Press, 2006) p. 556

[2] Ibid., p. 557

[3] Ibid., p. 561

[4] Lansana Gberie, A Dirty War in West Africa: The R.U.F. and the Destruction of Sierra Leone, (London: Hurst & Company, 2005) p. 52

[5] Lansana Gberie, A Dirty War in West Africa, p. 70

[6] Ibid., p. 79

[7] Ibid., p. 81-82

[8] Ibid., p. 94

[9] Ibid., p. 121

[10] Human Rights Watch, Getting Away with Murder, Mutilation and Rape. (New York, 1999)

Recommended reading:

Executive Outcomes Founder Eeben Barlow’s Blog: Eeben Barlow’s Military and Security Blog

Lansana Gberie, A Dirty War in West Africa: The R.U.F. and the Destruction of Sierra Leone, (London: Hurst & Company, 2005)

Lansana Gberie, A Dirty War in West Africa


About J.F. Gjersø

PhD in International History, LSE.
This entry was posted in Contemporary History, Imperial History, Violence and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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