A turbulent country in a turbulent region rich in mineral resources and ethnic diversity, Sierra Leone was an important 18th century hub of the Atlantic slave trade and the legacy of this industry lived on when in 1792 Freetown was founded by the Sierra Leone Company as a home for formerly enslaved African-Americans. In 1808 Freetown became a British Colony, and in 1896 the interior of the country was incorporated into the British Protectorate. Post-colonial Sierra Leone was formed by the combining of Free Town and the ‘protected’ interior in 1961.
First Sierra Leonian Prime Minister Milton Margai was generally respected and had help engineer a violence free transition from colonial rule. However, upon his death in 1964 the country entered period of instability. Three military coups took place between 1967 and 68 each professing (and failing) to restore the democratic process. Siaka Stevens – a strong proponent of multi-party politics – took power (for the second time in 1968) and held the Prime Minister until 1971. An attempted coup in 1971 enabled Stevens to declare Sierra Leone a Republic and appoint himself President. Several coups were attempted, rebuffed and their alleged protagonists executed in the 1970s.
Stevens retired in 1985 after being in power for 18 years but continued as Chairman of the ruling All Peoples Congress Party. His successor as President Major General Joseph Saidu Momoh was the loyal head of the armed forces - criticisms followed that Momoh was simply perpetuating Steven’s rule. An attempted coup in 1987 led to the arrest and exectution of its alleged participants – including the then Vice President Francis Minah.
Pressure for multi-party democracy led to the reinstatement of an active political opposition in 1991. However, soon after in 1992 civil war broke out both in opposition to government corruption, abuse of power, and as a means to gain access to the country’s diamond resources. The brutal Liberian civil war played an undeniable role in spreading violence across the border – Charles Taylor (the head of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia) reportedly helped form the Revolutionary United Front under Foday Sankoh. The RUF attacked in 1991, and had soon overrun the cash-crop and diamond mining areas of the Eastern portion of the country.
In 1992 another coup removed the APC from rule, replacing with the National Provisional Ruling Council headed by Valentine Strasser. The NPRC junta immediately suspended the 1991 Constitution, declared a state of emergency, banned all political parties, limited freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and enacted a rule-by-decree policy, in which soldiers were granted unlimited powers of administrative detention without charge or trial, and challenges against such detentions in court were precluded. The NPRC proclaimed its intention to return Sierra Leone to democracy by 1996, but was even less effective that the APC at repelling the RUF. The NPRC resorted to employing mercenaries in driving the RUF from the diamond producing Eastern regions.
A coup by Brigadier General Julius Maada Bio led to the reinstatement of the constitution and the election of Ahmad Tejan Kabbah - the candidate of the Sierra Leone People's Party. After a further coup it took an invasion by the Nigerian forces of ECOMOG to return Kabbah to power. In 1999 6,000 UN peacekeepers were deployed, and this number was increased to 11,000 in 2000.
British troops were deployed in Operation Palliser, originally simply to evacuate foreign nationals. However, the British exceeded their original mandate, and took full military action to finally defeat the RUF rebels and restore order. The British were the catalyst for the ceasefire that ended the civil war. Elements of the British Army, together with administrators and politicians, remain in Sierra Leone to this day, helping train the armed forces, improve the infrastructure of the country and administer financial and material aid. Tony Blair is regarded as a hero by the people of Sierra Leone, many of whom are keen for more British involvement. The current President was elected in a run-off after elections in 2007.