Sierra Leone is blessed as a source of diamonds, gold, titanium, and bauxite, yet cursed to the corruption and conflict that surrounds rich natural resources. During the 1990’s, war has claimed over 10,000 lives and forced as many as two million people to flee the conflict zones, creating a long-term refugee crisis within Sierra Leone and in neighboring Guinea and Liberia and creating new rebel recruits.
After banning slavery, England became a haven for runaway slaves. To deal with the influx of freed slaves, England established a colony in Sierra Leone and shipped the Africans there. Having been exposed to European society these “creoles” became a privileged class in Sierra Leone, often acting as proxies for British and Lebanese merchants who controlled the colony and exploiting the native peoples.
However, deposed President Kabbah with the support of West African troops and British mercenaries reclaimed power in 1998 and soon reached a peace accord with the RUF. The U.N. has deployed a large peacekeeping force of more than 12,000 troops. In response to a hostage situation and continuing threats of rebel attacks on Freetown, Britain has sent its own troops to assist government forces.
In 1961, Britain divested the colony and Sierra Leone became independent. In the ensuing years the government became increasingly corrupt and the country became a base for crime, gambling, and gold and diamond smuggling to the detriment of the citizens. In 1967, Syaka Stevens was elected as a progressive reformer, which threatened foreign interests in Sierra Leone. He was overthrown in a military coup, but returned to power in 1971 after the Sergeant’s Revolt in 1968. Stevens declared Sierra Leone a republic and became its president.
By the early 1980’s, the nation’s economy had deteriorated severely, spawning opposition groups and dissent. Illegal income from smuggling was ten times the income from official exports. In 1987 Joseph Momoh assumed the presidency. With the economy in shambles and corruption rampant, rebel forces became increasingly active, striking from bases in neighboring Liberia and Burkina Faso. In 1991, Momoh allowed deployment of troops from Nigeria and Guinea into Sierra Leone to help stop rebel advances.
In 1992, a military coup brought Valentine Strasser to power and imposed a repressive regime under the Supreme Council of State and hired South African mercenaries to win back valuable gold and diamond mining regions that had fallen under control of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels. The RUF initially received support from the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, led by Charles Taylor. Strasser was deposed in 1996 and elections were held. President Kabbah was soon overthrown by Major Johnny Paul Koroma who established the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), and invited the RUF to join the junta.