The Bulom people were thought to have been the earliest inhabitants of Sierra Leone, followed by the Mende and Temne peoples in the 15th century and thereafter the Fulani. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to explore the land and gave Sierra Leone its name, which means "lion mountains." Freetown was ceded to English settlers in 1787 as a home for blacks discharged from the British armed forces and for runaway slaves who found asylum in London. In 1808, the coastal area became a British colony. In 1896, a British protectorate was proclaimed over the hinterland.
Sierra Leone became an independent nation on April 27, 1961. A military coup overthrew the civilian government in 1967, which was replaced by civilian rule a year later. The country declared itself a republic on April 19, 1971.
A coup attempt early in 1971 led to then Prime Minister Siaka Stevens calling in troops from neighboring Guinea's army, which remained for two years. Stevens turned the government into a one-party state under the aegis of the All People's Congress Party in April 1978. In 1992, rebel soldiers overthrew Stevens' successor, Joseph Momoh, calling for a return to a multi-party system. In 1996, another military coup ousted the country's military leader and president. A multi-party presidential election proceeded in 1996, and People's Party candidate Ahmad Tejan Kabbah won, becoming Sierra Leone's first democratically elected president.
A violent military coup ousted President Kabbah's government in May 1997. The leader of the coup, Lt. Col. Johnny Paul Koroma, assumed the title Head of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). Koroma began a reign of terror, destroying the economy and murdering enemies. The Commonwealth of Nations demanded the reinstatement of Kabbah. Kabbah resumed his rule on March 10, 1998. The ousted junta continued to wage attacks, many of which included the torture, rape, and brutal maiming of thousands of civilians, including countless children. Amputation by machete was the signature of the rebels. In addition to political power, the rebels, who were supported by Liberia's president Charles Taylor, sought control of Sierra Leone's rich diamond fields.
In January 1999, rebels stormed the capital, demanding the release of the imprisoned Revolutionary United Front (RUF) leader, Foday Sankoh. President Kabbah released Sankoh so he could participate in peace negotiations. Kabbah agreed to a power-sharing agreement in July 1999. Sankoh became vice president and put in charge of the diamond mines. The accord dissolved in May 2000 after the RUF abducted UN peacekeepers and attacked Freetown. Sankoh was captured and died in government custody in 2003, while awaiting trial for war crimes.
The civil war from 1991 to 2002 resulted in an estimated 50,000 people killed and the displacement of more than 2 million people. President Kabbah was re-elected with 70% of the vote in May 2002.
In 2004, the disarmament of 70,000 soldiers was completed, and a UN sponsored war crimes tribunal opened.
The military took over full responsibility for security following the departure of UN peacekeepers at the end of 2005. The armed forces remained on the sideline during the 2007 presidential election, but still looked to the UN Integrated Office in Sierra Leone (UNIOSIL) to support efforts to consolidate peace.
The trial of Charles Taylor on charges of crimes against humanity began at a UN criminal court at The Hague in 2007. He is accused of abetting the violent rebel group in Sierra Leone's civil war that was responsible for atrocities which included hacking off the limbs of civilians, sexual slavery, conscripting child soldiers, and even cannibalism.
In June 2007, three former rebel leaders were convicted of crimes against humanity by a UN-backed court. Alex Tamba Brima, Brima Bazzy Kamara, and Santigie Borbor Kanumurder were found guilty of rape and enlisting child soldiers. It was the first time an international tribunal ruled on the recruitment of children under age 15 as soldiers.
In September 2007 elections, the governing party suffered defeat when Ernest Koroma, of the All People's Congress (APC), defeated Vice President Solomon E. Berewa, of the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP).
In April 2012, the war crimes court at the Hague convicted Charles Taylor of aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone's civil war. In May, he was sentenced to 50 years in prison.
President Ernest Koroma was re-elected in November 2012.
In March 2014, an outbreak of Ebola hit Sierra Leone. President Koroma declared a state of emergency and called in security forces to quarantine areas affected by the outbreak at the end of July.
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