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Sierra Leone - Background

Sierra Leone ["Lion Mountain"] had been embroiled in a civil war that began in March 1991, as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) attempted to overthrow successive governments. Sierra Leone was an extremely poor country. Before the civil war began in 1992, more than 70 percent of the 4.5 million citizens were involved in some aspect of agriculture, mainly subsistence farming. Although the country had substantial mineral resources, including diamonds, gold, rutile, and bauxite, official receipts from legal exports have been small in recent years. For decades the majority of diamond and gold production had been smuggled abroad. The economic infrastructure had nearly collapsed due to corruption, neglect, and war-related disruptions. The 6-year RUF insurgency dislocated more than 40 percent of the country's population, placing additional burdens on Sierra Leone's fragile economy.

Eighteen ethnic groups make up the indigenous population of Sierra Leone. The Temne in the north and the Mende in the South were the largest. About 60,000 were Creoles, descendants of freed slaves who returned to Sierra Leone from Great Britain and North America. Sierra Leoneans were noted for their educational achievement, trading activity, entrepreneurial skills, and arts and crafts work, particularly wood carving. Many were part of larger ethnic networks extending into several countries, which link West African states in the area. The colonial history of Sierra Leone was not placid. The indigenous people mounted several unsuccessful revolts against British rule and Creole domination. Most of the 20th century history of the colony was peaceful, however, and independence was achieved without violence.

Sierra Leone is an interesting country because it had no serious ethnic divisions. It had no serious religious divisions. It had no serious class divisions or regional divisions. People married across tribal boundaries, across religious boundaries, because the country is essentially a Muslim country with some Christians and some animists. But those divisions never really became an issue in early Sierra Leone. All ethnic groups use Krio as a second language, there is little ethnic segregation in urban areas. The two largest ethnic groups were the Temne in the northern part of the country and the Mende in the southern part; each of these groups is estimated to make up about 30 percent of the population.

Ethnic loyalty remained an important factor in government, the military, and business. Complaints of corruption within ethnic groups and ethnic discrimination in government appointments, contracts, military commissions, and promotions were common. There did not appear to be a strong correspondence between ethnic or regional and political cleavages. Ethnic differences also did not appear to contribute appreciably to the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebellion, the 1997 coup, or the civil conflict. There was no identifiable ethnic or regional base of voluntary popular support for the rebels, who controlled territory by terror and coercion rather than by popular consent.

The internal conflict involved multiple ethnic groups and resulted in an estimated 15,000 deaths from 1991 through 1996. By early 1999 estimates of the number of dead in the rebel war ranged upward from 50,000. At different times estimates of the number of displaced people were as high as 2.5 million - more than half of the entire population. As many as half a million persons fled to neighboring countries to escape the civil conflict, and remain outside the country on their own or in refugee camps, primarily in Guinea and Liberia. Over 250,000 citizens crossed the borders of Guinea and Liberia to escape the conflict; many thousands of others were displaced internally, and fled their homes to hide in wooded areas, or to towns where there were security forces and some degree of protection from rebel forces.

The conditions that existed in Sierra Leone made it vulnerable to a person like Foday Sankoh, leader of the Revolutionary United Front, to gather up disenfranchised young people who had not been paid for a long time. Over a period of twenty years, the central government gradually disintegrated as a result primarily of the political class, as they would say in Sierra Leone, eating everything in the government. Over a period of time, they destroyed the ability of the government to rule, to govern, to do anything on behalf of the people. They stopped years ago paying civil servants or teachers. And when the center disintegrated all the periphery went its own way. And people felt that they could not change this society through the political process because it had been compromised through the one-party state and through corruption.

Foreign involvement in the Sierra Leone conflict was a serious problem, and there was clear evidence that Liberia and Burkina Faso were supporting the rebel efforts. Sierra Leone's participation in the West African peace-keeping force, ECOMOG, that went into Liberia that provoked Charles Taylor's retaliation against Sierra Leone. Charles Taylor, now the president of Liberia, saw that intervention as hostile to him when he was fighting for power there. They also had the support of Libya, which sent weapons to them through Burkina Faso which were then transshipped overland through the Ivory coast, through Liberia, into Sierra Leone.

The diamond mining industry provided the rebels with potential revenue of approximately $300 million per year. Precisely how much was spent on small arms and ammunition was unknown. What was known was that arms were apparently procured in eastern Europe and staged through Burkina Faso and then continue on to Liberia for eventual delivery to rebel forces in Sierra Leone.

On 22 October 1999, the Security Council established United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone [UNAMSIL] to cooperate with the Government and the other parties in implementing the Lome Peace Agreement and to assist in the implementation of the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration plan. On 7 February 2000, the Council revised UNAMSIL's mandate. It also expanded its size, as it did once again on 19 May 2000 and on 30 March 2001.

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Page last modified: 30-04-2017 13:45:45 ZULU