Sierra Leone citizens defend democracy, 1997-1998

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Timing
Time Period:  
May 25,
1997
to
February
1998
Location and Goals
Country: 
Sierra Leone
Goals: 
To restore civilian government
 

Sierra Leone is a West African country of 6 million people. Now a constitutional democracy, dictators and one-party governments ruled for decades and the people endured periods of civil war.

In 1996 the country had its first multiparty elections and freely elected its first civilian government in 34 years. Hope soared. The following year, on May 25, a group of young military officers led a coup that overthrew the government. The new government called itself the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC).

The United Nations Security Council condemned the coup and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) imposed sanctions.

To try to solidify their base, the AFRC invited into the government a rebel group that had been fighting for years in the hinterland. That move further reduced the hope of the people for democratic governance and stability.

Soon after the coup action, the Sierra Leone Labor Congress decided to turn the people’s fear into visible disapproval of the coup by calling on workers to stay home. Civil servants joined the other workers in staying away from their jobs, and the strike spread across the country.

Financial institutions closed and currency virtually disappeared, stimulating the emigration of business people – up to 15,000 left.

Although the mass media were largely suppressed, pro-democracy activists began an illegal radio station, Radio Democracy, which became an important source of communication for the activists. The regime tried to prevent the growing listenership, even killing a girl caught listening to the station, but the station persevered and some newspapers survived the ransacking of their offices, moving repeatedly.

The Sierra Leone Teachers Union was one of the first national associations to condemn the coup and declared a teachers strike until democracy was restored. The national student federation did the same, and called for a mass demonstration on August 18. The government repressed the demonstration with beatings, arrests, and killings.

Isolated, the government defended its violence by accusing the students of being armed. Student Union President Maclean Thomas said, “We have never used AK-47 rifles to demonstrate against the junta because we believe in the ideals of Martin Luther King Jr. by using nonviolent means for our voices to be heard by the whole world.”

Nonviolent demonstrations erupted spontaneously around the country and the continued strikes and boycotts made the country ungovernable. The tactic of protest emigration escalated, with an estimated 500,000 people – especially people with skills and professions – leaving the country. The United Nations imposed sanctions in October.

Finally the power vacuum that the democracy campaign created invited an African peacekeeping force to restore the previous civilian government in April 1998. It was the first time that Africans themselves restored a civilian government that had been broken by a military coup.

Underlying conflicts, including resource issues around such things as diamonds, were not resolved, and years of violence and struggle were still to come. Nevertheless, the people of Sierra Leone demonstrated in 1997 that courageous nonviolent action made it impossible even for the alliance of the regular army and the rebel army to rule Sierra Leone.

Research Notes
Sources: 
George-Williams, Desmond. Bite Not one Another: Selected Accounts of Nonviolent Struggle in Africa. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: University for Peace, Africa Programme, 2006. Chapter 3

Youth for Sierra Leone Improvement, History section of website 10/08: www.youthforsierraleone.com/history_1990_1999.htm

GlobalSecurity.org, a military security think tank based in the U.S. 10/08

www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/sierra_leone.htm

Information Please, 10/08. www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0107959.html

International Committees of the Red Cross Fact Sheet, 9/11/97, on the website of the University of Pennsylvania African Studies Center: www.africa.upenn.edu/Newsletters/irinw_091197.html

Additional Notes: 
Sierra Leone had for decades been ruled by dictators and then got multi-party government, which was overthrown by the military in May 1997. When the regime denounced the student pro-democracy protesters as violent, Student Union President Maclean Thomas said, “We have never used AK-47 rifles to demonstrate against the junta because we believe in the ideals of Martin Luther King Jr. by using nonviolent means for our voices to be heard by the whole world.”

Edited by Max Rennebohm (06/06/2011)

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
George Lakey, 01/10/2008