Aminatta Forna, who was raised in Sierra Leone and the UK, won the 2011
Commonwealth Writers’ Prize with her novel The Memory of Love. Sierra
Leone has the lowest per capita income in the Commonwealth, but its
economy has grown at 5.2% a year over 2007–11.
Joined Commonwealth: 1961
Population: 6,092,000 (2013)
GDP: p.c. growth: 0.5% p.a. 1990–2013
UN HDI: 2014: world ranking 183
Official language: English
Currency: leone (Le)
Area: 71,740 sq km
Capital city: Freetown
Population density (per sq. km): 85
The Republic of Sierra Leone (Portuguese for ‘Lion Mountain’) in West
Africa is bordered by Guinea to the north, Liberia to the south-east,
and the Atlantic to the south and west.
Freetown (capital, Western Province; pop. 836,600 in 2010), Bo
(Southern, 215,400), Kenema (Eastern, 169,900), Makeni (Northern,
102,600), Koidu (Eastern, 91,600), Lunsar (Northern, 23,900), Port Loko
(Northern, 22,700), Pandebu-Tokpombu (Eastern, 19,700), Kabala
(Northern, 18,800), Waterloo (Western, 17,800), Kailahun (Eastern,
17,500), Magburaka (Northern, 16,000), Segbwema (Eastern, 16,000),
Koindu (Eastern, 15,900) and Bonthe (Southern, 10,200).
There are 11,300 km of roads, eight per cent paved, but in poor repair;
secondary roads may be impassable in the rainy season. The railway
system (nearly 600 km in length) closed in 1974.
Freetown is the main port with a deep-water quay. There are smaller
ports at Pepel, Bonthe, Niti and Sulima. Several rivers are navigable by
Sierra Leone is a member of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of
States, African Union, Economic Community of West African States,
Non-Aligned Movement, Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, United
Nations and World Trade Organization.
Sierra Leone has some 402km of coast along the Atlantic Ocean, with
magnificent beaches. Apart from the hilly Freetown peninsula (officially
known as the Western Area), the coastal belt is flat, with a width of up
to 110km. The land rises to the Guinea highlands in the east, with
mountain peaks up to 1,917m. There are eight main rivers; the estuaries
of two of them can be navigated by ocean-going vessels.
Tropical and humid all year, but cooler on the coast. The dry season is
November to May, when the dusty harmattan wind blows from the Sahara;
the rainy season lasts the rest of the year.
The most significant environmental issues are depletion of natural
resources during the civil war; deforestation and soil exhaustion due to
over-harvesting of timber, expansion of cattle grazing, and
slash-and-burn agriculture; and overfishing.
Mangrove swamps occur along the coast, with thickly wooded hills on the
Freetown peninsula, and grasslands, woods and savannah on the interior
plains. The central inland area, formerly forested, has been cleared for
agriculture. Forest – including mahogany and teak – covers 37 per cent
of the land area, having declined at 0.7 per cent p.a. 1990–2010. Arable
land comprises 24 per cent and permanent cropland two per cent of the
total land area.
Large game animals are now rare, but the Kilimi National Park in the
north of the country has the largest concentration of chimpanzees in
West Africa. The park is also home to 12 other primate species,
including colobus monkeys, as well as rare large bongo antelopes and, in
the river margins, pygmy hippopotami. After the civil war a chimpanzee
sanctuary was established at Leicester in the Western Area. Some 17
mammal species and 14 bird species are thought to be endangered (2014).
The Bulom are the earliest known inhabitants of the territory, with the
Krim and Gola people arriving by AD 1400. The Mende and Temne settled in
the 15th century, and the Fulani moved into the northern region.
Around that time the Portuguese were exploring the coast – Pedro de
Cintra gave the country its present name in about 1462 – and built a
fort on the site of Freetown. Europeans traded along the coast without
formally establishing themselves. In 1787 Granville Sharp and other
British abolitionists settled 400 people, formerly slaves, on a strip of
land bought from Naimbana, a local chief. Over the following years more
settlers arrived, many of them freed slaves from Jamaica and Nova
Scotia. The British parliament declared the slave trade illegal in 1807,
and a British naval station was established at Freetown to intercept
slavers continuing to operate; people rescued from the slave-ships were
also settled in Sierra Leone. Freetown became a British colony in 1808
and the coastal and inland area a protectorate in 1896.
During the 19th century the colonial rulers forged administrative links
with The Gambia, the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and Lagos in Nigeria.
In 1863 a legislative council was created. It was progressively enlarged
and made more representative in 1924 and 1951, evolving in 1956 into the
House of Representatives. By 1957 most men were eligible to vote; women
who were taxpayers or owned property were also enfranchised. A new
constitution came into force in 1961, establishing formally a unicameral
parliament and Queen Elizabeth II as sovereign. On that basis Sierra
Leone became independent on 27 April 1961.
At independence, two main parties shared the votes in a multiparty
political system. First in office was the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP)
during 1962-67 under Sir Milton Margai. The 1967 elections were won by
the All People’s Congress (APC) under Dr Siaka Stevens. Almost
immediately, Stevens was arrested in a coup, followed days later by
another army coup which imposed military rule until the next year. Then,
after a further coup, Stevens was reinstated as prime minister.
In 1971, the country became a republic with Stevens as executive
president. The general election of 1973 was boycotted by the SLPP and
easily won by the APC, which also won the following elections in 1977
after a campaign which sparked violence. In 1978 the country became a
one-party state, led by the ruling APC. Single-party elections in 1982
were once again violent. In 1985 Major-General Joseph Momoh succeeded
Stevens as president. By the end of the 1980s, economic conditions were
continuing to deteriorate and there was a growing demand for
constitutional reform. The government responded by setting up a
constitutional review commission. The commission’s recommendation of a
return to a multiparty democratic system was overwhelmingly endorsed in
a referendum in August 1991.
A new constitution was adopted, allowing for a transition towards
multiparty elections. Political parties started to register in
preparation for elections.
Civil war The 1991 multiparty constitution was not, however,
implemented. Fighting with a rebel movement, the Revolutionary United
Front (RUF), which had started in March 1991, escalated, and there were
incursions from neighbouring Liberia, the RUF in the south of the
country being loosely in alliance with Liberian rebels.
In April 1992, Captain Valentine Strasser took control after a coup by
junior army officers, and the constitution was suspended. The war
escalated and, despite air and ground support from Nigeria, and troops
provided by Guinea, by 1995 at one point the government was in secure
control only of the capital. In January 1996, Strasser was overthrown by
his deputy Brigadier Julius Maada Bio.
Multiparty elections and peace Parliamentary and presidential elections
under the 1991 multiparty constitution were finally held in February
1996. Of the 68 parliamentary seats, the SLPP won 27, the United
National People’s Party (UNPP) 17, People’s Democratic Party 12, the APC
five, the National Unity Party four, the Democratic Centre Party three.
In a two-round presidential election the SLPP candidate, Ahmad Tejan
Kabbah, defeated UNPP’s Dr John Karefa-Smart and Kabbah was sworn in as
president at the end of March 1996.
In talks between the government and RUF leader Corporal Foday Sankoh,
agreement was reached in November 1996 to end the war that had caused
the displacement of 2 million people and over 10,000 deaths. The
agreement allowed the RUF to register as a political party and permitted
it access to the media. In 1997 RUF leader Sankoh was arrested while on
a visit to Nigeria.
In May 1997 the Kabbah government was overthrown in a military coup led
by Major Johnny Paul Koroma, but in October 1997, in a deal brokered by
ECOWAS in Conakry, Guinea, the rebel Armed Forces Revolutionary Council
(AFRC) regime agreed to a six-month transition to restore the legitimate
civilian government. Apart from a few skirmishes in the area of the
diamond mines, the transitional period was reasonably peaceful until
early February 1998 when renewed fighting broke out between Nigerian
peacekeeping troops and Koroma’s forces in Freetown and a few days
later, on 12 February, the Nigerians captured Freetown and detained many
members of the military regime, though not including Koroma himself.
After nine months in exile in Conakry, President Kabbah returned to
Freetown in March 1998. Parliament reconvened and about 50% of its
members attended. Within a few days thousands of people had returned to
their homes in Freetown.
In July 1998 the UN agreed to establish an observer mission to monitor
the military and security situation in the country and to advise the
government on the rebuilding of the police and security forces. Sankoh
was returned to Freetown from detention in Lagos to face charges of
treason and was sentenced to death in October 1998. On news of Sankoh’s
death sentence RUF and AFRC rebels launched a campaign of severe
brutality in the towns and villages they took over as they advanced
rapidly on Freetown and in January 1999 Nigerian troops halted their
advance very close to the capital. A wider peace agreement was signed in
July 1999, which included a power-sharing arrangement between Kabbah and
the RUF (with four RUF leaders appointed to ministerial portfolios in
November 1999), annulment of Sankoh’s death sentence and the release of
those sentenced for their role in the 1997 coup. UN Secretary-General
Kofi Annan recommended the deployment of 6,000 troops to Sierra Leone to
guarantee the peace agreement and this was increased to 11,000 on the
departure of the Nigerians in 2000.
In May 2000, as the UN peacekeepers moved into the diamondproducing
region and began to demobilise the rebels, the peace agreement collapsed
when the rebels took 500 UN troops hostage and fighting resumed between
the Sierra Leone Army and the rebels. Power-sharing ceased and Sankoh
was arrested, though the hostages were released unharmed in due course.
In July 2000 the UN resolved to ban trade in uncut diamonds from Sierra
Leone until the government had established an authentication system but
the illicit trade continued into 2001, when there were signs that the
ban was beginning to be effective.
In June 2004 special courts with Sierra Leonean and UNappointed judges
began trying those both on government and rebel sides of the civil war
accused of war crimes.
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