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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Mende in Sierra Leone

View Group Chronology

Sierra Leone Facts
Area:    71,740 sq. km.
Capital:    Freetown
Total Population:    5,000 (source: UN, 1995, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References



Risk Assessment

The risk of Mende rebellion is linked to the continued consolidation of Sierra Leone's democracy. Mende do exhibit factors linked to rebellion, including territorial concentration and high levels of group organization and cohesion. The Mende-dominated Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) dominated the post-civil war government of Sierra Leone from 2002 through 2006. However, in the 2007 elections, the SLPP lost the presidency, although delegates remain in the parliament. Should the Mende feel sidelined by the new administration under the Temne and Limba-dominated All People's Congress (APC), a resurgence of violence would be possible. However, the fact that the 2007 elections were held without violence is a hopeful sign. Protest may be the more likely outcome should Mende feel excluded from important decisions under the APC government.

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Analytic Summary

The Mende are the largest ethnic group in Sierra Leone, comprising approximately one-third of the population. The have long resided in the southern and eastern regions of present-day Sierra Leone (GROUPCON = 3). Sierra Leone was established as a Republic and thus freed from British colonialism officially in 1961. The Mende have had a long history of vying for control of Sierra Leone, and they have long-standing disputes with the Temne, the other large ethnic group in the country that comprises just under 30 percent of the population. These disputes, culminating in the recent civil war in Sierra Leone, have given the Mende a strong sense of ethnic attachment.

After the country's independence in 1961, two political parties came to dominate Sierra Leonean politics. The Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) was dominated by ethnic Mende and ruled the country from independence until 1968. Under successive SLPP regimes, Mende were favored and other ethnic groups sidelined. The All People's Congress (APC), dominated by Limba, ruled the country from 1968 until 1992. The predominance of Limba and Creole elite during the first years of the APC regime caused resentment from the Temne, who had helped the APC come to power. During the 1970s, the Temne joined the Mende in opposition to the government. After Stevens appointed a Temne vice president in 1978, the Temne appeared to have emerged as the second most influential group (next to ethnic Limba) in the regime. Stevens left office in 1985, naming Joseph Saidu Momoh (also a Limba) as his successor. Momah faced increasing opposition as the APC government was increasingly characterized by human rights abuses and corruption. In 1987, following an alleged coup attempt, Momah removed from office and had arrested more than 60 senior government officials, including the Mende vice-president Francis Minah. Minah, along with five others, was convicted and executed in 1989, heightening Mende discontent with the Momah regime.

Civil war in Sierra Leone broke out in 1991, as the Revolutionary United Front, led by Temne Foday Sankoh and backed by Liberia's Charles Taylor, launched attacks in eastern Sierra Leone. On April 30, 1992, The National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC), led by Capt. Valentine Strasser, seized power in a coup, blaming the previous APC regime of incompetence in dealing with the RUF rebellion. Over time, Strasser favored the Mende over other ethnic groups in both his government and the military. He was overthrown in a coup in January 1996 by his deputy. The deputy, Julius Bio, proceeded with plans for elections, won by the SLPP, and a civilian government was installed in March 1996. Sierra Leone was led by Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, a civilian and ethnic Mandingo, until May 1997 when he was overthrown by a military coup.

By March 1995, the ongoing civil war had affected all but one district of the country. Fighting was the most intense in the southeast and northeast, and until the 1997 coup, was not evident in the capital, Freetown. The RUF leadership was composed mainly of Temne, and most reports indicated that troops were also mainly Temne. Sankoh himself and most of his lieutenants were Temne, and they were fighting against what they claimed was the hegemony of Mende in the country. The RUF complained that the predominantly-Mende SLPP (Sierra Leone People's Party) had been marginalizing non-Mende and using ethnic criterion in appointing ministers. With the coup of May 1997, however, the RUF had been ordered by its leader Sankoh to support the new military government led by Major Johnny Koroma, a Limba. The rebels were then associated with the military government while the Kamajors, organized militias based on traditional hunting groups, were fighting the government and RUF. The Kamajors, composed mainly of Mende, were organized in 1994 to help the government fight the RUF at a time when government forces were disheartened and facing defeat by the rebels. One of the complaints of the military against the Kabbah regime was that he gave too much power to the Kamajors at the expense of the military.

Approximately 50,000 people were killed between 1991 and 2001 including some from starvation, and as of 1998, about half of the country's population of four million have been displaced at one time or another during the conflict. Reports indicated that RUF rebels, disgruntled soldiers and army deserters carried out attacks against civilians. There were about 260,000 refugees in Liberia and Guinea during the height of the war (1993-1995), and at least 700,000 Sierra Leoneans were internally displaced. Fighting affected all but one district of the country, and throughout the war the worst affected districts have been Moyamba, Bo, Kenema, Kailahun, Tonkolili, Kono and Pujehun. A peace agreement signed between the civilian government of Kabbah and RUF leader Sankoh in November 1996 did not last more than a few weeks, although there was great hope for the country at its signing.

The situation in Sierra Leone stabilized in the summer of 1998. The Nigerian/ECOMOG forces in February 1998 succeeded in ousting Koroma from power, and Koroma's AFRC forces as well as his RUF allied fled to the north and east of the country. For several months after their overthrow, the AFRC and RUF committed atrocities against civilians of these regions leaving thousands dead or injured and an additional 166,000 internally displaced. Reports of atrocities diminished after June 1998. President Kabbah was restored to power in March 1998, and RUF leader Foday Sankoh was returned to the country after Koroma's ouster. Large-scale communal warfare continued until late 2000 between the warring sides of the civil war. While not purely ethnic in nature, the main participants in this war were the Mende and the Temne.

The Mende regained political power following the 2002 elections when President Kabbah and his SLPP party won the presidential and legislative elections (LEGISREP04-06 = 1; EXECREP04-06 = 1). Since the end of the civil war, Mende have not faced political, economic or cultural discrimination (POLDIS04-06 = 0; ECDIS04-06 = 0; CULPO104-06 = 0; CULPO204-06 = 0). While groups such as Amnesty International have reported large-scale government repression in Sierra Leone, the Mende are not mentioned as either the perpetrators or victims of this repression. The government is slowly reestablishing its authority after the 1991 to 2002 civil war. The last UN peacekeepers (UNAMSIL) withdrew in December 2005, leaving full responsibility for security with domestic forces, but a new civilian UN office remains to support the government. It is unclear what the election of an APC-led government in 2007 will mean in terms of Mende political and economic inclusion.

The Mende have traditionally supported the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP), which ruled the country from 1962 until 1968 and again from 2002 through 2007. When in power, this party has favored the Mende, and this has led to ethnic tensions in the country. The Mende have also relied on groups such as Amnesty International and United Nations Peacekeepers to protect them from the civil unrest. Without information on the Mende's grievances, it is almost impossible to speculate about their demands beyond the assumption that the Mende want protection from other ethnic groups in the country, mainly the Temne. Reports note that the Mende experienced conflict with the Temne in 2001-2003 (INTERCON03 = 1), but this conflict has not been noted in more recent years. Moreover, it is possible that the Mende have not expressed political, social or cultural grievances recently.

The Mende have a long history of protest and militant activity. Protests have been reported as far back as pre-colonial times, but have recently been very infrequent occurrences amongst the Mende (PROT06= 0). While the majority of this activity has been limited to conventional political organizing, extended periods of protests and demonstrations over government neglect were reported during the 1990s. These protests escalated to rebellious activity in the late 1990s. However, no rebellion has been reported in recent years (REB06 = 0).

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References

International Crisis Group. 2002. "Sierra Leone After Elections: Politics as Usual?" http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?l=1&id=1489, accessed 5/20/2008.

Lexis/Nexis. Various news reports. 1990-2006..

Olsen, James Stuart. 1996. The Peoples of Africa: An Ethnohistorical Dictionary. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Sierra Leone. 1999-2006.

Zack-Williams, Alfred B. 1999. "Sierra Leone: the political economy of civil war." Third World Quarterly. 20:1. 143-162.

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Information current as of December 31, 2006