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Underlying Causes of the Sierra Leone Civil War Essay

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Updated: Jul 22nd, 2021


Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil conflict officially came to a halt in January 2002 after the British military successfully intervened to stop rebel insurgents (Dorman 352). Regardless, the conflict is yet to end entirely as some aspects of viciousness and brutality still linger in the thoughts of Sierra Leoneans. The unfortunate outcomes of the war, both in numbers and in the reality of the situation, raise the question of what other factors may have further contributed to the war. Much literature alludes to the idea that civil conflicts are to a large extent inspired by opportunities for economic gain, other than social and political dissatisfaction. This assumption regarding the key role of profitable opportunities appears conceivable enough to justify the persistence and intensification of a civil conflict. Nonetheless, one can assume there is a strong connection between a mindless rebel movement, motivation for greed, and a civil conflict. Some scholars agree that historical and political contexts merely contribute to civil wars as evidence of economic gains continues to surface.

The recently concluded trial of the former president, Charles Taylor, is a clear indication of the unforgettable scars left after 11 years of one of history’s bloodiest civil wars. Having been found guilty of facilitating the civil war in April 2012, a victim with amputated forearms communicated with BBC, explaining, ‘Taylor should be locked up 100 years for his role in the civil war atrocities’ (BBC). While starting with Charles Taylor’s role in the infamous civil war, this paper will elaborate on some of the origins of the Sierra Leone civil conflict. The paper will begin by discussing the formation of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and its primary role in the commencement of the civil conflict. The second section demonstrates how the forced recruitment of child soldiers directly resulted in an all-out civil conflict between the RUF and the rebels. The subsequent section will provide a discourse on some of the economic causes of the civil war in Sierra Leone. The final section expounds on how Sierra Leone’s colonial history enabled the nation’s 11-year civil war.

The Founding of the RUF and its Incursion in Sierra Leone

RUF Founding Members

The RUF, militarily backed by the Liberian Charles Taylor, was the chief protagonist in the Sierra Leone civil war. The RUF was formed by three Sierra Leon citizens who received soldierly training in Libya between the years 1987-1988: Rashid Mansaray, Foday Sankoh, and Abu Kanu (Omeje 118). However, the atrocious acts committed by the three do not illustrate their motivation to commence the war. Hence there is a need to scrutinize the three founders to get a better comprehension of the RUF rebel group. Initially, the RUF was merely an organization composed of three military-trained individuals until they traveled to Liberian to recruit fighters, and ultimately by 1989, they managed to strike a deal with Charles Taylor to provide him with military assistance in his National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) battles (Spatz et al. 165). Sankoh would later become the spokesperson of the organization and, as the war began, he consolidated his power by executing 300 of the members, including two of the original founders Kanu and Mansaray. According to Day, “Kanu and Mansaray could have threatened Sankoh’s position considering that they were both revered for their strategic brilliance” (830). Tar and Wapmuk note that the ‘execution of the radical intellectuals of the RUF marked the launch of inhumane attacks on civilians in contradiction to the ostensible objective of forming a revolutionary egalitarian structure’ (266).

External Features

The Sierra Leone conflict was closely linked with West African politics. The partaking of the NPFL and Taylor’s supply of weapons to the RUF was part of a political plot orchestrated by Sankoh and Taylor. Initially, Taylor had attempted to establish a political alliance with the then Sierra Leone president, Joseph Saidu Momoh. Wapmuk explains that Taylor had made an official visit to Freetown to ask the president for “authorization to utilize Sierra Leone as an operational headquarters to coordinate and Launch attacks at Liberia” (270). Taylor’s request was disallowed, which caused him to realize the need to have a pro-NPFL regime in Sierra Leone. Additionally, the establishment of the Nigerian-coordinated Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the subsequent formation of ECOMOG, the ECOWAS monitoring organization, provoked Taylor’s decision to wage war against the West African nation alliance (Dennis and Brown 260). To make matters worse, Sierra Leone had already dispatched 300 troops to serve in ECOMOG, which further fuelled Taylor’s resentment towards the Momoh administration. Also, considering that the border region between Liberia and Sierra Leone was rich in natural resources, including diamonds, destabilization of Sierra Leone was a top priority to ascertaining Taylor’s economic interests (Dorward 73).

The other major external that incidentally instigated Sierra Leone’s civil confrontation was Libya. Taking into account Libya’s military training given to the three founders of the RUF, Taylor’s movement was well aligned with Gadaffi’s youth-oriented revolutionary idea. It is no secret that Taylor was a Gadaffi protégé, and for this reason, the Libyan regime supplied arms to the RUF and Taylor’s illegitimate government in Liberia (Bauer et al., 252). In the long run, the availability of external backing limited the Sierra Leoneans ‘ government’s ability to thwart a violent and bloody civil war.

Forced Recruitment of Child Soldiers

Indeed, a large number of children were drafted into the conflict by both the regime forces and the RUF. Even though there hasn’t been a precise number of children recruited into the two factions, the estimated figures by varying agencies suggest the number was high. For instance, the United Nations (UN) Children Fund (UNICEF) approximated that 6,000 kids were exposed to violence over the course of the conflict. The UN Assistance Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) indicated that 10,000 children were recruited in numerous hostile factions (Jang). One UNICEF report indicates that 8466 youngsters were officially listed as missing between the years 1991 and 2002, with more than 4448 kids missing solely in 1991. Also, more than 50,000 individuals are approximated to have died from the conflict while top-thirds of the total Sierra Leonean populace got displaced. These numbers, however, do not indicate the actual resentment and agony experienced by the victims. To date, former child soldiers, as well as individual Sierra Leoneans, are still recuperating from the psychological and physical pains inflicted by the civil conflict.

Economic Causes of the Sierra Leone Civil Conflict

Selfish Personal Gain

Many scholars agree that personal material gain significantly contributes to civil war. For instance, Voors et al. agree that “civil wars are to a great extent caused by financial opportunities than by political grievance, and grievance-based justifications barely touch base on the issue of civil conflict,” a point of view backed by three major key research findings (282). The researchers found that the export of chief produces, a large number of youth, and low education levels increase the probability of civil war outbreaks (Voors et al. 283). Omeje also takes a similar stance while further adding that the probability of civil unrest increases in the presence of a large diaspora, a low economic growth rate, a high and dispersed population, and finally, a diminutive per capita income (121). Furthermore, Matsumoto elucidates that political grievances may not directly cause a civil conflict due to the issue of collective action while continuing to highlight that though people may no longer want to see a certain government in power, they may lack the will or personal interest to join the rebellion (8). Moreover, the fragmented nature of rebellious groups diminishes the chances of attaining the objective of greater justice. Additionally, the benefits of a rebellious uprising in most instances take years to materialize.

Sierra Leon’s Diamonds

Sierra Leone is a country with a large diamond reserve, and for this reason, competition for seizing and controlling the lucrative diamond regions is widely viewed as the primary cause of the civil conflict. Based on a study, exploitable secondary diamonds are closely linked to the incidence of ethnic conflict, while primary diamonds (Kimberlite) have less impact because they require stable state structures (Klosek, 140). Sierra Leone’s mining sector was based on both primary and secondary diamond exploration; however, neither the inadequate distribution of resources nor quality of governance directly affects conflict intensity in Sierra Leone (Voors 285). Even though diamonds did not play a role in initiating the civil conflict, they played a vital role by offering the RUF a source of funding to sustain its war. Both the government soldiers and the RUF engaged in illegal mining while battles often took place in diamond-rich areas (Pires and Crooks 179). The RUF was estimated to accrue a yearly profit of $200 million from 1991-99 (Pires and Crooks 180). Pires and Cook further explain that the illicit diamonds were used to pay Charles Taylor in exchange for guns and ammunition (181).

Some of the issues emanating from the abundant diamond reserve enlighten Sierra Leone’s structural inequality, which, in turn, fuelled the war. For example, diamond mines were owned by the ruling families and loyal government supporters. The government’s inability to collect adequate tax from the diamond industry coupled with low issuance of the purchase price from the Government Diamond Office (GDO) invigorated smuggling while the country’s civil sectors stayed underfunded. Ultimately, the worsening social, economic situations exacerbated the frustration of disenfranchised groups and led to the escalation of rebel activities (Albrecht 150).

Sierra Leon’s Colonial History

Legacy of Imperial Rule

Sierra Leon’s civil war is a product of the country’s colonial period. During British imperial rule, the emergence of a two-class society provided an environment for popular discontent against the ruling class. Post-colonial mishandling of the state, especially in the 1967-84 Siaka Steven administration, completely shattered the state’s ability to care for its people. As a result, young people both in rural areas and cities became marginalized society members devoid of access to education and employment. Britain’s indirect rule of Sierra Leone entailed the subdivision of the country into chiefdoms. Chieftaincy became an inheritable role, and, as such, competition for the position became intense and vicious among ruling families owing to the economic rewards given to the appointed chiefs (Basu 240). The feuds among ruling families caused tension among rural community members. Community members also ended up loathing chiefs for abuses such as unpopular land allocations, forced labor, and exaggerated cash levies (Basu 242). Consequently, the Sierra Leone people, especially the youth, became even more marginalized during the post-colonial era. Hence, Britain’s ill-advised colonial policy laid the foundations for the later failed state. Independence, resentment against the ruling class was inevitable after the central government-appointed chief administrative staff further alienated their own community members through misguided decision-making and exploitative actions.

State Collapse

During the post-independence period, Prime Minister Siaka Stevens ruled Sierra Leone from the years 1968-1992 (Edwards and Yilmaz 353). His regime demonstrated the attributes of a shadow state. In 1976, Stevens gained control of the country’s diamond mining sector through phony privatization, enabling him to earn approximately $300 million a year. He further extended his privatization efforts to the oil refining, road transport, and agricultural marketing sectors (Edwards and Yilmaz 354). Instead of establishing a well-organized and competitive market, Stevens merely increased his personal fortunes, thereby strengthening the country’s resemblance of a shadow state. Stevens further offered benefits to senior army officers to buy loyalty (Tom, 279). The patrimonial generosity ultimately culminated in a government budget deficit, and the state went on to become bankrupt. After Momoh’s takeover in 1985, he pursued strict austerity processes, which resulted in major budget cuts in the education and health sectors. The budget cut led to the closure of numerous schools and colleges because the government lacked the money to pay teachers. All things considered, the RUF was justified in its rebellious acts against the government.

Ostracized Youth

The number of secondary school students increased from 16,414 to 96 709 from the years 1969 to 1990 (Novelli and Higgins 36). Even so, roughly 60,000 of them were employed by 1985 as university students experienced difficulty in securing jobs (Novelli and Higgins 38). Shrinking education opportunities coupled with limited job opportunities led to nationwide student protests while the increasing number of unemployed youth began to indulge in criminal activity. The marginalized youth was therefore left with the option of either joining government or RUF as combatants.


The civil war broke out in 1991 after the RUF entered the Sierra Leone Districts of Pujehun and Kailahun from Liberia, which marked the beginning of the murder of thousands of innocent people by both rebel and government soldiers in the course of an 11 year period. Regardless of the seriousness of the atrocities committed during the civil conflict, one should be cautious not to categorize the causes of the civil clash based on the developments and aftermaths of the conflict. Therefore, the shared conviction that diamonds were the major reason for Sierra Leone’s 11-year civil war is questionable.

Works Cited

Albrecht, Peter. Hybridization, Intervention, and Authority: Security Beyond Conflict in Sierra Leone. Routledge, 2019.

Basu, Paul. “Palimpsest Memoryscapes: Materializing and Mediating War and Peace in Sierra Leone.” Reclaiming Heritage, edited by Ferdinand de Jong and Michael Rowlands, Routledge, 2016, pp. 231-259.

Bauer, Michal, et al. “Can War Foster Cooperation?” Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 30, no. 3, 2016, pp. 249-74.

BBC, Web.

Dennis, Peter, and Leann Brown. “The ECOWAS: From Regional Economic Organization to Regional Peacekeeper.” Comparative Regional Integration, edited by Finn Laursen, Routledge, 2018, pp. 249-270.

Dorman, Andrew. Blair’s Successful War: British Military Intervention in Sierra Leone, Routledge, 2016.

Day, Christopher. “Bush Path To Self-Destruction: Charles Taylor and The Revolutionary United Front.” Small Wars & Insurgencies, vol. 26, no. 5, 2015, pp. 811-835.

Dorward, David. “The Tragedy of Sierre Leone: Diamonds, Warlords and the Failure of the United Nations.” African Identities: Contemporary Political and Social Challenges, Routledge, 2017, pp. 65-77.

Edwards, Benjamin, and Serdar Yilmaz. “Decentralization as a Post‐Conflict Stabilization Tool: The Case of Sierra Leone.” Public Administration and Development, vol. 36, no. 5, 2016, pp. 347-358.

Jang, Se Young. “The Causes of The Sierra Leone Civil War.” E-International Relations Students. 2012, Web.

Klosek, Kamil. 2015, Web.

Matsumoto, Mitsuko. “Three Strands of Explanations on Root Causes of Civil War in Low-Income and Weak States in Sub-Saharan Africa: Implications for Education.” International Journal of Educational Development, vol. 49, 2016, pp. 1-10.

Novelli, Mario, and Sean Higgins. “The Violence of Peace and the Role of Education: Insights from Sierra Leone.” Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, vol. 47, no.1, 2017, pp. 32-45.

Omeje, Kenneth. “Greed or Grievance? Diamonds, Rent-Seeking and the Civil War in Sierra Leone (1991–2002).” Extractive Economies and Conflicts in the Global South, Routledge, 2017, pp. 111-124.

Pires, Bianica, and Andrew Crooks. “The Geography of Conflict Diamonds: The Case of Sierra Leone.” International Conference on Social Computing, Behavioral-Cultural Modeling and Prediction and Behavior Representation in Modeling and Simulation, Springer, Cham, 2016.

Spatz, Benjamin J, and Kai M. Thaler. “Has Liberia Turned a Corner?” Journal of Democracy, vol. 29, no. 3, 2018, pp. 156-170.

Tar, Usman A, and Sharkdam Wapmuk. “The Revolutionary United Front, Liberian Warlords and Civil War in Sierra Leone.” Violent Non-State Actors in Africa, Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, 2017, pp. 251-275.

Tom, Patrick. Liberal Peace and Post-Conflict Peace Building in Africa. Springer, 2017. Voors, Maarten, et al. “Resources and governance in Sierra Leone’s civil war.” The Journal of Development Studies, vol. 53, no. 2, 2017, pp. 278-294.

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