Sierra Leone

Introduction | Atrocities | Fatalities | Ending | Coding | Works Cited | Notes


By the time war began in Sierra Leone in 1991, the state had already withered, leaving much of the country beyond the capital of Freetown outside its weakening capacity for governance.[i] To the extent that state institutions functioned, they provided a façade for power relations based on personality and structured around control of resources—a clientelist system of governance that began to crumble in the 1980s due to internal demographic and socio-economic changes, and the international policies of economic liberalization.[ii] What separates the period of the civil war, therefore, is not the logic, but the degree of violence deployed in pursuit of personality-based power structures and the resources to maintain patronage networks.[iii] Hence, while the war is often characterized as representing a new breed of greed-motivated rebels, it may be more accurate to say that the war rendered this existing pattern of contestation highly lethal as the center collapsed and multiple actors, many of whom switched sides as the conflict progressed, violently jostled for power.

The war began when the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), led by Foday Sankoh and backed by Liberia’s Charles Taylor launched an invasion of Sierra Leone from Liberia in 1991. The

Sierra Leone Army (SLA) fought against the RUF. According to a 2006 analysis of multiple datasets on the conflict,[iv] the RUF was responsible for the majority of the killings and the largest share of other abuses against civilians.

Atrocities, 1991 – 1999

Sierra Leone’s TRC describes the violence during the civil war thus:

Reports emerged of indiscriminate amputations, abductions of women and children, recruitment of children as combatants, rape, sexual slavery, cannibalism, gratuitous killings and wanton destruction of villages and towns. This was a war measured not so much in battles and confrontations between combatants as in attacks upon civilian populations. Its awesome climax was the destruction of much of Freetown in January 1999.[v]

There were several periods of heightened lethal violence during the war: in 1991; 1994-1995 during a major RUF offensive; and 1998 – 9 when the capital Freetown was invaded.[vi] Civilians were targeted for violence based on several factors: ethnicity, faith, gender, wealth, and more locally-determined rivalries and fluctuating contexts. The RUF perpetrated the majority of violations, followed by the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC, included some elements of the SLA), and Civilian Defense Forces (CDF). The latter group was composed of a number of loosely organized, locally-based self-defense groups, including the kamajors. It is important to understand the fluidity between groups—individuals switched sides regularly and groups formed coalitions that merged and split across the conflict.

From 1991 to 1993, the violence took shape within the context of a conventional war between the RUF and SLA. The RUF’s focus on controlling civilian settlements as a means of controlling territory and systematic self-enrichment, resulted in civilian deaths and extensive displacement. The Sierra Leonean government’s failure to adequately supply frontline troops in its military (the SLA) led to a coup, installing 26-year old Sergeant Valentine Strasser at the helm of a military junta (the National Provisional Ruling Council, or NPRC) in December 1992.[vii] Once in power, the NPRC increased the war effort, while also targeting its opposition. The army preyed on the civilian population but was able to push the RUF back with the aid of troops from Guinea and Nigeria, with whom they had a mutual defense pact.[viii] In December 1993, Strasser announced a unilateral cease-fire.[ix]

Several factors worked against the consolidation of peace at this point in time: rifts within the army, scheming of various political actors, the failure to completely defeat the RUF, the rise in self-protection militias (often along ethnic lines, these were established by local groups, as the army failed to protect civilians and often committed abuses), and the possibility of access to wealth through the looting made possible by continuing the conflict.

A second phase (1994 – 1997) can be characterized by a shift in tactic by the RUF towards guerilla warfare, during which time they conducted smaller scale, and more geographically defuse “hit and run” attacks. The TRC describes the pattern of violence during this time period: “Among the atrocities attributable to the RUF during this period are several massacres of entire resident populations of townships in each of the Provinces of the country.”[x] However, there are some disputes about which groups perpetrated which acts of violence during this phase. The RUF allegedly dressed in SLA uniforms for several attacks, stoking confusion, but some researchers have noted that attacks attributed to the RUF were also rumored to be associated with forces from the SLA.[xi] Nonetheless, there is no question that the RUF made advances and came close to reaching Freetown.

In May 1995, the government hired South African mercenaries, Executive Outcomes, to secure Freetown, regain key areas (including diamonds mines), destroy the RUF headquarters, and diminish the rebels’ capabilities. They achieved a series of successes that, combined with concerted civil society pressure for a political response, pushed the government to call elections on February 26, 1996. The pre-electoral period was marked by extensive human rights abuses, by the both pro-government forces and RUF, as there were actors within each who stood to benefit from continuing armed conflict. Nonetheless, elections were held and Tejan Kabbah emerged as president. On November 30, 1996, the government signed the Abidjan peace accord with the RUF, providing an amnesty for the RUF and the withdrawal of Executive Outcomes.

After the election, local defense units that had been in existence in a variety of forms throughout the war, gained, as Danny Hoffman argues, “a greater degree of organizational coherence.”[xii] Multiple groups, including the kamajor, a name given to the largely ethnic Mende[xiii] self-protection armed groups, were integrated under the umbrella name, the Civilian Defense Forces (CDF), and became the de facto army of the elected government.

The final phase, 1997 – 2000, with multiple assaults on Freetown was the most intensively lethal period of the conflict.[xiv] It began with a violent coup on May 25, 1997, by the newly created Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC, included some elements of the SLA), headed by Maj. Johnny Paul Koroma. The AFRC forged a fractious alliance with the RUF in May 1997. Condemned internationally and suffering internal rifts, the junta’s time in power was short. In February 1998, the CDF and ECOMOG, a Nigerian-led coalition of West African countries, launched a military intervention that reinstalled the elected government. They retook Freetown, and brought Kabbah back to power,[xv] but the RUF aligned-forces were allowed to flee the city.

Atrocities escalated to a peak in January 1999, when AFRC/RUF forces attempted to retake the capital. This is also the period when a policy of amputations was inflicted on the civilian population.[xvi] The assault on the capitol culminated a campaign of terror in the north, arriving in Freetown in January 1999. Thousands of civilians were killed. The RUF/AFRC targeted civilians during the invasion of Freetown — Operation “No Living Thing” — resulted in the deaths of several thousands non-combatants. In its defense of the government, ECOMOG forces also committed human rights abuses.

Under increasing international pressure on both the government and RUF, the key Sierra Leonean actors committed to an ECOWAS-hosted mediation effort, beginning on May 25, 1999. On July 7, 1999, the Lomé Peace Agreement was signed, providing provisions for a ceasefire, disarmament of combatants and a political settlement through power-sharing. The UN Assistance Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMISIL) established on October 22, 1999[xvii] that is credited with a positive role in helping to stabilize the nation.[xviii] The level of violence de-escalated in 2000, with the AFRC/RUF forces reduced to ambushes and “less systemic” violence.[xix]

In early May 2000, the RUF took some 300 UN peacekeepers hostage, provoking a strong military response by a coalition of forces from the government, UK, ECOMOG, and the UN peacekeeping force, with the effect of firmly defeating the RUF. Foday Sankoh, the RUF leader, was arrested in 2000 and eventually handed over to the tribunal for Sierra Leone, where he died while awaiting trial. From 2000 to 2002, the intensity of atrocities decreased to “more sporadic” levels of violence.[xx]

Of the country’s estimated population of 4.5 million, roughly 2 million people were displaced internally near the end of the conflict in 2000, with several hundred thousand additional displaced in surrounding countries.

The conflict was extensively internationalized, warranting a review of key activities undertaken by outside actors:

  • Liberia, under Charles Taylor, supported the RUF, and Libya provided some training to anti-government forces;
  • March 1995: Sierra Leone, with the financial backing of the International Monetary Fund, hired South African paramilitary group Executive Outcomes to destroy the rebellion.
  • June 1997: Nigeria (major West African power) sent troops through ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) to Freetown to maintain stability. They were unable to end the rebellion, but maintained the security of Freetown until the 1999 invasion.
  • The UN Observer Mission to Sierra Leone (UNOMSIL) was established on July 1998.
  • Summer 1999: The United States privately pressured the government to negotiate with the rebel forces.
  • October 1999: The United Nations created a major peacekeeping force, the United Nations Mission to Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), to enforce the Lomé Peace Accord and take over from the ECOWAS forces.
  • May 2000: The United Kingdom sent in troops to secure its evacuation efforts. A British force remained in-country until the conflict was officially declared ended in 2002. They provided basic security services to Freetown and major training and operational support for government forces (CDF) and UNAMSIL.
  • June 2000: The United Kingdom publicized intelligence illustrating Charles Taylor’s key role in perpetuating the conflict.
  • July 2000, UNSC imposed an embargo on diamonds from Sierra Leone, unless government-certified.
  • August 2000; 11 UK soldiers were taken hostage; UK rescue mission released hostages and attacked a militia known as the West Side Boys.
  • October 2000: The United States imposed a U.S. travel ban on Taylor, his family, and his associates, began training operations for troops from West African nations.
  • 10 November 2000; ceasefire signed under auspices of ECOWAS. 

Fatalities: 30,000 – 50,000

While the range of estimates is 10,000 – 70,000, we believe, as noted below, that the range of 30,000 – 50,000 is more accurate.

In 2006, Benetech Human Rights Data Analysis Group and the American Bar Association published a report, “Truth and Myth in Sierra Leone: An Empirical Analysis of the Conflict, 1991- 2000,”[xxi] which described the researchers’ analysis of three datasets documenting violence in Sierra Leone: the original TRC data, data collected by the Campaign for Good Governance, and newly collected data by the ABA/Benetech Sierra Leone War Crimes Documentation Survey (SLWCD). The report covers the time period 1991 – 2000, and produces evidence that 10,000 – 30,000 noncombatants died in the conflict.[xxii] Earlier estimates suggests wider range—and most a significantly higher death toll–but none were based on systematic data collection.

Multiple sources document the assaults on Freetown in 1999, as the height of killing, even if the numbers vary. In 1999, in a report on the attack on Freetown, Human Rights Watch wrote, “This latest rebel offensive brought to the capital the same class of atrocities witnessed in Sierra Leone’s rural provinces over the last eight years and is the latest cycle of violence in an armed conflict that has claimed an estimated 50,000 lives and caused the displacement of more than one million Sierra Leoneans.”[xxiii] A Physicians for Human Rights report states that at least 5,000 civilians were killed during this battle for Freetown.[xxiv] Keen writes that the “government’s senior pathologist registered the burials of 7,335 corpses” of people killed in the January 6 incursion that lasted about three weeks until ECOMOG could fully kick them out of the city.[xxv]

In a report evaluating UNDP assistance to Sierra Leone, Mary Kaldor and James Vincent estimate that “70,000 people were killed” (it appears that this number refers to all fatalities) during the conflict and 2.6 million displaced (half the population).[xxvi] A special issue of Conciliation Resources Accord on Sierra Leone (2000) edited by David Lord offers a wider range: “civilian casualties continuously mounted. Current estimates range from 30,000 to 75,000 war related deaths, although these figures are impossible to confirm.”[xxvii] Lord’s volume, it must be noted, appeared before conflict fully concluded.

Benetech ABA

Graph from ABA/Benetech Report, 2006, 6.

There are discrepancies between various data sources about precisely when killing reached its highest spike. In a study of three datasets recording various violations against civilians, Benetech/ABA (2006) notes rough consensus on the periods of elevated killing, even if the number of fatalities each set records demonstrate inconsistencies.[xxviii] There were three significant spikes of killing over the course of the conflict, both largely attributable to the RUF: the first occurred at the onset of the war, declining in 1992; and the second, spiking beginning in 1993, rising to a peak in 1995. This does not necessarily correlate with the patterns of other types of violations, for example, crimes that occurred when a population was under the control of the forces, like arbitrary detention, extortion, forced labor, forced recruitment and rape. All three sources demonstrate a third spike in 1997 – 1998 that rivals the spike in 1995.


On 18 January 2002, civil war was declared over. However, for our purposes the last significant increase in killing as reported by the TRC is 1999.

The decline has already occurred when, in early 2000, the international community increased the military pressure against the rebel forces, with major moves to bolster UNAMSIL supplemented with UK forces on the ground and a diplomatic offensive against Liberia to halt its support of the RUF. Civil society demonstrations forced RUF leader Sankoh to flee; he left behind evidence of Charles Taylor’s direct involvement in the conflict. New RUF leader Issa Sessa folded, and while rebel forces did not immediately submit to the DDR process, a series of negotiated ceasefires in Abuja led to a disarmament, demobilization and reintegration process that impacted thousands of combatants.[xxix]

The Special Court for Sierra Leone, created in 2002 as a joint venture of the Sierra Leonean government and the United Nations, indicted leaders of the AFRC, the RUF, and the CDF, as well as former President of Liberia Charles Taylor. A domestic Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created by the 1999 Lomé Peace Accord, and begun in 2002, operated until 2004. Spasms of instability gripped the country during subsequent elections in 2002 and 2007, but the most recent election in 2012 was almost entirely peaceful. No major voting irregularities occurred in any of these elections.

These various post-conflict policies and mechanisms may well have helped consolidate the peace, but they occur after the decline in killing.


The primary cause of the ending of this atrocities period was the defeat of the RUF by combined domestic and international military forces. We also code this case as having a non-state actor as the primary perpetration of atrocities and note the moderating influence of international actors, who pressured regional actors, sponsored conflict mediation process and authorized the peacekeeping force, UNAMSIL. This influenced a shift in strategy for domestic actors. We further code for multiple victim groups, as civilians were targeted by many forces for multiple reasons.

Works Cited

Abdullah, Ibrahim. 2004. Between Democracy and Terror: The Sierra Leone Civil War. Dakar, Senegal: Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa.

Baù, Valentina. “Media and Conflict in Sierra Leone: National and International Perspectives of the Civil War.” Global Media Journal 4.1 (2010): 20-27.

Benetech Human Rights Data Analysis Group and the American Bar Association. 2006. “Truth and Myth in Sierra Leone: An Empirical Analysis of the Conflict, 1991 – 2000.” March 28. Available at: Accessed January 9, 2017.

Dorman, Andrew M. 2009. Blair’s Successful War: British Military Intervention in Sierra Leone. Farnham, England: Ashgate.

Gberie, Lansana. 2005. A Dirty War in West Africa: The RUF and the Destruction of Sierra Leone. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP.

Gohdes, Anita. 2010. “Different Convenience Samples, Different Stories: The Case of Sierra Leone.” Benetech. April 6. Available at:

Hoffman, Danny. 2007. “The Meaning of a Milita: Understanding the Civil Defense Forces of the Sierra Leone.” African Affairs 106/425, 639 – 662.

Human Rights Watch. 1999. Sierra Leone: Getting Away with Murder, Mutilation, Rape. New York: Human Rights Watch, July. Available at:

Kaldor, Mary, and James Vincent. 2006. Evaluation of UNDP Assistance to Conflict-Affected Countries; Case Study: Sierra Leone. Available at:

Keen, David. 2005. Conflict and Collusion in Sierra Leone. Oxford: James Currey.

Lahneman, William J. 2004. Military Intervention: Cases in Context for the Twenty-first Century. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Leboeuf, Aline. 2008. Sierra Leone: List of extremely violent events perpetrated during the War, 1991-2002, Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, published on 5 March. Accessed 28 October 2013. Available at: <>.

Lord, Richard. 2000. “Introduction: the struggle for power and peace in Sierra Leone” In Paying the Price the Sierra Leone peace process.” London: Conciliation Recources, September. Available at: Accessed January 9, 2016.

Mutwol, Julius. 2009. Peace Agreements and Civil Wars in Africa: Insurgent Motivations, State Responses, and Third-party Peacemaking in Liberia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone. Amherst, NY: Cambria.

Physicians for Human Rights. 2002. “War-Related Sexual Violence in Sierra Leone: A Population-Based Assessment.” Boston, MA: Physicians for Human Rights.

Reno, William. 2003. “Political Networks in a Failing State: The Roots and Future of Violent Conflict in Sierra Leone” in Internationale Politik and Gesellschaft 2/2003: 44 – 66.

Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). 2004. Witness to Truth: Report of the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Volume Two. Accra, Ghana.

Weissman, Fabrice. 2004. In the Shadow of ‘Just Wars’: Violence, Politics, and Humanitarian Action. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP.


[i] Gberie 2005, 10.

[ii] Reno 2003, 45 – 6; Lord 2000, 11.

[iii] Reno 2003, 46

[iv] Benetech Human Rights Data Analysis Group and the American Bar Association 2006.

[v] TRC 2004, 3.

[vi] Gohdes 2010, 7.

[vii] Gberie 2005, 68.

[viii] Keen 2005, 36 and 95.

[ix] Keen 2005, 118. Qualitative research on this period raises significant question about the composition and allegiances of various armed units from all three of the groups involved in the conflict at this point in time, the SLA, RUF and local groups. Keen documents evidence that RUF attacks against local armed groups and displaced camps were widely believed at the time to have been conducted by the SLA.

[x] TRC 2004, 42.

[xi] Keen 2005.

[xii] Hoffman 2007, 642.

[xiii] Hoffman (2007) argues that while the groups were largely Mende, they also included youths from mixed Liberia or Liberian/Sierra Leonean background, many of whom operated as special forces across regional conflicts. He also argues that the command structure was organized more around the ability to disperse materials than control over specific battle-related organization.

[xiv] Work by a Benetech/ABA team documents this period as experiencing the highest level of killing, noting that throughout the conflict, violence tended to be higher when it was more geographically concentrated (2006, 2). See also Physicians for Human Rights (2002), who conducted a survey in IDP camps in 2003, focusing primarily on sexual violence. They found that “the majority of abuses reported by participants in the PHR study occurred between 1997 and 1999 and, when known, were attributed primarily to forces from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF),” (2).

[xv] Gberie 2005, 116.

[xvi] TRC 2004, 246.

[xvii] UNAMISIL was originally mandated at 6,000 military personnel; its size was expanded to 11,000 military personnel and its mandate revised in February 2000. In March 2001, the force was increased to 13,000 military personnel. A third increase was mandated on March 30, 2001, to 17,500. For more information about UNAMSIL, see

[xviii] TRC 2004, 49

[xix] Leboeuf 2008. 16.

[xx] Leboeuf 2008, 17.

[xxi] Benetech Human Rights Data Analysis Group and the American Bar Association 2006.

[xxii] Benetech Human Rights Data Analysis Group and the American Bar Association 2006, 4.

[xxiii] Human Rights Watch 1999.

[xxiv] Human Rights 2002, 19.

[xxv]Keen 2005, 228 and 246.

[xxvi] Kaldor and Vincent 2006.

[xxvii] Lord 2000, 13.

[xxviii] Benetech Human Rights Data Analysis Group and the American Bar Association 2006, 4; see also Gohdes 2010, 7.

[xxix] Mutwol 2009.

This entry was posted in Africa, Defeat and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply