Sierra Leone

Members of the RWAFF during the Italian Somiland campaign in 1941. Image source

Sierra Leone’s Pre-colonial and Colonial era military and security forces

The study of armed forces in Africa tend focus on the contemporary peculiarities with little understanding of or regarding for the history of the nations, peoples and states. Consider the case of the war in Sierra Leone (1991-2002), often advanced as the sine quo non of 'greed' conflicts and brutal violence, assessments of the war rarely include a detailed historical account of the security and military structures of the region - and if they do, such assessment does not extend to the pre-colonial era. This paper presents an historical analysis of some of the key actors and groups which would go on to play important roles in the Civil War.

Pre-Colonial era

Along the river systems of Senegambia, "Land of the Sapes", thick forest vegetation and the abundance of rivers made cavalry tactic difficult, "there infantry armies shared the military culture with marine forces that could exploit the network of water routes for mobility and surprise." [1] By the mid sixteenth century the area was invaded by Mande-speaking armies, who were connected with the Mali empire further north. This highly skilled army swept across the region and destroyed the kingdoms of Sierra Leone, eventually they reached the area of the 'Rivers', where "they met their match at the hands of the Limbas and the Jalungas." [2] Across West Africa, most of the armed forces resembled militias, however, regular and standing armies were present at times and in a few states and kingdoms. [3]

The arrival of Europeans meant first that the supply of firearms and horses could increase, along with the sale of slaves. Second, warring parties found a powerful ally. Although the Europeans were not particularly effective in battle, the powerful guns on their ships greatly assisted allies waging wars on the coast. [4]

Many of the towns in Sierra Leone in the 1600s were fortified using a technique of living hedges and trees to support ramparts. These towns provided safe havens for people to flee to in times of need. A network of these towns and surrounding villages were referred to as "war towns" by the nineteenth century. [5] The political organisation of these kingdoms and towns had two discernible features. The first is that the king would decide on a war after meeting with a council of elders, who would then be appointed as captains of the armies. The armies of the small kingdoms or 'war towns' seem to have been locally recruited from their own subjects, resulting in small armies that were more akin to militias. [6] Across the region of West Africa, the available evidence suggests that nearly everywhere, "all free adult males capable of bearing arms were liable for military service in time of war." [7]

The second feature is that of the political role of the Poro and other similar societies. The Poro was a religious organisation into which men from different classes and different towns were initiated. This was a society that helped to preserve order and peace. For instance, they could intervene if a war had gone on for too long, and they helped to re-establish order after a war ended. Whilst they had been know to use force at times, through mobilising their members, they tended to be seen as "more of a democratic than an authoritarian tradition." [8] The Poro oversaw a number of specialised hunter-guilds, of which, the Kamajoisia were one.

The various armed militias that became known as the Kamajors can be traced back to the hunters, or kamajoisia, of local communities in Sierra Leone. [9] Kamajoi or kamasoi literally translates as "a past master at doing mysterious things." [10] The Kamajoisia [11] were widely believed to possess specialised knowledge and were tasked with using this knowledge in the protection of their communities against all dangers of the forest. These dangers could take the form of human, animal or the occult. In this sense, the kamajoisia were not just hunters but also warrior-protectors. [12]

The Kamajoisia were traditionally recruited from within their own communities and the communities were expected to keep the young men supplied with the necessities to fulfil their duties. In effect, these young men served on behalf of their communities, representing their backers or patrons. Patron-client relationships were mostly formed around local chiefs, who were notable political actors especially in the context of community or local politics, and representative of the community. The legitimacy of client Kamajoisia was thus tied to their relationship with patron chiefs [13], and, therefore by extension, to their communities.

A significant aspect of the Kamajoisia was the importance placed on initiation and the role of specialised knowledge. [14] Not just anyone could join or call themselves part of the kamajoisia. The initiation rites were a salient factor in the recruitment of members. Information about rites and rituals was considered "specialised knowledge" and related directly to spiritual belief processes, and included, importantly for the later development of the CDF, the notion of invincibility in battle. [15] Belief about invincibility was predicated on individual members observing certain rules and prohibitions on behaviour. Violating these norms would nullify an individual's invincibility. Strict observation of them also acquired increasing importance as the civil war developed, arguably because the stakes (survival, obedience to command structures and loyalty) took on increased importance as the conflict progressed. Many of the rules related to respecting private property and the treatment of those not involved in the conflict, especially women.

The Kamajoisia had no relationship to the state. Although they did have a relationship with local authority figures in the form of chiefs, these were more as representatives of the community rather than of the state. Local chiefs were connected to the central state authority. However, they were not representatives of the state and even if they were, hunter societies were in no way part of any state policy. The primary relationship of the kamajoisia was with the community: they were members of the same community and constituted by the community; they were tasked with protecting the community against threats; and this relationship was ensured by a set of norms that governed the members behaviour.

Colonial Forces

The colony that was to become Sierra Leone was first settled by colonists in 1787. [16] The major settlement, Freetown, was used by the British to repatriate slaves following the abolition of the slave trade. Former slaves from the Americas who had fought for British in the American War of Independence were eventually also settled in Freetown, after having been temporarily sent to Nova Scotia. [17] The new arrivals were not necessarily welcomed by the local Temne inhabitants, there was a series of initial conflicts, including the destruction of the settlement at one point. [18] The Sierra Leone Company subsequently raised a militia from the inhabitants of the settlement to provide some degree of defence. The British had raised local militias from the earliest days of all their West African missions. [19]

 The Nova Scotians formed the core of the new defence force as they were the most experienced soldiers among the settlers, although there were some Europeans who served in the militia as well. Almost immediately, however, difficulties arose in supporting the cost of a local armed force. The Nova Scotians were reluctant to pay any taxes towards this as they had been promised no taxes as part of their deal to relocate to Freetown. [20] After a series of rebellions and attacks from the Temne, a detachment of European forces from the Royal African Corps was sent to garrison the town. However, the difficult climate and malaria soon took its toll and their number diminished. Under a new governor and a new charter, a more effective militia was formed. Recruitment for this new force was aided by the ending of the Slave Trade and the resettlement of freed slaves in the town. [21] From its earliest days then, the colonial forces in Sierra Leone were used to maintain internal security and prevent attacks from local groups hostile to the colonial presence.

The tensions present in colonial forces, as being distinct from the societies over which they had authority, were dramatically present in Sierra Leone. Not only were there the various groups of local inhabitants, such as the Mende and Temne, and the European colonists, but also groups of freed slaves from the Americas and others resettled from captured ships following the abolishment of the slave trade. During the course of the nineteenth century, the bulk of the colonial force was composed of liberated slaves who originated from across the East Coast of Africa. These numbers began to dwindle as the number of seized ships slowed and the benefits of military service diminished. [22]

The colonial task of internal policing and pacifying the outlying regions was clearly evident by 1890 when two distinct arms of the force were established: the Civil Police based in Freetown; and the Sierra Leone Frontier Police, which operated as a paramilitary force to patrol the hinterland. [23] This trend continued even after World War II, when the latterly formed Sierra Leone Regiment was often called upon to quell civil unrest and strikes. [24] The various paramilitary forces and militias across British West African territories were later coalesced into the wider regional Royal West African Frontier Force (RWAFF). [25]

The primary roles of the colonial forces as constabulary and paramilitary forces working in support of the alien authorities is not to say that all was content within the colonial armed forces, as there were instances of mutinies, beyond that of the initial rebellion of the Nova Scotians. For example, in January 1939 there was the "gunners' mutiny" where part of the Sierra Leone Battalion went on strike as the economic conditions in the Protectorate worsened and the lucrative incentives to help recruit the men seemed to vanish. [26] There were also persistent concerns about White officers' arrogance, British paternalism, and institutional racism in the apparent value between white "flesh" and black "flesh". [27] An example of the banality of the institutional racism experienced by the soldiers was that they were often not allotted boots as part of their uniforms as European officers argued vehemently that African soldiers performed better without them or would sell them at the first opportunity. [28]

During World War II, the British viewed the port at Freetown as of the utmost importance to ensure the flow of supplies to maintaining naval superiority. [29] Once the safety of the port had been secured through operations against the Vichy regime governments in Dakar and Cameroon, troops from the RWAFF were sent to Burma in 1942 to counter the Japanese threat to British controlled India. The Sierra Leone Battalion in the RWAFF fought a number of counter-insurgency campaigns against the Japanese and overall served with distinction. [30]

Despite their outstanding service during World War II, many returning servicemen found it difficult to pursue military careers or to train as officers. [31] In part, this was due to colonial and white supremacist mentalities of the time, as expressed by a former Governor of Sierra Leone: that there was "no gentleman class in Sierra Leone from which men of a high sense of honour and duty could be found." [32] Courses at Sandhurst and Eaton Hall in Britain only admitted a handful of Sierra Leoneans. The social mobility of Africans in the military was thus greatly hampered, which stood in contrast to the civil service. For the Creole elite in Freetown, the good pay and ease of promotion for someone with a good education in the civil service provided a much better alternative. Military life was seen with a degree of contempt, as a career for those who were not good enough for the civil service. [33] This was not an impression shared by all, as the military did offer a degree of mobility for those who were comparatively less well-off in Sierra Leonean society following World War II. For many, the military offered training, especially improving literacy, and were then able to become chiefs or successfully assume other forms of traditional authority outside of urban society. [34]

Post-Colonial Army and growth of Praetorianism

The Sierra Leone Regiment of the RWAFF officially became the Royal Sierra Leone Military Force [35] on 2 August 1960, and Sierra Leone became independent of Britain a few months later on 27 April 1961. On the day of Sierra Leone's Independence, Lieutenant-Colonel LGS Sanderson, Officer Commanding the 1st Battalion, issued a statement about the role the new army would have in the new state:

"Unity and Peace are essential for Sierra Leone to continue its orderly progress and prosper as an independent nation, but history, however, shows that freedom rarely lasts unless a nation is prepared to work and fight to defend its freedom: and as in the past the responsibility for security in times of crisis will rest with the army." [36]

This view of the army as the final arbiter of security was to prove persistent through the post-colonial history of Sierra Leone. Within six years, Sierra Leone experienced its first coup d'état.

The precise details and dynamics of the coups d'état of the late 1960s are not of principal importance to this thesis, however, a few aspects are worth mentioning. In the early days of Independence, Sierra Leone had a seemingly stable multiparty electoral system and did not appear to have a politically active military. The military had been peripheral during the negotiations and process towards independence and was a relatively small entity of only a few thousand men, meaning it was largely ignored by elites. [37] The Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP), had formed close ties with the senior officers of the RSLMF, sometimes deploying them internally to quell domestic strife, and sometimes with the support of the paramount chiefs. [38] However, fractures between elites began to cut across the civil-military divide, as well as across class and regional divides. In March 1967, the SLPP lost a closely contested election to the All People's Congress (APC). In order to prevent a change in leadership, senior officers with close ties to the incumbent regime, staged a coup d'état and instituted a military regime. [39]

The military regime only lasted 13 months before the rank-and-file and some junior officers staged a counter-coup d'état to instate Siaka Stevens as President and end the military rule, realising their own coercive power to install a regime more in their interests. [40] In the subsequent years, President Stevens set about instituting one-party rule, especially after an attempted coup d'état in 1971. These events in the early years of Sierra Leone's independence were "a result of the internal power struggles which were so characteristic of the Sierra Leone army from 1965 to 1967", where disputes among civilian actors were played out, and ultimately where "the seeds of military praetorianism were planted." [41]

Once one-party rule under Stevens had been established, the military was fairly removed from political affairs. Nonetheless, the early actions of the RSLMF demonstrate a clear history of praetorian tendencies for the military to intervene in politics for their own interests, as well as fractured hierarchies such that the interests of senior officers were not necessarily the same as junior officers or the rank-and-file.


[1] Thornton, John K, Warfare in Atlantic Africa 1500-1800, London: UCL Press, 1999., p 41.

[2] Ibid, p 42.

[3] Smith, Robert Sydney. Warfare and Diplomacy in Pre-Colonial West Africa. London: Methuen, 1976, p 80.

[4] Thornton, Warfare in Atlantic Africa, 1999, p 48.

[5] Ibid, p 49.

[6] Ibid, p 52.

[7] Smith, Warfare and Diplomacy, p 61.

[8] Thornton, Warfare in Atlantic Africa, 1999, p 52-53.

[9] Muana, Patrick K. "The Kamajoi Militia: Civil War, Internal Displacement and the Politics of Counter-Insurgency." Africa Development 22, 3, 1997: 77 - 100. p 78.

[10] Ibid.

[11] For the sake of clarity, Kamajoisia is used to refer to the pre-civil war hunter society groups, while Kamajor is used in reference to the later militia forces.

[12] Hoffman, Daniel. The war machines: young men and violence in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Durham: Duke University Press. 2011, p 63.

[13] Wlodarczyk, Nathalie. Magic and warfare: appearance and reality in contemporary African conflict and beyond. New York City: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. p 73.

[14] This is knowledge relating to the initiation rituals and to knowledge of the forest and hunting. The exact content of the knowledge is not important, only that such knowledge was a barrier to entry for the kamajoisia.

[15] Ibid. See also Muana, "The Kamajoi Militia".

[16] Cubitt, Christine. Local and Global Dynamics of Peacebuilding: Postconflict Reconstruction in Sierra Leone. Oxford: Routledge, 2013, p 9.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Turay, Edward Dominic Amadu, and Arthur Abraham. The Sierra Leone Army: a century of history. London: Macmillan, 1987, p 2.

[19] Reid, Richard J. Warfare in African History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, p 148.

[20] Turay and Abraham, The Sierra Leone Army, p 3.

[21] Ibid, pp 4-5.

[22] Ibid, pp 6-7.

[23] Ibid, pp 9-10.

[24] Ibid, p 88.

[25] Reid, Warfare in African History, p 148.

[26] Cole, Festus. “Defining the ‘flesh’ of the Black Soldier in Colonial Sierra Leone: Background to the Gunners’ Mutiny of 1939.” Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue Canadienne Des Études Africaines 4, 2, 2014: 275–95., p 280.

[27] Quoting Gunner Cole in ibid, p 288.

[28] Killingray, David, and Martin Plaut. Fighting for Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War. Woodbridge, Suffolk: James Currey, 2010, p 94.

[29] Turay and Abraham, The Sierra Leone Army, pp 70-72.

[30] Ibid, pp 73-83.

[31] Cox, Thomas S. Civil-Military Relations in Sierra Leone: A Case Study of African Soldiers in Politics. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1976, p 6.

[32] As quoted in First, Ruth. The Barrel of a Gun: Political Power in Africa and the Coup D'état. London: Allen Lane, 1970, p 76.

[33] Turay and Abraham, The Sierra Leone Army, p 87.

[34] Ibid, p 88.

[35] In 1971, Sierra Leone declared itself a Republic, whereupon the military changed its name to the Republic of Sierra Leone Military Force (RSLMF).

[36] As quoted in Turay and Abraham, The Sierra Leone Army, p 99.

[37] Cox, Civil-Military Relations in Sierra Leone, p 6.

[38] Ibid, p 34.

[39] Ibid, p 20.

[40] Babatope, Coups, p 63.

[41] Cox, Civil-Military Relations in Sierra Leone, p 22.

Last updated : 18-Jul-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 13-Jul-2017

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