New Internationalist

Sierra Leone

Issue 322

New Internationalist 322 [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] April 2000

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SIERRA LEONE

The millennium celebrations for the residents of Freetown, capital of war-torn Sierra Leone, were muted. Not for them the wild parties that were taking place in many parts of the world. A curfew, which began at 9.00pm and ended at 7.00am, made sure of a sombre awakening to the new millennium.

But the more determined ones – those of a Christian persuasion – did not let the curfew deter them. They crammed into the colonial churches in Freetown before the nine o’clock deadline and worshipped until dawn. The strong Christian ethos, which formed the basis of the settlement of Freetown by freed blacks from Britain in 1787, was clearly in evidence in such trying times.

For the settlers, whose descendants are known today as the Creoles, the early days were full of conflicts with the indigenous peoples who objected to their presence. But the settlers had an advantage in that they were educated and were wise to the ways of Europeans. Naturally, they held the top jobs in the British colonial civil service and were also prominent in the professions. They were also well represented in the Legislative Council, through which the British governed the Colony of Freetown.

By the time of independence in April 1961, things had changed drastically. The indigenous peoples of the Protectorate were ready to take over political control when the British relinquished their hold on the country.

Although there is a great divide between the settlers and the local ethnic groups, the civil war which erupted in 1991 had nothing to do with this. In 1982, during a turbulent period of political campaigning, two factions clashed in Pujehun in the Eastern Province. When the dust settled hundreds had been killed and thousands had crossed over into Liberia. Members of the vanquished faction eventually found their way to Libya, where they received military training.

They returned to the region to fight alongside Charles Taylor, who had launched an attack in Liberia in December 1989. But it was a further two years before the war erupted in Sierra Leone, spearheaded by a former army corporal, Foday Sankoh, and his Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

The gun and the sword: tribal hunters near Bo defend their village in the civil war.
JON SPAULL / PANOS PICTURES

What followed between 1991 and 1999 was an unparalleled orgy of violence. Rebels chopped off the limbs of thousands of people – mainly those of able-bodied men who might fight against them or of schoolchildren whose studies showed they ‘thought they were better’. The diamond industry – the mainstay of the economy – was meanwhile taken over by the RUF.

After two attempts – and a military coup in support of the rebels in 1997 – the rebels and the Government of President Tejan Kabbah reached a peace deal in Lomé, Togo, in July 1999. Despite the appalling atrocities they had committed, the rebels were given a blanket amnesty and asked to form a political party to contest presidential and parliamentary elections early in 2001; Foday Sankoh joined the Government for the interim pre-election period.

Although the UN-funded disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) programme is under way, it is way behind schedule. The RUF has been slow to hand in its weapons because it wants to use the threat of going back to war to get the electorate to vote it into power. So despite the end to hostilities, Sierra Leone is far from stable.

The rebels still occupy half of the country and control the mining areas. They have used proceeds from the sale of diamonds to buy arms and ammunition. The Government, on the other hand, has not been able to benefit from this natural resource.

Meanwhile the economy has ground to a halt. The Government depends on handouts from the UN and donors who will have to fund the country for some time. It is no wonder that Sierra Leone is at the very bottom of the UN Human Development Index.

Desmond Davies

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At a glance

Leader President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah.

Economy GNP per capita $160 (Guinea $550, Britain $20,870). This is not only one of the lowest income-per-head figures in the world but it is less than half the $390 figure when Sierra Leone was last profiled in 1985. The civil war has ravaged agriculture and the economy.
Monetary unit: Leone.
Main exports: Rutile (titanium ore), bauxite & diamonds.
Main imports: Foodstuffs, machinery & transport equipment.

People 4.6 million. Population growth rate 2.4% per annum.

Health Infant mortality 182 per 1,000 births (Ghana 67, Canada 6). Around 29% of children are underweight.

Environment Deforestation is severe – 85% of the natural habitat has been destroyed.

Culture Ethnic make-up: Temne 30%; Mende 30%; others 39%.
Religion: Traditional beliefs 45%; Islam 30%; Christianity 25%.
Language: English is the official and main business language. The major local languages are Krio, Mende and Temne.

Sources: The State of the World’s Children 2000; Africa Review 1999; World Guide 1999-2000.

Previously profiled October 1985

star ratings

income distribution INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown]
The economy is moribund. The country depends on financial support from the international community.
1985 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]

self-reliance SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown]
Years of bad governance, corruption and war have taken their toll on the enthusiasm of Sierra Leoneans.
1985 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]

position of women POSITION
OF WOMEN
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In the aftermath of the war, the role of women has improved greatly. The part hey played in bringing an end to the onflict has enhanced their status.
1985 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]

literacy LITERACY [image, unknown]
31 per cent –
the fourth-lowest in the world.
1985 [image, unknown]

freedom FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
After years of apathy, Sierra Leoneans are now quite aware of their rights. The international spotlight on the country has helped to bring about this change.
1985 [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]

life expectancy LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown]
38 years. This is the lowest in the world
(Nigeria 50, Japan 80).
1985 [image, unknown]

POLITICS

NI Assessment [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
President Kabbah could be ousted as leader of the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party at its national convention later this year. He has been a very poor leader. The only thing he has going for him is the good will of the international community.

 

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