Origins of the Civil War in Sierra Leone

Essay, 2004

7 Pages, Grade: 1,3 (=75%)


Introduction: "urban origins" and "social terrain"

Most of the post-colonial so-called 'rebel movements' in Africa, which occurred in a number of African countries, long after the independence, are marked by an excessive use of violence, mostly against the innocent rural civil population, which is killed and tortured by the 'rebels' in the pursuit of their 'revolution'. In trying to find a general explanation for this phenomenon, Mkandawire has basically argued that "the social terrain of rural Africa is highly unsuitable for classical guerrilla warfare and that, combined with the urban origins of rebel movements, this generates self-defeating behavior on the part of armed groups, and terrible suffering for rural populations."[1] According this interpretation, the violent actions of African rebels have to be seen in the context of (1.) the urban origins and agendas of the rebel movements and (2.) the rural terrain of Africa that is generally hostile towards them.

It is argued that post-colonial rebel movements in Africa commonly are driven by and rooted in urban concerns. A first source for the "urban crisis" often are "intra-elite conflicts", when the nationalist political pacts of the independence struggles start to deteriorate. Another reason is the ongoing decline of African national economies that is especially felt by the urban populations, due to "structural adjustment measures" imposed by the major donor-agencies, which result in tremendously rising living costs – contrasted by increases in luxury consumption of the elite. However, although the roots of the conflict are usually urban ones, the fighting takes place in rural areas, "until such a time as it is deemed appropriate to make the final assault on the urban areas".[2]

For that reason it is necessary, to include also the responses and actions of the rural population into the analysis, not only the direct roots of the 'revolutions'. In Africa, Mkandawire observes, "peasants still have direct access to the main means of production – labour and land", they more or less own their land and are not directly exploited by capitalist landlords. As already "Che" Guevara has observed: "In all wars of liberation of this type, a basic element is the hunger for land, involving the great poverty …" – the new 'revolutionaries' therefore have not much to offer to the peasants. What is more, the ability of the state to rip off the peasants deteriorated in the 1980s and 1990s, due to the adoption of structural adjustment programs and "by the general curtailing of the state's reach in most African countries".[3]

Thus, it is not the peasantry that calls for the urban youth to help them in their struggle, but the young urban rebels that try to persuade the peasantry to start a revolution. Convinced of the righteousness and necessity of the revolution, the originally urban rebels then "will tend to consider reluctant peasants as enemies or traitors, with death the usual penalty".[4] In this way, the peasants' unwillingness to fight and their dissociation from the revolutionaries is seen as the root-cause for their terrible suffering in African civil wars.

In the purpose of this essay is to confront this explanation with the reality of the civil war in Sierra Leone – perhaps one of the most extreme examples for atrocities against the peasantry among African civil wars, with the RUF's "hideous reputation for human rights abuses", including "summary execution, rape, and mutilation … preceded by psychological tortures of breathtaking malevolence".[5] It is therefore necessary first to explain the origins and the course of this 'revolution', especially with respect to the use of violence, before it can be shown how the case of Sierra Leone fits into the suggested model.

Origins and character of the civil war in Sierra Leone

The Revolutionary United Front / Sierra Leone (RUF/SL) – which in 1991 started a civil war that has not yet ended and in the fist six years of fighting before the RUF marched into the national capital, Freetown, resulted in the killing of more the 30.000 people and the displacement of more than half of the country's population[6] – has its origins, according to most scholars, in the oppositional youth sub-culture of the lumpenproletariat in Freetown. This lumpen -culture – which was from the beginning marked by antisocial behavior, consumption of drugs, theft and violence – started in the 1940s, and since then the inhabitants of the so-called pote – a "peri-urban area of relaxation for unemployed youths" – had been used by politicians to do their dirty work as foot-soldiers and "political thugs". But the character of the pote -culture changed in the 1970s into an area of "political socialization and counter cultural activities" when the lumpen -youth was joined by middle-class youth, high school and university students.[7] Lacking an oppositional possibility to the increasingly authoritarian APC-regime – marked by the "systematic effort to destroy all forms of civic opposition", the centralization of all power in its hands and a "selective, but deliberate und undisciplined use of state violence"[8] – and influenced by reggae music as well as by some African and Marxist political philosophy, the pote became an area for discussions about "the system" and the articulation of the need for social change and later the open talk about revolution. The student-organized, partly violent, demonstrations in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which were largely supported by the pote -youth, as well as the students' publicity campaign against the APC led to the deterioration of the student-administration relation and finally to the expulsion and suspension of 41 students and two faculty members, who then went to Ghana to finish their studies.[9]


[1] Mkandawire, 'The terrible toll', p 182.

[2] Mkandawire, 'The terrible toll', p 192-193.

[3] Mkandawire, 'The terrible toll', p 193-196.

[4] Mkandawire, 'The terrible toll', p 204.

[5] Fanthorpe, 'Neither citizen nor subject?', p 364.

[6] Abdulla and Muana, 'The Revolutionary United Front', p 172.

[7] Abdullah, 'Bush path to destruction', p 51-52.

[8] Bangura, 'Political and cultural dynamics', p 135.

[9] Abdullah, 'Bush path to destruction', p 52-56.

Excerpt out of 7 pages


Origins of the Civil War in Sierra Leone
University of Cape Town  (Department of History / Faculty of Humanities)
Africa: colonial and post-colonial encounters
1,3 (=75%)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
468 KB
This work is an essay written for an undergraduate course in African history at the University of Cape Town (South Africa), and deals with the social origins of the guerilla war in Sierra Leone.
Origins, Civil, Sierra, Leone, Africa
Quote paper
Florian Seidl (Author), 2004, Origins of the Civil War in Sierra Leone, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Origins of the Civil War in Sierra Leone

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free