Sierra Leone: A Peacebuilding Success Story?

Tasneem Jamal

Kristiana Powell

The Ploughshares Monitor Autumn 2002 Volume 23 Issue 3

Kristiana Powell is an intern with Project Ploughshares under the Canadian government’s Youth International Internship Program. 

Much progress has been made towards building an enduring peace in this war-ravaged country, but it is too early to proclaim Sierra Leone a peacebuilding success story. Current efforts to build peace have provided some political stability and security but have fallen short of dealing with the economic, social, and psycho-social issues that must be addressed if peace is to endure in Sierra Leone.

In late September 2002, forensic scientists working for the Special Court for Sierra Leone began cordoning off a mass murder site that was once a lucrative diamond mine in the eastern district of Sierra Leone (IRIN News 2002). Hundreds of bodies of Sierra Leonean civilians had been dumped at the site, a tragic legacy of the devastating ten-year civil war that has proved to be one of Africa’s most brutal. The fact these bodies were buried deep among such prized gems is a testament to the dynamics of this war which are best described as a scramble for personal profit rather than a struggle for any legitimate political cause. This mass grave also highlights the injustice of life in Sierra Leone. Despite its enormous wealth in diamonds the country consistently ranks last on the Human Development Index in terms of life expectancy, educational attainment, and income per person.

Since the war started in 1991, an estimated 500,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries to escape fighting between the main armed factions: the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC), the Civil Defense Forces (CDF), and government forces. Another 2 million people have been displaced internally. In this country of approximately 5.5 million people, few have been untouched by war, which has claimed the lives of over 75,000 people, most of them civilians, and exposed hundreds of thousands more to rape, torture, and systematic mutilation.

From these bloody ashes, however, it appears that the phoenix of peace is finally rising. After a number of failed peace deals and broken ceasefires the war was officially declared over on January 18, 2002. Forty-five thousand combatants have been disarmed, and the presidential and parliamentary elections held in May 2002 were peaceful, free, and fair. The forensic specialists searching for evidence of mass murder among diamonds are working for the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which alongside the newly formed Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is charged with the Herculean task of bringing justice and reconciliation to this war-fatigued nation. It appears that Sierra Leone is finally on the track to peace, and there are plenty of reasons to be cautiously optimistic that this may be the real thing. But there are no guarantees that this peace agreement will stick. Many attempts at peace have failed here in the past.

Background to the conflict

While there is no single cause of the war in Sierra Leone, the conflict can be attributed in part to the leadership of Foday Sankoh, the man who eventually became the leader of the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary United Forces. After receiving military training in Libya under the tutelage of Colonel Gadaffi and gaining sponsorship from Liberia’s Charles Taylor, Sankoh began recruiting Sierra Leonean youth to join the newly created RUF. In 1991 the RUF launched a countrywide insurgency with the intention of overthrowing the government in Freetown. This offensive soon turned to all-out war. In 1993, a group of disaffected army officers formed the National People’s Revolutionary Council (NPRC) and staged a coup against the beleaguered government, taking control of the capital. Ill-equipped and undisciplined, the NPRC proved incapable of defeating the RUF, and the two groups engaged in a fierce battle for control of the country.

The rebel groups, particularly the RUF, began targeting civilians and became notorious internationally for their use of murder; systematic rape; and the amputations of hands, legs, arms, and lips as ways of terrorizing the population. They also recruited heavily from the civilian population by forcing, often with torture, young Sierra Leoneans to join the armed struggle. Many of the recruits were children, some as young as eight (Human Rights Watch 2000). Boys were often trained as soldiers, and girls became domestic servants and in many cases were forced into sexual slavery. Yet this war was fought without a clear objective for social transformation in mind. By 1994, any political motivation for fighting had been largely forgotten as rebel leaders recognized the personal gain that could be theirs by robbing civilians and exploiting the country’s lucrative diamond mines (Bones 2001, p. 57). The country was plunged into a devastating cycle of war financed by and fought for diamonds.1

How does a society recover from over a decade of such futile brutality? However personal this answer may be for the people of Sierra Leone, there can be no question that a deep desire for peace and reconciliation remained constant during the many stages of conflict. During ten years of war numerous attempts were made to end the conflict.

In 1996, after the election of Ahmed Tejan Kabbah to the post of President, the government signed a ceasefire with the RUF, and launched a disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) program for combatants. Hopes were high that Sierra Leone was finally going to see peace. However, in 1997 the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC), led by former members of the military, took advantage of the dwindling interest of the international community in building an enduring peace in Sierra Leone and overthrew the Kabbah government. The country was plunged back into chaos.

Peace was attempted again in 1998 when the United Nations Security Council created the United Nations Observer Mission in Sierra Leone (UNOMSIL) to monitor the security situation and human rights abuses. However, the UN’s presence was not enough to curtail fighting and AFRC/RUF forces proceeded to seize parts of Freetown, in January 1999 murdering 6,000 civilians and abducting almost 2,000 children in two weeks (Bones 2001, p. 59). Only later in 1999, after President Kabbah was reinstated by the Monitoring Group of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOMOG), did the rebels and government sign the Lomé Accord. The Accord provided rebels with posts in the government as well as a blanket amnesty for crimes committed during the war. The UN agreed to create the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), a robust peacekeeping force with a Chapter VII mandate to protect civilians against rebel atrocities, and to implement the DDR program.

But even the forging of a formal peace agreement and the UN presence could not put an immediate stop to the war. RUF leader Foday Sankoh kidnapped 500 peacekeepers in an attempt to disrupt the disarmament process. Thousands of civilians continued to be targeted by rebel groups and thousands more were at risk of reprisal attacks. Despite these acts of violence, however, the country was inching closer to a tentative peace. By January 2002, most combatants had decided to give up their weapons, and the war was officially over. It appears that peace has finally come to Sierra Leone.

But will it last?

Prospects for peace

There are a number of reasons to believe that this time peace in Sierra Leone will endure. The country seems to have achieved some level of political stability and security. Elections held in May were peaceful, with the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) under the leadership of Kabbah winning just under 70 per cent of the vote. The RUF-P (the political wing of the RUF), on the other hand, received only 1.7 per cent of the vote and has all but dissolved into separate factions (International Crisis Group 2002).

Another promising sign of peace is the commitment of the international community to the peace process, particularly to providing security. UNAMSIL’s presence was extended for another six months this September, an indication that the international community is not willing to leave Sierra Leone to its own devices just yet. Furthermore, the international community is providing strategic and financial backing (so far donors have contributed US$2 billion to peacebuilding efforts) for critical elements of the recovery process. For example, foreign donors are helping to fund DDR programs that provide food, money, and skills training to former combatants. Britain has taken the lead in security sector reform by re-training combatants to serve in a well-disciplined military, and by helping to create a police force that will serve civilians and act under the authority of the elected government.

While these are all heartening signs of peace, they alone do not signal the definitive end of violent conflict. Political stabilization and security reform are important steps forward but long-lasting peace also requires economic, social, and psycho-social recovery. These steps can only be achieved with a genuine commitment on the part of the government as well as sustained backing from the international community.

Despite the millions of dollars that have recently flooded into their country, Sierra Leoneans are still on average the poorest people on earth. Without equitable economic development and the alleviation of poverty, Sierra Leoneans, especially the disenfranchised and unemployed youth, may again resort to arms out of frustration and desperation.

A key criterion for equitable development is the creation of an accountable and competent government that is willing and able to provide essential social services and to mediate social conflict. While Kabbah and the SLPP enjoy widespread support among the population, there are doubts that this new government is truly committed to the principles of good governance (International Crisis Group 2002). Without accountability mechanisms and a strengthened civil society capable of calling for transparency, corruption and political patronage may eventually serve to undermine citizens’ faith in their government, and lead to the inequities and abuses that started the conflict in the first place (Pettifer 2002).

Furthermore, while disarmament has been very successful, most combatants have not yet been reintegrated into society, in part due to a lack of comprehensive funding for demobilization and retraining programs. Unless they are offered viable alternatives to fighting, former combatants may well conclude that they have no other choice but to enlist with one of the groups fighting in neighbouring Liberia or to join the small but potentially disruptive RUF factions that have refused to comply with the peace agreement. Still others may turn to banditry and other criminal activity to survive (The Challenges Project 2002, pp. 171-192).

Another key to peace is reconciliation and collective healing. With significant strategic and financial support from the United States, Sierra Leone has established a Special Court that will try about 12 of the most prominent individuals responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity. In addition, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has been established to deal with lower-ranked combatants who have committed atrocities. However, most of the Special Court commissioners have strong ties to the SLPP and are not likely to reveal atrocities committed by the government (International Crisis Group 2002). Moreover, the TRC has received only 10 per cent of the funds needed for its first 18 months of operation. Potential bias and a lack of funding threaten to compromise the Special Court and the TRC’s ability to provide citizens with a sense of justice and reconciliation. In the absence of official processes for justice, citizens may resort to street violence to right perceived wrongs. Or, worse still, unresolved sentiments of injustice may be manipulated in the future to instigate conflict.2


Sierra Leoneans have made enormous progress in securing peace in their war-shattered country. With the assistance of the international community, the country has achieved some measure of political stability and security. However, if this peace is to last, the Sierra Leonean government and its international backers will need to focus on alleviating economic inequality and poverty, and providing viable income-generating opportunities. They must also focus sustained attention on eliminating corruption and opening up the political system to a strengthened civil society as well as providing opportunities for justice and reconciliation. Perhaps then Sierra Leone will be declared a peacebuilding success story.




  1. For a discussion of the role of diamonds in fueling the conflict in Sierra Leone see Smillie, Gberie and Hazelton 2000.
  2. Consider Slobodan Milosevic’s ability to fuel the fires of ethnic tension by drawing on past, unresolved ethnic divisions to instigate conflict in the former Yugoslavia.


Bones, Alan 2001, “Case Study: Peacekeeping in Sierra Leone,” pp. 55-64 in Human Security and the New Diplomacy: Protecting People, Promoting Peace, eds. Rob McRae and Don Hubert, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal.

The Challenges Project 2002, Challenges of Peace Operations: Into the 21st Century, Elanders Gotab, Stockholm.

Human Rights Watch 2000, “Sierra Leone Rebels Forcefully Recruit Child Soldiers,” May 31.

International Crisis Group 2002, Sierra Leone After Elections: Politics as Usual? July 12.

IRIN News 2002, “Sierra Leone: Court Closes off alleged mass murder site,” September 30.

Pettifer, Julian 2002, “Sierra Leone: Will Peace Hold?” BBC News, July 3.

Smillie, Ian, Gberie, Lansana and Hazelton, Ralph 2000, “The Heart of the Matter: Sierra Leone, Diamonds and Human Security,” The Ploughshares Monitor, March.

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