The Sierra Leone river, with a natural harbour at its mouth where Freetown now stands, is one of the places where slaving ships of the European nations regularly put in to trade with local rulers for their transatlantic cargo. But it is also the site selected by a British abolitionist, Granville Sharp, for a practical experiment in philanthropy.
In the 1780s the number of freed slaves in London is growing, as a result of actions such as Sharp’s in the 1772 case of James Somerset. The question is where they should best live and be employed. Sharp’s answer is that they should settle in the continent from which they or their ancestors came.
By agreement with a local chief of the Temne tribe, known to the British as King Tom, twenty miles of hilly coast are secured for the purpose (they lie between the mouths of two notorious slaving rivers, the Sierra Leone and the Sherbro). Here there arrives from London, in 1787, a naval vessel carrying 331 freed slaves, 41 of them women, and – somewhat confusing the issue in philanthropic terms – 60 white London prostitutes.
The experiment gets off to a disastrous start. Half the settlers die in the first year. Several of the freed slaves opt for a prosperous new life working for local slave traders. And King Tom’s successor, King Jemmy, attacks and burns the settlement in 1789.
But it is rebuilt on a new site, and is given the name Freetown. A corner is turned with the arrival of 1000 freed slaves from Nova Scotia and other black settlers from Jamaica, and with efficient administration from 1794 by a new governor, Zachary Macaulay.
The future of the settlement becomes secure when the British government, after abolishing the slave trade in 1807, takes responsibility for Sierra Leone in 1808 as a base in the campaign against slaving ships. It is also used as a refuge for slaves freed by naval action in the Atlantic. Known as ‘recaptives’, as many as 50,000 are brought in British vessels to Freetown during the next half century.
Captured by slave traders in regions throughout west Africa, the recaptives have not even a common language. Anglican and Methodist missionaries in Freetown achieve the task of providing them with a shared culture, in the form of the English language and Christianity.
The most famous of the recaptives demonstrates the point. Samuel Crowther, married to an African woman released from the same slave ship as himself, becomes the first African to be ordained an Anglican priest (a distinction which brings him an audience with Queen Victoria in 1851). Crowther spends the last thirty years of his life as bishop of a vast diocese, centred on Lagos and known simply as the Niger territory.
Protectorate: AD 1896-1961
During the 19th century the territory of the colony around Freetown remains small, though treaties of friendship are made with neighbouring chiefs along the coast. However the colonial scramble for Africa, beginning in the 1880s, makes the British government realise that a deeper hinterland is essential if the valuable port of Freetown is to remain viable. There is danger of encirclement by the French, busily extending their colony of Guinea to the east of Sierra Leone.
During the 1890s frontiers are agreed with French Guinea and with independent Liberia to the south. In 1896 Britain declares a protectorate over the entire region within these frontiers.
The imposition of a protectorate enrages many of the inland chiefs, unconsulted on the matter, and leads to an uprising in 1898. In the long term the chiefs retain much of their local authority under the overall British administration, and some of their number are appointed to the legislative council in Freetown. Similarly a few descendants of the original freed slaves, known locally as Creoles, are elected to the council.
After World War II this token political involvement is widely seen as inadequate. Internal self-government based on universal suffrage is introduced in 1951. In 1961 Sierra Leone becomes an independent state within the Commonwealth.
Independence: from AD 1961
An initial few years as a functioning democracy end with the election in 1967 of an opposition party led by Siaka Stevens. From this point Sierra Leone declines into a long era of repressive rule, military coups and – by the end of the century – terrifying and violent anarchy.
Siaka Stevens remains in control for eighteen years by dismantling the country’s checks on the abuses of power. From 1971 Sierra Leone is a republic with himself as executive president. From 1978 it is a one-party state, increasingly crippled by high-level corruption (the nation has considerable wealth of a kind easy to misappropriate, in the form of diamonds).
In 1985 Stevens retires and nominates the head of the army, Joseph Momoh, as his successor. Corruption and economic decay continue, until a coup topples Momoh in 1992. The result is a military council led by a 29-year-old captain, Valentine Strasser.
Sierra Leone’s problems are compounded by a rebel guerrilla force, the RUF (Revolutionary United Front). From 1991 the RUF, led by Foday Sankoh, launches attacks from bases in Liberia against the southern regions of Sierra Leone. Strasser, while trying to cope with the steady advance of the guerrillas, claims to be about to return the country to civilian rule. But before doing so he is himself toppled in another military coup, in January 1996.
Election and anarchy: AD 1996-1999
The new military junta honours the existing plan for imminent elections. They are held in February 1996 and a civilian, Ahmad Kabbah, becomes president. The junta hands power over to him an orderly fashion but a year later, in May 1997, Kabbah is removed from office in a third military coup. The leader on this occasion, Johnny Koroma, declares himself head of state.
Neighbouring nations, led by Nigeria, now take a hand. Troops arrive to restore Kabbah, the elected president. But by this time Sierra Leone is sinking into a violent anarchy almost matching the recent horrors in Rwanda.
Thugs supporting the two rebel leaders, Sankoh and Koroma, roam country districts wielding machetes to sever limbs (often of children) in a campaign of terror which forms part of an attempt to grab the nation’s diamonds.
By June 1997 Koroma and Sankoh are partners, with Sankoh accepting a role in Koroma’s military government. But subsequent events bring very rapid changes. In February 1998 Nigerian forces expel Koroma from Freetown and reinstate the legitimate president, Ahmad Kabbah. In January 1999 Sankoh and the RUF drive Kabbah once again from his capital city, while civil war between the factions continues elsewhere in the country.
The Lome agreement: AD 1999
In July 1999 Kabbah and Sankoh reach a controversial peace agreement in Lomé, the capital of Togo, putting in place arrangements for a shared government. The proposal is that Sankoh will occupy the role of vice-president to Kabbah’s presidency. He will also have the potentially lucrative post of head of the nation’s Mineral Resources Commission. An amnesty is at the same time agreed for Koroma and his rebel troops.
Foreign governments (including Britain, the former colonial power) support the compromise. But many regard with dismay a deal which places Sierra Leone’s precious diamonds in hands bloodied by so many atrocities.
In October 1999 the two rebel leaders, Sankoh and Koroma, arrive together in Freetown. They surprise everyone by apologizing for the atrocities committed during the eight years of civil war and asking for forgiveness.
The performance may not be entirely convincing. But the eagerness of the rest of the world to secure the fragile treaty is evident later in the same month, when the UN security council commits 6000 troops to a peace-keeping role in Sierra Leone. One of the rebel leaders, Foday Sankoh, is given a ministerial position in the government under the power-sharing agreement. But he fails to fulfil his pledge to disarm his troops in the RUF.
In the early months of 2000 the situation again spirals out of control in a renewal of civil war. There is panic as the violent men of the RUF move inexorably towards the capital, Freetown. In May the rebels seize 300 members of the UN force, which is too weak to oppose them. Britain, the ex-colonial power, sends 700 paratroops and two warships to safeguard the evacuation of foreigners.
A few days later the situation is, at least temporarily, transformed. A pro-government demonstration turns violent outside the Freetown house of Foday Sankoh. He escapes over his garden wall and vanishes – until being discovered in hiding ten days later. Amid public jubilation, he is paraded through the streets and then thrown into gaol.
Nevertheless the situation remains tense and uncertain. The RUF still controls the diamond mines in the north and east of the country. And the other rebel leader, Johnny Koroma, while proclaiming his intention of cooperating with the government (and indeed chairing the National Peace Council), has a track record of violent insurrection.
During 2001 some 60% of the country remains in the hands of the brutal RUF, who have a habit of terrorizing local populations by chopping off the limbs of children. They are supported by the corrupt president of neighbouring Liberia, Charles Taylor, who like everyone wants a share of Sierra Leone’s diamond wealth.
A new beginning: AD 2002
By 2002 there is in Sierra Leone an international peace-keeping force of 17,500 troops (the largest in the world at the time). In January a new peace treaty is signed between President Kabbah and the rebel forces. The war is declared to be over, and a general election is planned. The election, held in May, provides the most promising opportunity for many years of a genuine new beginning for Sierra Leone. President Kabbah wins a massive 70% of the vote. The RUF, at 1.7%, fails to win a single seat (it is by now under a new leader, Pallo Bangura, with Foday Sankoh in gaol awaiting trial on many charges of murder). The other rebel leader, Paul Koroma, wins a mere two seats. President Kabbah has at last a real chance of returning his country to peaceful rule.