What Caused the Sierra Leone Civil War?

Koidu after the war


Starting with a common question –

Did the mismanagement and corruption of the Siaka Stevens government cause the war?   Yes, in a way, but it’s actually more complicated. Siaka Stevens (and later Momoh) ruled the country from 1967 to 1992 with a corrupt one-party state. Siaka Stevens led the country into poverty and hopelessness, and there was a strong feeling among Sierra Leoneans that a change was needed.

Siaka Stevens’ political party was the APC, generally considered the party of the Temnes and other northern tribes. The opposition party was the SLPP, considered the party of the Mendes in the east and south. The SLPP party was outlawed when Stevens declared a one-party state in 1978, which caused frustration and anger among Mendes.  (Note that there are 14 ethnic groups in Sierra Leone but we are simplifying this discussion by mentioning only the two major tribes – the Temnes and the Mendes and their traditional loyalty to separate parties, the APC and SLPP.)

Was there opposition to Siaka Stevens’ APC one-party state?   It was dangerous to oppose Siaka Stevens, but students at Fourah Bay College held demonstrations and formed opposition discussion groups in the late 1970s. There were also many civilians in the Mende areas who were angry at having their party banned, and also some members of the army who were against the regime.

Was the government overthrown?    There was a direct takeover of the government in an army coup in April 1992, (the NPRC coup) but this didn’t happen until a year after the RUF rebels had already invaded the country (in March 1991). The coup happened mainly because the government wasn’t giving the army adequate support to fight the RUF rebels.

Why did the RUF attack? Was it the SLPP attacking to overthrow the APC government?   The RUF rebels attacked to overthrow the government but it wasn’t an attack by the SLPP. The key is Foday Sankoh, leader of the RUF rebels. He didn’t attack the country to save it from the APC and install the SLPP into power, but to gain power for himself and his financial backers – Muammar Qaddafi of Libya and Charles Taylor of Liberia.

How did Foday Sankor become leader of the RUF rebels?  Foday Sankoh had been a corporal in the army, but he was cashiered and imprisoned after a failed mutiny, then released from prison in 1978. He became a commercial photographer in Bo (in the south) and joined anti-government meetings there. Sankor moved to Segbwema, further east in Kailahun District, and continued to work as a photographer. He may have moved there to be closer to the centers of anti-government activity in Kailahun District. The main army base in the east, Moa Barracks, was near Segbwema and there were soldiers and Mende civilians in the area strongly opposed to the government. During this period he went to train in Libya.

What about Qaddafi and Taylor?   Qaddafi was already preparing Charles Taylor for a takeover of Liberia as part of his anti-Western, Pan-Africanist movement to unite Africa under him, or at least to cause problems for Western powers. Foday Sankoh went to train in Libya with a group of anti-government Sierra Leoneans and was chosen by Qaddafi and Taylor to be leader of the group, probably because of his military background, his megalomania and glibness, and his easy acceptance of brutality. Qaddafi eventually supported Foday Sankoh for the entire war, sending him money and arms mainly through Charles Taylor in Liberia.

Who were the original RUF rebels that attacked in 1991? Were they SLPP supporters?   Some of the original invasion force were men who Foday Sankor and other rebel leaders had recruited around the country to join their “revolution” and among them were Mende supporters of the SLPP hoping for a takeover. They trained in Libya and Liberia, and when they were ready for their initial attacks Qaddafi and Taylor supplemented their forces with a large group of soldiers from Liberia, Burkina Faso, and other places. So, some of the original invasion force were SLPP supporters but not all of them.

Foday Sankoh was a Temne. Why was he leading the RUF rebels?  Foday Sankoh was a Temne and by tribe he should have traditionally supported the APC. Politics during that period were extremely tribal and it’s doubtful that Foday Sankoh’s aim was to put the Mendes and the SLPP in power. His objective was to take power for himself (and Taylor and Qaddafi). In a way, he used the Mende opposition to try to accomplish this, at least at the start of the war.

Did the RUF rebels identify with the SLPP?  When the rebels first attacked in 1991 the APC government was still in power under Momoh (Siaka Stevens retired and turned over power to Momoh in 1985). They attacked from Liberia into Mende country in Kailahun and Pujehun Districts. They took over parts of those provinces and Foday Sankor traveled around giving speeches, telling people they had come to save the country from the corrupt APC. He had his soldiers wear green, the color of the SLPP party. So in their first attacks they attempted to identify with the SLPP to draw the local Mendes to their side.

What was Sankor’s original strategy?   Sankor must have thought he could win over the Mende population who would move with him and his rebels to Freetown to take power.

After the RUF rebels invaded the country, did the Mendes join Sankoh and the RUF to oust the government? – Some did, but the general population didn’t. Sankoh must have been surprised when there was resistance from Mende civilians in their traditional territory. He thought they would join him as members of the SLPP and help him take over.

Why didn’t the civilians support Sankoh and the RUF? – The problem for the civilians was that the RUF rebels were extremely violent, with killings and abductions starting from the first day of their attacks. Opposition to the RUF rebels grew quickly, and as they spread through the country opposition became stronger with the formation of civilian militias (the Kamajors and others) by the third year of the war. Sankoh had to resort to abductions to get fighters, and he attempted to use extreme violence (such as cutting off hands) to scare the population into giving him power.

Was the war a fight between the SLPP and the APC?  No. The war resulted from a planned invasion by Qaddafi, Taylor, and Sankoh. They never had the intention of installing the SLPP, much less returning to two-party rule. Sierra Leone and Liberia were going to be Qaddafi’s outposts (colonies?) in West Africa with Foday Sankoh and Charles Taylor as their respective presidents. For Foday Sankoh it wasn’t politics – SLPP against APC – it was about installing himself as leader in another one-party state, and given Sankoh’s violent nature it would have been worse than the previous one-party state.

Back to our original question. Did the Siaka Stevens government cause the war?   Yes, for these reasons:

  • Foday Sankoh, Qaddafi, and Charles Taylor probably saw that the country was weak from the mismanagement and corruption of Siaka Stevens and the APC and thought they could easily take it over.
  • Sankoh thought the SLPP Mendes opposed to the APC would support him to take over the country.
  • They might have thought the army was weak from years of corruption and could be easily overcome, and that members of the army would join them, 

How did the war proceed after the initial attacks?  After the initial attacks Sankoh and the RUF continued fighting for ten more years. The war went through many phases – fighting, negotiations, an election, another coup, then more fighting (including the attack on Freetown) and negotiations, and a final intervention by Britain, with the tenacious Foday Sankoh holding on as leader of the RUF though never gaining power. The final negotiations to end the war allowed Sankoh and the RUF to go into politics, but Sankoh continued his moves to grab power and was arrested in Freetown on May 17, 2000. He was completely humiliated, forced to walk through the streets of Freetown naked. He died three years later after having a series of strokes while on trial.

What are “Blood Diamonds”  This refers to diamonds sold to finance war. One of the main goals of the invasion was to get control of Sierra Leone’s diamonds. In 1992, the second year of the war, the RUF rebels pushed into Kono District which is the main diamond-producing area of the country. They mined diamonds using forced labor which were used to purchase arms and supplies, usually through Liberia. Money from diamonds was also taken by Taylor, Qaddafi and RUF leaders for personal use. Blood Diamonds, amputations, and the attack on Freetown are the main things the Sierra Leone war is known for internationally.

How were politicians and the two political parties involved in the war?  The war was long and complex and there is a lot of discussion linking SLPP and APC politicians to different events and aspects of the war. Politicians did attempt to use the war during its different phases to increase their power and their party’s power, but it’s not agreed when or to what extent.

How did Sankoh manage to stay legitimate for so long?   Even after all his lying and violence Sankoh managed to present himself as a politician and take part in the second round of international negotiations (resulting in the Lome Accord), even forming an RUF political party at the end of the war. Possibly it was because of the threat of ultra-violence by RUF leaders and forces still in the field that kept Sierra Leoneans hoping he would agree to a solution, Internationally, he was seen as the only person to negotiate with, as Taylor and Qaddfi’s involvement wasn’t widely known or was ignored because of international politics. Also, Sankoh might just have fooled people with his revolutionary double talk and fake sincerity.

Who is ultimately to blame?  Muammar Qaddafi is ultimately to blame because he intentionally planned the war, and because he provided Foday Sankoh and the RUF with arms and funds throughout the conflict.  Of course Foday Sankoh is to blame because he directed the fighting with ruthless brutality while lying through two rounds of international negotiations. Third is Charles Taylor who is currently in prison for his crimes.

Why did Foday Sankoh have this extreme desire for power?  This kind of behavior has been linked to psychosis* — mental illness associated with lack of empathy for other people (Sankoh never had a thought for the thousands of people who were killed and maimed through his actions). Similar things have taken place throughout history, and men like Sankor were common in post-colonial Africa when different ethnic groups in jerryrigged countries were battling for power, where there were opportunities for men with this mentality to take control and run countries ruthlessly. It was also the traditional African concept of the all-powerful “chief for life” that motivated them and allowed them to take power through traditional structures.


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War memorial in Kenema

“In memory of Lives Sacrificed in Defense of our Beloved Country”