Civil War In Sierra Leone And The Role Of "Blood Diamonds"

Diamond miners in Sierra Leone sifting through the sand in search of diamonds.
Diamond miners in Sierra Leone sifting through the sand in search of diamonds.

Events Leading Up to the Civil War in Sierra Leone

Although the Civil War of Sierra Leone did not officially begin until 1991, several events occurred in the decades leading up to the 90’s that ultimately pushed the country into violent conflict. Sierra Leone gained its independence from the UK in 1961 and the following years were marked by significant government corruption, inefficiency, and overall failure. Public elections were violent and unsafe, and the educational system began to disintegrate.

The situation was further complicated when Siaka Stevens, the third prime minister, took office in 1968. He served for 17 years and during his term, created a one-party political system which led to the further dismantling of public administrative offices and extreme levels of corruption. In 1985, the fourth prime minister, Joseph Momoh, proved to be one and the same. Under his watch, Sierra Leone suffered an absolute economic crisis. Public officials were left unpaid and, in retaliation, many looted and destroyed government property and offices. This included public school teachers which led to the complete collapse of the public educational system. By 1991, Sierra Leone was one of the most impoverished countries in the world, and its citizens were dissatisfied with their living conditions.

The Conflict Begins

With so many people fed up and the country in a desperate situation, a rebel group began to form. This group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), captured the attention of many individuals with their messages of rebellion. The RUF united with the Liberian rebel group, National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), and on March 23, 1991, the two attempted a coup d’etat on the government of Momoh. RUF was able to gain control of large areas of southern and eastern land. The military of Sierra Leone responded with their own coup d’etat in April of 1992. Fighting between the military and RUF continued until 1995 when the government hired a private military company to fight RUF and by 1996, RUF was ready to sign the Abidjan Peace Accord. Before peace was established, however, the private military forces withdrew, and RUF continued fighting.

Continued Conflict And Political Instability

The government was once again overthrown in 1997 by a group of military officers, who took control and referred to themselves and their government as the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). The AFRC and RUF united their fight and claimed that the war had ended. Violence in the form of robbery, physical assault, and rape took over throughout the country. The following year, the armed forces of the Economic Community of West African States took control of the western region of Sierra Leone. The joined RUF and AFRC troops found themselves pushed into a small area in the northern part of the country by January of 1999.

End Of The War

RUF and the government of Sierra Leone signed the Lome Peace Accord on March 27, 1999. The commander of RUF, Foday Sankoh, took the position of Vice President of the country and was given control of the national diamond mines as part of the negotiation. Disarmament of the rebel forces did not go as planned and they regained strength in May of 2000. The UN peacekeeping forces lost control, and the UK decided to get involved. The UK, with support from the Guinea Air Force, defeated RUF and peace was finally declared on January 18, 2002.

War Crimes And Human Rights Violations

After 11 years of civil war, more than 120,000 people were killed, and millions more fled the country in response to the violence and insecurity. Over 5,000 children were recruited as child soldiers, drugged, and forced to participate in crimes against humanity. These children were recruited under threats of violence against their families. Young girls were used as domestic and sex slaves. After training and indoctrination, child soldiers were often required to perform violent raids against their own villages in order to prove their loyalty to the movement. RUF forces also carried out mass amputations of civilians’ arms, legs, ears, and lips, leaving tens of thousands of people with mutilations.

The Natural Resource Curse

A resource curse occurs when a country rich in natural resources does not experience expected social and economic development. Typically, natural resources foster economic growth. In some cases, however, a country experiences negative social, economic, and political results instead. Sierra Leone is one of the several sub-Saharan African countries where the presence of natural resources has resulted in political turmoil, violent conflict, and extreme underdevelopment. The most prevalent natural resource in Sierra Leone is the diamond.

Blood Diamonds: The Fuel Behind The Conflict

The major focus of the RUF and AFRC campaign was to take control of the country’s diamond mines. The diamond mines have been the source of corruption and personal gain by government personnel since the 1930’s. The DeBeers diamond company once financed mining efforts in Sierra Leone and provided a legal export trade route for the valuable gems. They stopped their involvement in 1984, causing the government to lose revenue. By the late 1980’s, the diamonds were being traded and sold illegally by private individuals. Attempts by the government of Sierra Leone to stop this corruption were unsuccessful.

Blood diamonds became the fuel that fed the civil war fires. Blood diamonds are any diamonds that have been mined in a zone of conflict and sold for profit to finance war efforts. Alluvial diamonds are easily found within riverbeds and along river banks and can be obtained with simple tools. Extracting alluvial diamonds involves digging with hands or shovels and sifting the mud and gravel with sieves and river water. One miner can extract multiple karats of diamonds on a daily basis in this manner.

The RUF rebels took advantage of the easily accessible alluvial diamonds and the lack of government regulations surrounding the industry. This combination allowed members of RUF to sell blood diamonds to obtain weapons. Civilians living in diamond mining zones were forcibly removed from their homes so that the RUF could maintain control over the mines. Many of the blood diamonds from Sierra Leone were traded to the Liberian president, Charles G. Taylor, in exchange for weapons and military training from the AFRC.

It has been argued that controlling the diamond mines, rather than overthrowing the corrupt government, was the real reason behind the decade-long war. Whether or not this is true will likely remain a mystery. What is certain, however, is that the rebel groups would not have been able to gain power without access to the blood diamonds.


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