Sierra Leone has been ruled by a succession of single-party, multi-party and military governments in the 38 years following its independence from Britain in 1961. Its current democratically elected president, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, was reinstated in February 1998 after being toppled by a military
junta in May 1997. Supported by West African peacekeepers and a militia called Kamajors, his government faces a combined force made up of rebels and the former Sierra Leone army.
Kabbah worked for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for some 20 years and critics say he is more of a civil servant than a politician.
The Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC)
The Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) is the former Sierra Leonean army, led by Major Johnny Paul Koroma, which staged a coup in 1997 allegedly to bring peace and an end to the war between the state and Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels.
The AFRC claimed it overthrew the government because it had failed to consolidate peace in Sierra Leone following an agreement by the government and the RUF in November 1996 in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire, to end the armed conflict. Some members of the Junta also claimed that the government was undemocratic and that it had appointed people from one ethnic group to
most prominent government positions.
According to news reports, a major grievance was the perceived lack of resources allocated to the armed forces by the government. The military had also accused the government of favouring the 'Kamajors', a civilian militia group.
These allegations were strongly denied by Kabbah, his government and their supporters.
After the coup, the AFRC called for the release and return of the RUF's leader, Foday Sankoh, who had been detained by the Nigerian authorities in March 1997, apparently for possession of arms and ammunition. From Nigeria, Sankoh announced his support for the military coup and RUF forces subsequently arrived in large numbers in Freetown to join the AFRC. Sankoh was named as Vice Chairman of the AFRC and prominent members of the RUF
were appointed to the AFRC's ruling council.
The AFRC/RUF junta was evicted by Nigerian-led West African troops who reinstated Kabbah in March 1998. Its forces regrouped and invaded Freetown in January 1999, but were eventually driven out of the capital. They are still active in other parts of the country.
Revolutionary United Front (RUF)
In 1991, growing dissatisfaction with the government of then president Joseph Momoh led to the launch of a rebel war by the RUF, which, observers say, was supported by Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL).
The RUF joined forces with the AFRC after it overthrew Kabbah in 1997. The international community, including the US, Britain, has charged that Taylor continues to support the RUF, although he has denied this. Recently ECOMOG said it had confirmed that Liberia and Burkina Faso were providing arms and support for the rebels, including through Ukrainian mercenaries.
The RUF is led by Foday Sankoh, a former army corporal, who was sentenced to death for his part in the 1997 coup which toppled Kabbah. He has appealed against the sentence and is due to hold peace talks with Kabbah's government after meeting rebel commanders.
One of his main commanders is Sam Bockarie, known as 'Mosquito'. Omrie Golley is the RUF's legal adviser and reportedly a close ally of Bockarie. Not much is known about the command structure of the RUF, although diplomats say Golley is quite influential.
The RUF continues to demand the release of Foday Sankoh but its political agenda, other than taking power, remains unclear. The RUF/AFRC forces have been accused of atrocities against civilians. According to a recent Amnesty International report, "during 1998, thousands of unarmed civilians have been arbitrarily killed and mutilated". However, the mutilation of
civilians is not a new phenomenon. There were reports of limb amputations after the RUF began its insurgency against Momoh in 1991.
The Kamajors are reportedly a pro-democracy civilian militia group, composed of traditional hunters of the Mende ethnic group in the south of Sierra Leone. They supported the government against the RUF and, in 1997-1998, against the AFRC-RUF junta. The Kamajors are led by Chief Hinga Norman, the deputy defence minister in the Sierra Leonean government.
ECOMOG - the ECOWAS Ceasefire Monitoring Group
Members of ECOWAS, concerned about the possibility of regional
destabilisation, assembled a force to institute a ceasefire in Liberia in 1990. It was originally 6,000 strong and comprised troops from The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Contingents from other ECOWAS members later joined the force, whose mandate was extended to include Sierra Leone, and recently Guinea Bissau.
ECOMOG was deployed in Freetown to support Kabbah's democratically elected government and ousted the AFRC in 1998.
Although a new Sierra Leonean army is now being trained, in reality the country no longer has an effective army of its own. According to an ECOMOG spokesman, after the ECOMOG intervention that led to the reinstatement of Kabbah, most of the army, frustrated over poor pay and conditions, joined the rebels while a few remained loyal to the government.
Observers say that the former army, which refused to surrender to ECOMOG, is now operating in the north of the country and the original RUF in the rest.
Nigeria contributes the vast majority of troops and equipment in Sierra Leone and says that it costs approximately US $1 million a day to keep its troops there. Britain and the US provide logistical support.
Nigeria and Sierra Leone
Nigeria and Sierra Leone have had longstanding defence accords and educational links since before 1992. Many Nigerians were educated at the Fourah Bay College/University in Sierra Leone and Nigeria has since supplied civilian judges and military trainers to Sierra Leone.
During the seven-year Liberian civil war, Momoh allowed ECOMOG to use Sierra Leone as a rear base for its operations and that is one of the reasons why President Charles Taylor is widely believed to be supporting the RUF during the present crisis.
Mineral wealth, mercenaries and the war
Sierra Leone is rich in mineral resources, principally diamonds, gold, rutile and bauxite, which have been exploited by a political and business elite for many years.
The Momoh government did little to control corruption, smuggling and high public spending underlined by allegations that the head of state had himself embezzled public funds. These charges were confirmed by a commission of enquiry instituted after Momoh's departure in 1992.
Regional analysts say there is resentment between Sierra Leoneans living in the rural interior and those living along the wealthier coastline and in Freetown. When the AFRC/RUF were in Freetown after the 1997 coup, observers say, the RUF was widely despised by middle class Krios (Creoles) - descendants of freed slaves who settled in Freetown and made up a large proportion of the city's elite - because they acted as if they were out of
control, committing armed robberies daily.
The dislocation and fear caused by the recent conflict, as well as poverty, provide an easy recruitment ground for the RUF, especially among the young. There have been reports of children as young as 10 years of age abducted by the RUF in the bush and committing atrocities, including cutting off civilians' limbs.
Diamond-rich areas in the north and east have become the main targets of the fighting. The diamonds are alluvial, can be dug out without sophisticated machinery and so are open to exploitation. The civil war has resulted in much of the country becoming inaccessible to security forces, encouraging illegal mining and smuggling. There are allegations that for the past 35 years, state authorities have had a direct stake in the trade.
Even before the civil war the economy had been destroyed by decades of corruption, particularly during the 25 years of Siaka Stevens' regime.
According to news reports, in recent years the ongoing insecurity in Sierra Leone caused some diamond and gold mining companies to rely on private security firms, most notably Executive Outcomes, a South African "private army" hired by the government during the 1995-1997 period.
There are also reports that Ukrainian mecenaries have been fighting with the rebels.