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).
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.