Contextualizing Contemporary Sierra Leonean Politics

Independence and Early Politics
Sierra Leone was split between a British colony and a British protectorate until it gained its independence in 1961. Before independence, Sierra Leone was considered the Athens of West Africa given that it had a reputable (and the only) college in the region, Foray Bay College. Furthermore, Sierra Leone was also the territory upon which many freed slaves from England, the West Indies, and North America relocated and created a new ‘ethnic’ identity – Krio, whose language is now considered the lingua franca of the country.

Before the dawn of independence, Sir Milton Margai, then Chief Minister of the colony, along with Siaka Stevens and a few dozen other representatives traveled to England to negotiate decolonization plans with the Crown. During negotiations, Margai pushed for England’s disengagement from Sierra Leone after independence.1 The conference concluded with England agreeing to grant Sierra Leone its independence on April 27, 2961. All delegates signed the declaration of independence except Siaka Stevens, who saw various flaws with the plan.

Sir Milton Margai became Sierra Leone’s first Prime Minister upon independence in 1961. The following year, Sierra Leone saw its first nation-wide post-independence elections where Sir Milton Margai was up for relection as part of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) and with opposition from the disgruntled Siaka Stevens of his newly formed All People’s Congress (APC). I interviewed Francis Ansumana, a political science student in the city of Bo, about the history of Sierra Leonean politics and he stated that during this first post-independence election, Magrai launched voting early and participated in “many malpractices” which ensured his victory.2 Sir Milton Magrai was eventually succeeded by his cousin, Albert Margai who attempted instituting a one-party state. This declaration by Albert Margai set Sierra Leone on a rough political road towards undemocratic politics for the decades to follow.

Despite his undemocratic ways, Albert Magrai allowed for nation-wide elections in 1967, which were won by Siaka Stevens of the All People’s Congress. After being overthrown in a bloodless coup, Stevens returned to power in 1968 when he declared a one party state in order to stop the “violence”.3 After being in power for eighteen years, Stevens stepped down and allowed for ‘elections’, which were won by his chosen successor, Joseph Saidu Momoh, whom Stevens politically controlled for nearly three years until his death. Momoh continued as President until he was overthrown by Valentine Strasser and Julius Maada Bio (among various others) in a military coup. As explained by Francis Ansumana, “Whenever there is fracas in a country, the military must take over”.4 The coup leaders formed a military junta under the name of National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC), which failed at handling the civil war which was then tearing the country apart. Julius Maada Bio stated his desire to return the nation back to a democratic, civilian government and subsequently aided in the arrest of Valentine Strasser and set up elections in 1996, which were won by Ahmad Tejan Kabbah of the SLPP. After yet another military coup, democratically elected President Kabbah was reinstated as Head of State in 1998.

Democratic elections were held again in 2002 which were won by the incumbent Ahmad Tejan Kabbah who was considered to be the “…strong pillar [which] stopped the war in [Sierra Leone]”.5 Kabbah’s two-term limit was up in 2007 when the first post-war elections were held where an incumbent was not eligible to contest.

1 Francis Ansumana, interview by Karen Kilberg, Bo, Sierra Leone, December 11, 2011.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.


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