A civil war that has raged for seven years in the small West African country of Sierra Leone has turned increasingly brutal. (1, p.1) Rebels are mutilating civilians without much response from the international community. A strong Nigerian contingency has tried to suppress the rebellion, but the rebels continue to cause major trouble in Sierra Leone. The rebels overthrew President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. However, President Kabbah returned to office on March 10, 1998 to face the task of restoring order to a demoralized population and a disorganized and severely damaged economy. (2, p.1)
The country of Sierra Leone is located in western Africa between the countries of Guinea and Liberia, and it borders the North Atlantic Ocean. The actual area of Sierra Leone is slightly smaller than the U.S. state of South Carolina. The population of Sierra Leone is about 5,080,000 people. Its legal system is based on English law and customary laws indigenous to local tribes. Sierra Leone’s government consists of three branches, the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the judicial branch.
President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah was inaugurated March 29, 1996, and President Kabbah is both the chief of state and the head of government. The president’s tenure of office is limited to two five-year terms.
On May 25, 1997, disgruntled army personnel under the command of Major Johnny Paul Koroma overthrew the democratically elected government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. (2, p.1) After President Kabbah was overthrown, he fled to exile in the neighboring country of Guinea. In Guinea, President Kabbah remained in the city of Conakry. The coup leader, a relatively unknown army major named Johnny Paul Koroma, declared himself the new head of state and invited fellow rebel leader Foday Sankoh to join the government. (3, p.1) During the rebel invasion, the rebels seized the legislature, burned the national treasury, and raided the capital of Freetown. Once the coup was in control of the capital, the leaders imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew and closed the country’s borders. The coup also shut down the Lungi International Airport, which was under the control of troops belonging to the West African peacekeeping force ECOMOG.
The coup began the invasion Sunday, when about 20 heavily armed men stormed Freetown’s maximum security prison and freed an estimated 600 inmates. Some of the inmates included soldiers jailed for plotting against President Kabbah.
The rebels took over the national assembly after fighting with Nigerian troops near the presidential office complex in Freetown. The Nigerian troops were stationed in the capital to help defend the civilian government against rebels. (3, p2)
Stray fire, including rocket-propelled grenades and mortar, hit the U.S. Embassy, about 200 yards from the national assembly building. The embassy suffered damage but there were no reports of injuries. Hospital officials reported that five civilians were killed elsewhere in the capital as gun battles raged most of the day. (3, p.2) From reports given by the U.S. State Department, two Americans were injured when their home was looted.
A coup spokesman accused the government of introducing tribalism, and reportedly called for the return to Sierra Leone of Foday Sankoh, a leader of the rebel Revolutionary United Front, and Capt. Solomon Musa, a former deputy military leader linked to coup allegations in 1993. The coup spokesman then reported that the army had seized parliament and the government offices, as well as the radio and television stations. He said that a new government would be announced at the end of the day. (4, p.2)
Mutinous soldiers who ousted the Sierra Leone’s civilian government scrapped the constitution and banned political parties. But the mutineers promised that the tiny West African nation would someday return to a “proper democracy.” (5, p.1) After the denouncing of Sierra Leone’s constitution, the American warship USS Kearsarge set sail toward the coast of Sierra Leone in case an evacuation of the estimated 400 U.S. citizens in Freetown was needed.
The mutinous Sierra Leone soldiers then attempted to expand their control of the country by commanding the country’s diamond region. While attempting to gain control over the precious diamond area of Sierra Leone, the rebels skirmished with a militia loyal to deposed President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah. During the continued fighting, many non-Sierra Leoneans residents took refuge in beachside hotels until they could get a flight of the country. The residents were flown across a wide river estuary to Lungi airport by helicopter. The Sierra Leone faction held one end of the airport, but the Nigerians were able to gain back the opposite end of the airport. A confrontation at the airport erupted as a shot was fired by one of the Sierra Leone soldiers as 392 evacuees were boarding a Boeing 747. (6, p.2) The Nigerians did receive support as a Nigerian C-130 Hercules landed with troops and supplies.
Soon after their confrontation with the Nigerian forces, the mutineers announced that they had joined forces with the Revolutionary United Front. The Revolutionary United Front had waged a five-year war against the government. The leaders of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) took command and assigned Koroma to a secondary role. Koroma had lost power to Foday Sankoh, leader of the RUF.
With the use of 15 U.S. military helicopters, about 900 Americans and citizens of other countries were airlifted to the deck of the USS Kearsarge, which was about 12 miles offshore. In scenes reminiscent of the U.S. evacuation of Saigon more than 20 years ago, the evacuation was one of bedlam and near-hysteria. (7, p.3) After the last people were airlifted from the U.S. Embassy, the place was stripped and looted of anything valuable.
The attempt to drive out the coup leaders continued with an increase in fighting. With heavy shelling from Nigerian gunboats, Freetown was hit extremely hard. Nigeria, Ghana and Guinea amassed many troops in Freetown and proved their willingness to use force to eliminate the rebel force. The Nigerian forces gained full control over the Lungi airport and began using it to bring in many reinforcements. Fighting was also heavy at the coup’s seafront headquarters and a nearby hotel where about 1,000 people from other West African countries fled during the coup. An evacuation of the people near the hotel was completed with the aid of U.S. troops. Shortly after the increased fighting in Freetown, Koroma established a 20-member ruling council. Koroma appointed the rebel leader Foday Sankoh as vice chairman. However, Sankoh’s group opposed the council and the council talks broke down before a final settlement of the 20-member council could be reached.
On June 8, 1997, members of Sierra Leone’s dissolved parliament met in defiance of a ban on political activity to denounce a 2-week-old military coup and called for the return of ousted civilian president Ahmed Tejan Kabbah. (8, p.1) Fifty members of the 80-seat parliament met in the capital of Freetown on June 8 where they unanimously approved a resolution calling on the military rulers to restore the constitution.
Since seizing power, the Koroma brothers and their supporters in the ruling Armed Forces Revolutionary Council had yet to bring stability to the capital. (8, p.2) Soldiers, many of them rebel fighters who poured in from the bush after Koroma’s coup, had marauded Freetown and harassed civilians. Fear of the troops had kept many residents from returning to work. (8, p.2)
The fighting in Sierra Leone continued through the entire year of 1997 to 1998. On February 11, 1998, the fighting intensifies as artillery shells pound Freetown once again. The eight-month political crisis turned into full-scale war in the small country of Sierra Leone. Nigerian-led troops backed by warplanes and heavy artillery were battling to push Sierra Leone’s unrecognized military leaders out of power and restore power to President Kabbah.
The Nigerian-led West African peacekeeping force slowly took back control of Freetown. On March 10, 1998, ten months after the military coup force Kabbah from power, President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah triumphantly returned to power in the battered city of Freetown in Sierra Leone. President Kabbah was greeted with grand martial music and a 21-gun salute.
With President Kabbah back at the head of government, many people faced criminal charges of collaborating with the coup. A former government minister and nine others were sentenced to death for collaborating with the bloody 1997 coup. The sentences pronounced in the High Court by Judge Bankole Rashid brought to 27 the number of civilians condemned to death by hanging in connection with the May 1997 coup and its aftermath. (9, p.1) Veteran politician Nancy Steele, 75, and two other women were among the 11 sentenced on Wednesday. Twenty-four soldiers were executed in public by firing squad after conviction by a court martial. Even with President Kabbah back in power, the violence and bloodshed continued in Sierra Leone.
In late December of 1998, more than 1,000 troops of the Nigerian-led West African peacekeeping force known as ECOMOG arrived in Freetown. Freetown was beginning to face a renewed threat from rebel forces. ECOMOG reinstated President Kabbah in March, but the intervention force had been embroiled in fighting with junta soldiers and their allies of the rebel Revolutionary United Front. (9, p.2) On December 22, artillery and small-arms fire were heard across the capital after a day of rebel attacks in the small neighboring town of Waterloo. Waterloo, 18 miles east of Freetown, was the closest the rebels had come to the capital, since President Kabbah was reinstated. ECOMOG troops raised security in the capital and set up checkpoints on the roads leading to the city of Freetown.
Rebel forces continue to fight ECOMOG troops in the capital city and advance throughout the city streets. Sam Bockarie, a rebel general, makes a statement to the press claiming that the rebels will once again seize control of Sierra Leone on New Year’s Day. In response to the threat, the Nigerian-led defense force flew reinforcements into Freetown on December 28, 1998. About 1,000 Nigerian troops were flown in to join the defense team. Defense coalition forces of about 14,000 soldiers were in the Freetown area. On January 1, 1999, the West African peacekeepers backed by Nigerian warplanes drove rebels from Port Loko, which is about 35 miles northeast of Freetown.
The rebels persisted with the fighting. Eventually on January 6, 1999, thousandths of people fled to the center of Freetown after a two-hour barrage on the outskirts of the city. The rebels attacked from their mountain hideouts and captured the main government office building and burned down the city’s police station. With the rebels pushing their assault to the center of Freetown, United Nations officials fled Sierra Leone’s capital.
On January 7, President Kabbah stated that he and rebel leader Foday Sankoh had agreed to an immediate cease-fire in the capital, Freetown. The peacekeepers did not fully trust the rebels, and on January 7, President Kabbah and his family were flown out of Freetown. The President and his family were moved to an ECOMOG military base near Freetown. The fighting continued throughout Sierra Leone dispute the cease-fire agreement promised by the rebel forces.
On January 14, the rebels again agreed to a conditional cease-fire in battles with a Nigerian-led peacekeeping force. Two hard weeks of fighting has left the capital of Freetown in complete ruins and caused a horrible humanitarian situation. Sam Bockarie is the deputy to imprisoned Revolutionary United Front rebel leader Foday Sankoh. Sam Bockarie warned that the fighting would continue if Sankoh was not released from prison or if Nigerian warplanes continue to attack rebel-held towns in the northern region of Sierra Leone. Sankoh was captured in late 1997 and was sentenced to death in October 1998. Dispute the plea, President Kabbah ruled out the possibility of Sankoh’s release. The rebels then continued the fight, which now is creating a famine due to the incredible lack of food for the people of Freetown. ECOMOG forces boosted their resistance, and finally drove the rebel forces into the surrounding hills. The rebels remained fighting in the hills creating pockets of resistance against the ECOMOG.
A summit meeting was held on January 28 with several key West African leaders to discuss the problem in Sierra Leone. The leaders decided to reverse their attempts of a military solution and try to negotiate through talks with the rebel leaders. Officials in the war-torn Sierra Leone said that at least 5,000 people were killed during the previous recent weeks of fighting.
Sierra Leone’s embattled President Kabbah appealed to his rebel foes on April 6 to join talks on ending the West African country’s long drawn conflict. (10, p.1) Kabbah told delegates at a three-day national consultative conference in Freetown that their message to the rebels must be that they halt their eight-year armed campaign. (10, p.1) Although Kabbah had repeatedly voiced his readiness for talks, he has also maintained in public statements that dialogue must go hand in hand with military pressure on the rebels. (10, p.2)
The rebels on April 13 laid siege to Kabala, the only major northern town that had not been hit by an offensive attack since the war began. The ECOMOG force repelled several waves of attacks from the rebel forces. Kabala is the cattle capital of Sierra Leone and the rebels cut off all food supply routes to and from the city. Kabala supplied about two thirds of the meat consumed in Freetown, and with the supply routes cut, the shortage of food in Freetown only will increase.
Following the three-day conference, peace activists demanded the government to pardon the jailed guerilla leader, Sankoh. The activists want the rebels to form their own political party. The peace activists are trying to establish a South African-style commission to investigate atrocities, compensate victims and possibly grant amnesty to perpetrators.
On April 17, Sierra Leone’s jailed rebel leader Foday Sankoh had been transferred from prison to United Nations custody ahead of his trip to Togo later for consultations with his followers. (11, p.1) Sankoh was jailed while appealing against a death sentence for treason and crimes against humanity. Sankoh’s talks with his guerrilla commanders in the northern Togolese town of Kara are seen as the most crucial step in efforts to end a prolonged conflict in Sierra Leone. (11, p.1)
As of April 20, some of the latest developments in Sierra Leone include the peace talks with rebel leader Foday Sankoh. The future of Sierra Leone is still up in the air. It seems the history of Sierra Leone takes a 180-degree turn every other week. This makes it hard to predict the events of Sierra Leone’s future. Hopefully, the peace talks will move forward and gain considerable progress. The Revolutionary United Front rebels are known for extreme cruelty to the civilian population, including rape, murder, forcing children to become fighters and chopping off arms and legs of villagers. The people responsible for these atrocities must be brought to justice. ECOMOG personnel have also been accused of crimes against humanity. Both sides must be investigated and punished equally. Sierra Leone has a great possibility of a prosperous future. They have a great location and natural resources. The future of Sierra Leone could be a great one. With the support of the international community, Sierra Leone will hopefully someday join the global market and prove to the world that man is capable of conquering great impediments and obstacles.
1. Nilsson, Ingrid,”Terror in Sierra Leone”,USA Today, Thursday, February 11, 1999, p. 13A.
2. Sierra Leone Homepage, Sierra Leone, www.odci.gov/factbook, p. 1-8.
4. World News Story Page, Armed Men Stage Coup Attempt in Sierra Leone, www.cnn.com/world, p. 1-4.
5. World News Story Page, Mutinous Soldiers Scrap Sierra Leone Constitution, www.cnn.com, p. 1-3.
6. World News Story Page, Sierra Leone Closes Its Borders as Mutineers Seize Control, www.cnn.com/world, p.1-5.
7. World News Story Page, Troops Reported Readying for a Strike into Sierra Leone, p. 1-5.
8. World News Story Page, Sierra Leone Parliament Defies Ban, Denounces Coup, www.cnn.com, p. 1-4.
9. World News Story Page, Eleven Civilians Condemned to Die for 1997 Coup in Sierra Leone, www.cnn.com, p. 1-4.
10. World News Story Page, S. Leone Leader Urges Rebels to Turn to Dialogue, www.cnn.com, p. 1-3.
World News Story Page, Sierra Leone Rebel Leaders in U.N. Custody, www.cnn.com, p. 1-3.