Sierra Leone - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Sierra Leone: the Bradt Travel Guide.

23 March 1991 First shots fired at Bomaru, in the east, in an apparent attempt by the Liberian NPFL to claim a Sierra Leone Army vehicle they had ‘paid’ for with smuggled goods, which the SLA had not released to them.

27 March 1991 1,600 members of the NPFL and 400 of the RUF ‘vanguard’ cross the border from Liberia on two fronts – into Kailahun in the east and Pujehun to the south.

29 April 1992 Military coup deposes President Momoh and sees Captain Valentine Strasser, at 26, form the NPRC and become the world’s youngest head of state.

19 December 1992 Twenty-six ‘coup plotters’ executed a day after their arrest; Strasser said their trials were conducted posthumously by the NPRC.

13 November 1993 The RUF on the verge of total defeat in Kailahun; leader Foday Sankoh circulates new jungle warfare strategy of ‘guerrilla tactics’ to the waning RUF in order to survive.

27 April 1995 On the anniversary of independence, Valentine Strasser reintroduces party politics and promises a consultative conference ahead of handover to civilian rule.

16 January 1996 ‘Palace coup’ within the NPRC replaces Valentine Strasser with Julius Maada Bio, apparently because Strasser was planning to stand as president in forthcoming elections, breaking the 1991 constitution rule of a minimum age of 40. Bio sets about transition to democracy.

15 March 1996 The SLPP’s leader Ahmed Tejan Kabbah elected president with 59.4% of the second-round poll; the SLPP also wins 51 of the 80-seat legislature. Kabbah appoints Chief Sam Hinga Norman, leader of the CDF, deputy minister of defence and agrees to keep on foreign security companies. Hinga Norman’s close relationship with the Kamajors angers the army.

30 November 1996 Peace agreement signed in Abidjan between Kabbah and the RUF, with the stipulation that Executive Outcomes leaves the country by January 1997; cut-off date for crimes tried by the Special Court (nothing before this date counts).

January 1997 Executive Outcomes formally withdraws from Sierra Leone and the Kabbah government establishes a power-sharing multi-party cabinet, with Sankoh made Chairman of the Commission for the Management of Strategic Resources, National Reconstruction and Development, with the status of vice president.

February 1997 Kabbah announces that a Nigerian-led security investigation has pinpointed members of the previous Maada Bio government as coup plotters.

2 March 1997 Most RUF bases overthrown, including headquarters Camp Zogoda. The RUF’s second-in-command, Mohamed Tarawallie, thought killed in Zogodasiege. RUF leader Foday Sankoh flies to Nigeria, apparently on an official mission, but is arrested soon after his arrival. RUF morale drops further.

25 May 1997 Government coup by the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), an army breakaway group of junior soldiers who protest against corrupt seniors and attempts to reduce the size of the army; Kabbah flees to Guinea to mobilise international support; Major Johnny Paul Koroma becomes head of state and suspends the constitution, bans demonstrations, and abolishes political parties. Koroma calls for the formation of the People’s Army, linking the RUF and AFRC.

July 1997 Commonwealth suspends Sierra Leone.

September 1997 The CDF launches Operation Black December in Bo and Kenema.

8 October 1997 The United Nations Security Council adopts Resolution 1132, which Britain helps to draft, introducing sanctions against the regime in Sierra Leone, barring the supply of arms and petroleum products. A British company, Sandline, nonetheless supplies ‘logistical support’, including 35 tons of weapons, to Kabbah allies. Sandline says the understanding was that the embargo only applied to the military junta, not the deposed regime of Kabbah.

23 October 1997 The Conakry Peace Plan attempts to ensure the AFRC will hand over to civilian power by a given deadline.

2 February 1998 The Nigerian-led west African intervention force, ECOMOG, storms Freetown in an attempt to take back the capital and depose the AFRC. Facing landmines and AFRC-hired Ukrainian mercenaries, ECOMOG wins Freetown by 13 February.

10 March 1998 President Kabbah is restored; declares state of emergency.

May–end 1998 The AFRC attacks the north and begins to make its way south; the RUF attacks focus on the east and in August it announces that unless leader Foday Sankoh is released from prison, it will launch Operation Spare No Soul.

19 October 1998 Twenty-four officers associated with the AFRC executed for treason by the Kabbah government.

18 December 1998 The RUF wins back diamond-rich Koidu.

6 January 1999 Invasion of Freetown by the AFRC, killing thousands and committing widespread atrocities.

February 1999 Inquiry in the UK into the supply of weapons to Kabbah supporters by Sandline – at the time of a UN embargo – is highly critical of British civil servants and ministers.

18 May 1999 A ceasefire is greeted with cautious optimism in Freetown.

17 July 1999 Kabbah and Foday Sankoh sign the Lomé Peace Accord following six weeks of talks in the Togo capital; a power-sharing agreement in which the RUF wins government posts. The RUF are given assurances that it will not be prosecuted for war crimes.

October 1999 A cabinet reshuffle finally accommodates the Lomé agreements, making Foday Sankoh equivalent to vice president and in charge of mineral resources; the West Side Boys militia formed from strands of the SLA in the Western Area.

December 1999 UN troops arrive to police the peace agreement – but one rebel leader, Sam ‘Mosquito’ Bockarie, says they are not welcome. Meanwhile, ECOMOG troops are attacked outside Freetown; Mosquito announces he is leaving the country because of differences with Sankoh.

January 2000 The UN sends in more United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) peacekeeping forces to Sierra Leone to oversee implementation of the Lomé Peace Accord.

May 2000 ECOMOG forces withdraw; the RUF take hundreds of under-resourced and inexperienced UN peacekeepers hostage; Britain sends in 1,000 troops toevacuate British citizens, secure Freetown and the airport; later reduced to 200 military training troops by September.

8 May 2000 So-called peace march of armed AFRC, West Side Boys and Kamajors takes RUF strongholds throughout the capital; Foday Sankoh is captured a week later in Freetown.

June–July 2000 British military task force sent to help restore order departs, leaving behind a training force and UN troops surrounded by rebels.

August 2000 The UN agrees to pursue rebels through an international tribunal; the West Side Boys capture 11 British troops, who are later rescued by British paratroopers in September.

10 November 2000 The Abuja peace process begins, resulting in the Abuja Cease Fire Agreement – Abuja I.

2 May 2001 Second peace meeting in Abuja – Abuja II.

14 May 2001 Cessation of Hostilities signed at Mammy Yoko Hotel, the UNAMSIL headquarters.

January 2002 Peace ceremony at Lungi.

Natural history


While Sierra Leone strikes the observer as green and well wooded, the impact of subsistence agriculture and commercial logging had reduced the area of primary forest from more than 70% to 4% by 2010. That drastic fall underlines how important it is to preserve the country’s last remaining patch of genuine rainforest at Gola. You don’t have to go that far afield to see the devastating effects of deforestation: the once-thickly wooded peaks above Freetown are now almost totally bare to make way for a glut of new residences.

The red mangrove, Rhizophora racemosa, is impossible to miss in swamp areas. Growing up to 30m, dense forests are most visible around Sherbro and other areas of the western coast. Most striking are the knarled prop-roots that branch off from the mangrove’s ramrod-straight trunk just above the water line.

The oil palm, Elaeis guineensis, is tremendously important for Sierra Leoneans as both a source of income – via the extraction of palm oil that is used domestically and commercially – and of palm wine, which is why you see men and boys shinning up the tall thin trunks with such enthusiasm. Hooker’s wine palm, Raphia hookeri, has a much thicker trunk, and, despite the name, its leaves are used to make roofing for huts and the strong piassava fibre that for a while was widely exported for broom and brush heads.

The centre of Freetown has perhaps the best-known example of the towering cotton tree, Ceiba pentandra, also known locally as the kapok. It is found more commonly in semi-deciduous forest, and often associated with magical properties. If surrounded by other trees near a village, it is often an indicator of the meeting place of the secret poro society.



There are thought to be 15 species of primate in the country, of which six are threatened: the western chimpanzee, the Diana monkey, the black-and-white colobus monkey, red colobus, and olive colobus. Tiwai Island, Gola Forest, the slopes of Mount Bintumani and Outamba-Kilimi National Park are good places to start.


At home in forest or bush, duiker are small antelopes found across Sierra Leone’s various ecosystems – the odd name derives from the Dutch word for ‘diver’ due to its habit of rushing into undergrowth when disturbed. Despite wide variations in size, the distinctive low-slung body on thin, shapely legs, a wedge-shaped head beneath a plume of long hair and large wide eyes generally makes them easy to recognise. Learning to imitate their bleating call can summon them from the forest.

Large mammals

The quality of Sierra Leone ivory work was first mentioned by the Portuguese, indicating the presence of the world’s largest land mammal. ‘In Serra Lyoa the men are very clever and inventive, and make really marvellous objects out of ivory of anything you ask them to do, for instance they make spoons, or salt-cellars, or dagger-handles, or other subtle work,’ wrote Alvaro Velho, who spent the years 1499–1507 in west Africa. Traditionally, paramount chiefs’ walking sticks were carved from ivory, an ivory trumpet was used to announce his arrival, while there are records of an ‘ugly clay idol with elephant’s teeth’. The civil war all but wiped out the country’s remaining elephant population, and even before it there were only 200–300, but there is encouraging evidence that the forest elephant, Loxodonta Africana cyclotis, is starting to return to northern areas in small numbers from Guinea, in search of better grazing and to avoid a growing poaching problem there. Outamba-Kilimi National Park offers the best chance of seeing them, or at least evidence of their presence. The forest elephant is considerably smaller than the bush elephant more traditionally associated with African savanna, of which there are none remaining in Sierra Leone. Reaching about 8ft in height (compared with 10–13ft), it has a narrower trunk, rounder ears and less-curved tusks, and if you really get up close and personal, an extra toenail on the front and hind feet. Females with young calves are fiercely protective of their young and easily spooked.

Extremely sedentary, the common hippopotamus, Hippopotamus amphibius, is readily located, although during the day the visitor is unlikely to see much more than a pair of nostrils, ears and the occasional yawn. Hippos tend only to come onto land at sunset to search for food and sleep overnight before returning to the water the following early morning. The best place for a sighting is at Outamba-Kilimi, where one pod congregates at a number of watering pools in the Little Scarcies River. Despite their enormous bulk (up to three tons) they are capable of charging at 45km/h over short distances, and are also good swimmers. Society is organised around dominant males who are ready to defend their harems of females to the death, and mothers are particularly protective of young calves. Extremely easily agitated, particularly if its route to water is barred, the hippo is responsible for more deaths than any other animal in Africa.

The largest cat in Sierra Leone, the leopard, Panthera pardus, is a master hunter. With its excellent sense of smell and hearing the leopard prefers to hunt at night; during the day it retires to the shade and shelter of treetops or rocks to rest or eat. It is not a fussy eater, most likely hunting primates or bush pig, small antelope or carnivores, birds and their eggs, and reptiles, but is highly prized by the Mende, who use the leopard skin for the devil masquerades of the men’s poro society, and for the costumes of society high-ups. Back in the early 16th century, Portuguese traveller Alvaro Velho recorded that should a local kill a leopard, he must ‘give the king the skin and the teeth as a sign of subjugation’ – the teeth would be turned into highly valued collars (valued at four or more slaves), while the spotted skin would be draped behind him like a robe. The leopard’s stocky, heavy build is well disguised by its distinctive camouflage patterning of broken black circles enclosing smaller yellow ones. The leopard is now rare in Sierra Leone – back in 1980 there were thought to be only 50 to 100 – but most likely to be seen around watering holes, as it drinks frequently.


Of the 630 or so bird species in Sierra Leone, more than 400 are resident, with another 130 regular seasonal migrants, including 90 Palearctic migrants. The country’s popularity with avian visitors is due to the position of its coastline on the eastern Atlantic flyway for migrating waterbirds, making it an important winter stopover. Most indigenous species (about 175) are drawn from the Guinea–Congo forest biome, although there are savanna dwellers as well.

The forests of eastern Sierra Leone form the western part of the Upper Guinea Forest’s Endemic Bird Area (EBA), and 14 of its 15 range-restricted species occur in the country. There are also 23 species of global conservation concern, including the white-breasted guineafowl, Agelastes meleagrides, considered one of the most threatened birds in continental Africa; the Sierra Leone or white-eyed prinia, Prinia leontica; the western wattled cuckoo shrike, Lobotos lobatus; and the celebrated white-necked picathartes, Picathartes gymnocephalus, of which there are fewer than 2,500 pairs left in the world.

People and culture

For such a small country Sierra Leone has rich ethnic diversity, with at least 16 different groups recognised. While there are strong cultural identities and plenty of rivalries between them, which occasionally spill over into resentments, Sierra Leone is not prey to the kinds of ethnic hatreds that have consumed other west African states. Historically, the land has been subjected to waves of invasion from outsiders, but this has usually resulted in assimilation to varying degrees, and a high level of intermarriage (many men take several wives – the richer they are, the more they can afford) and exchange, rather than pogroms and purges. Traditionally tribes have been open to the idea of outsiders: the Loko invited a Mandinka ruler from Kankan to be their chief after he had helped them in war; a Fula ruled Yoni country south of the Rokel; and the Limba have often taken non-Limba chiefs.


After the first set of post-war elections in 2002, people everywhere sang Celine Dion’s New Day as an anthem of hope for a brighter future. Thankfully, since then Sierra Leone has regained something of its own musical heritage, and the resurgent local industry is lively, opinionated, creative and fun. Whereas 90% of the music played before 2001 was foreign, an estimated 70% of all tunes are now homegrown, mostly produced almost exclusively with keyboards and digital mixers in the absence of reliable recording or performing facilities for live instruments.

The barrage of beats is inescapable, blending varying degrees of hiphop, calypso, dancehall and merengue. On the radio, DJs relentlessly promote up-and-coming street artists; on the dancefloor cult classics are quickly adopted. Established musicians fill the national football stadium in all-night concerts, while in poda poda minibus taxis, respectable, besuited men make their way to work to the sounds of hit club tracks such as Your Pussy Clean. But it’s not all about bump’n’grind: often artists have an eye for social commentary and political satire that would shame the bling-obsessed rap stars of the West.

More traditional music – along with some remarkable instruments – is less easy to come across, but nevertheless exists. Probably the best-known traditional artist whose work is available outside Sierra Leone is Ansumana Bangura, a German-based artist who was formerly a percussionist with the legendary Miriam Makeba. Among instruments to look out for, the kondi is a rectangular or square ‘pluck box’ popular with the Limba and Loko. The marimba equates to the balafon of Guinea, and is referred to as the ‘talking drum’, while the balangi is a Limba wooden-keyed instrument like a xylophone bound with rope. The banjo-like siraman, and the Foulah guitar and violin are also popular, as is the shegureh: a Mende calabash shaker surrounded by cowries. Drums include the large dun-dun, and the double-ended sangba played with a stick. The Fula also have a flute (hordu) and the lala shaker or rattle.


You might not hear many people talking about the latest ‘Sierrawood’ hit just yet, but that could change soon if Ahmed Mansaray, the founding director of Sierra Leone’s first-ever film school, has anything to do with it. Opened in 2011 under the auspices (and inside the offices) of the local Institut de Français on Rawdon Street, the school aims to teach Sierra Leoneans how to script, cast, shoot and edit their own films. No major productions had been produced at time of writing, but keep your eyes peeled. Some day soon, Blood Diamond might not be the first – or at least the only – film that outsiders associate with Sierra Leone.

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