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Mediterranean Quarterly 12.4 (2001) 90-105

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Diamonds, Ethnicity, and Power: The Case of Sierra Leone

J. Anyu Ndumbe

Since independence in 1961, Sierra Leone has had numerous ethnic and political conflicts. Like many African countries, it is home to a multicultural society with some seventeen ethnic groups broadly divided into two main groups--the Mende and the West Atlantic groups. 1 Minor ethnic disputes can easily degenerate into armed struggle. The civil war (1991 to 2000) in Sierra Leone was eventually a struggle of various ethnic groups to control the diamond-rich mines of the country and external influences. The interplay of these factors paved the way for the tragedy that the world has witnessed in Sierra Leone over the past decades.

Ethnic Politics

Freetown is the seat of power, where all major policy decisions are made. In some cases, local concerns are relegated to the background, often resulting in inequitable distribution of resources that, over the years, has led to alienation and a sense of neglect among the rural population. Such deprivations culminate in violent reactions to address the injustices. In the 1960s, Sierra Leone had one of the best public sector structures in Africa. Its workers were professionally trained, and a regulatory apparatus was in place to deal with challenges confronting this new nation. The public sector began to witness [End Page 90] harbingers of decay and inefficiency in the 1970s. Political interference and manipulation by successive politicians and the army resulted in financial mismanagement, gross inefficiency, favoritism, nepotism, and political corruption. 2 These factors limited the ability of the government to deal with the problems facing the nation. The result was frustration and often labor strikes, coup d'états, or the formation of new political parties to address matters of national concern.

Political activities at the national level tend to take on an ethnic dimension because of the absence of class distinctions. Sierra Leone has been plagued by ethnic tensions, which extend to the major political parties. Already by 1961, the power struggle between the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) and the All People's Congress (APC) was evident. The SLPP, the oldest political party in the southern region of the country, had led Sierra Leone to independence, but shortly thereafter it faced serious challenges from the APC, the majority party in the north. The birth of the APC emanated from dissatisfaction among northerners of a perceived Mende hegemony in government. As a solution, the APC espoused socialism and promised the northerners equality of opportunity. Soon, the acrimony between the SLPP and the APC involved the military. In 1961 Sir Milton Margai, the prime minister and leader of the majority party, the SLPP, ordered the arrest of prominent members of the APC, including Siaka Stevens. 3

The country became increasingly polarized after the death of Prime Minister Margai in 1964. This polarization gradually filtered itself into the military. The events surrounding the 1967 general elections showed that the military was affected by the political dynamics in the country at the time, as military leaders sided with either of the major political parties. The head of the army, Brigadier David Lansana, supported the SLPP, while the assistant head of the army, John Bangura, backed the APC. Although the election was fought along ethnic lines, it failed to produce a clear majority, giving the army an opportunity to overthrow the civil government. Although the coup was designed to establish a tranquil political atmosphere, it gave junior army officers a license to mount a coup whenever they disagreed with the [End Page 91] public policy of their seniors. This happened in 1968, when junior army officers intervened to install the head of the APC, Stevens, as prime minister.

Stevens's accession to power was followed by charges of electoral fraud brought against SLPP parliamentarians. This particular situation further poisoned the political atmosphere between the two major parties to the extent that political intimidation and violence characterized the elections of 1973 and 1977. During these elections, the APC used all resources at its disposal to not only thwart the...


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