Archaeological research indicates that by AD 800 the use of iron had been introduced into what is now Sierra Leone and that by AD 1000 the coastal peoples were practicing agriculture. Beginning perhaps in the 13th century, migrants arrived from the more advanced savanna lands to the north and east.
European contact began in 1462 with the Portuguese explorer Pedro da Cintra, who gave the mountainous Peninsula the name Sierra Leone ("Lion Mountains"). From the 16th to the early 19th century, the region was raided for slaves for the Atlantic trade, and later in the 19th century, it was ravaged by African war leaders and slavers.
The colony of Sierra Leone was founded by British philanthropists to relieve the horrors of this slave trade. Granville Sharp, a leader in the movement to abolish slavery, planned it as a home for African slaves freed in England. In 1787, he sent out the first settlers to what he called "The Province of Freedom." In the following year, one of the Temne kings and his subordinate chiefs sold and ceded a strip of land on the north shore of the Sierra Leone Peninsula to Capt. John Taylor on behalf of the "free community of settlers, their heirs and successors, lately arrived from England, and under the protection of the British Government." A few years later, they were joined by settlers of African origin from England, Nova Scotia (freed slaves who, as loyalists, had fled the American Revolution), and Jamaica.
The Sierra Leone Company, of which Sharp was a director, was formed in 1791 to administer the settlement. The land did not prove as fertile as described, and the settlement was the victim of attacks by neighboring tribes and by a French squadron. The burden of defense and settlement proved too heavy for the company, and Sierra Leone was transferred to the crown in 1808. The colony received additions of land up to 1861 through various treaties of friendship and cession from the local chiefs.
After 1807, when the British Parliament passed an act making the slave trade illegal, the new colony was used as a base from which the act could be enforced. Beginning in 1808, hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of slaves were freed each year, most of them remaining in Sierra Leone. In 1896, a British protectorate was declared over the hinterland of Sierra Leone, which was separate from the colony. Revolts in 1898 were provoked mainly by attempts to extend British colonial jurisdiction into the protectorate.
A 1924 constitution provided for the election of three members to a Legislative Council on a restricted franchise, and the constitution of 1951 provided for an elected majority, resulting in African rule. In 1957, the Legislative Council was replaced by a House of Representatives, most members of which were elected, and the literacy requirement for voters was dropped. In 1958, Milton Margai became Sierra Leone's first prime minister; in 1960, he led a delegation to London to establish conditions for full independence.
Sierra Leone became an independent country within the Commonwealth of Nations on 27 April 1961. Milton Margai continued as prime minister until his death in 1964, when he was succeeded by his half-brother, Albert Margai, who held office until the national elections in March 1967. The outcome of the elections was disputed, but the All-People's Congress (APC)
claimed a plurality of the seats in the House of Representatives. Before Siaka Stevens, chairman of the APC, could take office as prime minister, he was ousted in a bloodless coup led by the army chief, Brig. David Lansana. Martial law was declared, and a National Reformation Council remained in control for 13 months, until 18 April 1968, when it was overthrown by the Anti-Corruption Revolutionary Movement, a military group that formed the National Interim Council. On 26 April 1968, Stevens was installed as prime minister of a civilian government. Continuing political unrest prompted the declaration of a state of emergency in 1970 and a ban on the newly created United Democratic Party, an opposition group whose leaders were arrested.
In 1971, after an abortive military coup which was suppressed with aid from Guinea, a new constitution was adopted. The country was declared a republic on 19 April 1971. Two days later, Siaka Stevens, then prime minister, became the nation's first president. National elections were held in May 1973, and the APC won a nearly unanimous victory following the decision of the opposition Sierra Leone People's Party to withdraw its candidates because of alleged electoral irregularities. An alleged plot to overthrow Stevens failed in 1974, and in March 1976, he was elected without opposition for a second five-year term as president. In 1978, a new constitution was adopted, making the country a one-party state.
An economic slowdown, coupled with revelations of government corruption, led to a general strike in September 1981, called by the Sierra Leone Labour Congress; some labor leaders and other government critics were temporarily detained under emergency regulations, but the government met a key demand of the strikers by moving to reduce the prices of basic commodities. Violence and irregularities marked the parliamentary elections held in 1982, which were limited to the APC.
Stevens did not run for reelection as president in 1985, yielding power to his handpicked successor, Maj. Gen. Joseph Saidu Momoh, the armed forces commander, whose nomination by the APC was ratified in his unopposed election in October 1985. Parliamentary elections were held in May 1986. Following an alleged attempt to assassinate Momoh in March 1987, over 60 persons were arrested, including First Vice-President Francis Minah, who was removed from office. An extensive reshuffling of the cabinet followed. Further reports of alleged coup attempts followed.
In April 1991, Sierra Leone was invaded from Liberia by forces commanded by Liberian rebel, Charles Taylor. Domestic support within Sierra Leone mounted and by 29 April 1992, Momoh was overthrown in a military coup. Momoh fled to Guinea. A National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) was created but, shortly afterward, on 2 May, the head of the five-member junta, Lt. Col. Yahya, was arrested by his colleagues and replaced by Capt. Valentine Strasser, who was formally designated head of state.
The Strasser government soon limited the status of the 1991 constitution by a series of decrees and public notices. It also imposed a number of laws limiting political freedoms. The NPRC dissolved parliament and political parties. They ruled by decree. Strasser talked of returning Sierra Leone to multiparty democracy. His main goal was to end the fighting in the southeast where the forces of the National Patriot Front of Liberia and Sierra Leone dissidents were engaging a less-than-committed Sierra Leone armed force. Forces from the ECOWAS Monitoring Group sought to create a buffer along the boundary between the two countries. The rebellion led by Foday Sankoh of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) simmered throughout 1993, although it seemed to falter as the Liberian rebels across the border lost ground. Still the military situation became stalemated. In November 1993, Strasser announced a unilateral cease-fire and an amnesty for rebels.
Through 1992 and 1993, Strasser used the security situation to consolidate his power. In December 1992, government executed 26 alleged coup plotters from the Momoh government. In mid-1993, Strasser arrested his vice president, Capt. Solomon Musa.
The NPRC established a Supreme Council of State, including NPRC members, other military officers and one civilian. Both bodies formulate government policy. Day-by-day operations were overseen by department secretaries who together comprised the cabinet.
In November 1993, Strasser issued a timetable for a transition to democracy to culminate in general elections in late 1995. A month later, the NPRC released a "Working Document on the Constitution" to serve as the basis for public debates leading to a constitutional referendum in May 1995. However, Deputy Brigadier General Julius Maada Brio ousted Strasser in 1996 and provided him safe conduct out of the country. Presidential and parliamentary elections took place in February 1996, but were opposed violently by rebel forces resulting in 27 deaths. Neither candidate, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah (United Peoples Party) or Dr. John Karefa-Smart, received a majority of the vote and a runoff election was held on 15 March 1996. Kabbah won the election with 59.4% of the vote.
In May 1997, Major Johnny Paul Koromah of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) overthrew Kabbah. Clashes between the rebels and Nigerian troops followed, forcing 12,000 Freetown residents to flee the capital. With ECOMOG's support, President Kabbah returned from exile on March 10,1998. However, rebel forces remained firmly in control of the north, the Kono diamond field, and areas along the Liberian border.
A violent rebel offensive in January 1999 led by the AFRC and Revolutionary United Front (RUF) forced the evacuation of diplomatic and foreign aid personnel from Freetown. Between 3,000 to 5,000 residents were killed, 150,000 dislocated, and 20% of Freetown was destroyed. Rebels amputated the hands and feet of thousands of civilians "to send a message" to the government. Human rights reports documented unspeakable abuses on all sides. The attack was repelled, but rebels gained control of two-thirds of the country.
In March 1999, President Kabbah was forced to grant temporary amnesty to Corporal Foday Sankoh, leader of the RUF. Sankoh received four ministerial positions and three deputies, bringing the rebel presence in government to seven. Peace talks resumed, and a cease-fire was signed in May. In July, Jesse Jackson and ECOWAS chairman, Gnassingbe Eyadema, were present at the signing of the Lomé Peace Accord.
Until May 2000, it appeared that the accords might be implemented. In October 1999, Foday Sankoh and Johnny Paul Koroma, returned to Sierra Leone to join the government. However, Sankoh criticized Kabbah for not offering the former rebels the ministries of justice, finance, or foreign affairs in the new unity government. The Lomé agreement specified at least one senior ministry for the rebels. In December 1999, ECOMOG forces began their withdrawal to be replaced by 11,000 UN observer troops (UNAMSIL), which eventually reached a troop strength of 17,000.
In early May 2000, the RUF resumed the war, seized 500 UN personnel, and advanced to within 25 miles of the capital. On May 17, Foday Sankoh was captured. Liberian president Charles Taylor, a supporter of the RUF, helped obtain the release of some of the peacekeepers, but insisted that Sankoh be part of the solution to the war. By June 2000, the rebels were willing to trade their remaining captives for Sankoh's release, however the trade never materialized as a contingent of British, ECOMOG, and UN troops under UNAMSIL routed the RUF and other armed groups, resulting in a negotiated cease-fire and peace agreement, which became fully effective in January 2002. President Kabbah and his party won overwhelming victories at the presidential and parliamentary polls that followed on 14 May 2002.
Kabbah has conducted an ambitious restructuring and downsizing of the army and security forces, and has begun prosecuting war crimes offenders under the UN Special Court. With RUF leader Foday Sankoh in prison, the RUF has cooperated, although an unsuccessful raid on an armory outside Freetown in January 2003 was thought to be linked to Johnny Paul Koroma. An 18 January police raid on Koroma's residence failed, and he remained at large. In October 2002, Kabbah established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which has been slow in getting off the mark. While the main goal of the TRC is emotional healing, the TRC's mandate—even with a six-month extension—expires in April 2004. By February 2003, some 1,400 people had provided testimony containing information about 3,000 victims who had suffered more than 4,000 violations, including 1,000 deaths and 200 cases of rape and sexual abuse. One-third of the respondents were women and about 10% were children.
Meanwhile, Kabbah has been preocupied with the declining number of peacekeepers in the country juxtaposed with escalating civil wars in Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire. In December 2002, UNAMSIL completed the first phase of its downsizing, withdrawing some 600 soldiers in keeping with its Security Council mandate. Another 4,500 troops were scheduled to withdraw by the end of May 2003, and by December 2003; only 2,000 UNAMSIL troops will remain in the country, placing the burden of security operations on the government. In February 2003, some 300 Gurkha soldiers (Nepalese) from the British army's 2nd battalion Royal Gurkha Rifles arrived in Sierra Leone to repel cross-border incursions from rebels and Liberian army units. However, thousands of Liberian refugees have crossed the border into Sierra Leone, and Liberian and Sierra Leonean refugees were being repatriated from Cote d'Ivoire. In May 2003, authorities in Liberia claimed to have produced the corpse of Col. Mosquito, the ruthless RUF bush commander, who allegedly had joined rebels fighting against Liberian president, Charles Taylor.