In May 1997, disgruntled soldiers, led by Major Johnny Paul Koroma, toppled President Kabbah and invited the RUF to join the government. The two groups – rebels and renegade soldiers -- controlled the capital city for nine brutal months, threatening to blow up entire neighborhoods if the ECOMOG forces then besieging Freetown attempted to enter. ECOMOG finally liberated Freetown and returned Kabbah to power in February 1998, but the Army and RUF attacked Freetown again on January 6, 1999, murdering and raping their way across a city of a million people. That date marks the climax of the crisis, and many of the artworks in this exhibition reflect on the terror of that unforgettable day.
The international community was completely disengaged from Sierra Leone during the early years of the crisis and especially during the reign of Sani Abacha, the Nigerian leader, because they did not want to be seen to be dealing with Nigeria. Nigerian led ECOMOG footed all the bills until late 1999. In July 1999, a sub-regional initiative led by Nigeria with participation of President Bill Clinton’s administration, spearheaded a peace deal with the rebels. This time, Sankoh was made Vice-President, and given official control of Sierra Leone’s diamond industry. Other RUF leaders were also granted high positions in government, and the rebels were given amnesty for their crimes. In return, they were required to disarm. But the rebels were a criminal group incapable of cooperating with the international community, and in May, 2000, they captured 500 UN peacekeepers sent to monitor the peace agreement, and seized their weapons and vehicles. This prompted military intervention by Great Britain. Sankoh was captured and imprisoned.
On May 14, 2002, Sierra Leone held a peaceful democratic election monitored by the United Nations, marking the end of the decade-long rebel war. There is now an international court in Sierra Leone to try the worst of the human rights offenders, and a peace and reconciliation commission to expose the worst crimes of the rebel war to the light of day. But UN peacekeepers still remain in Sierra Leone to insure the fragile peace. With vast deposits of diamonds, gold, iron, rutile, and bauxite, and with its tropical hardwoods, fertile land for coffee, cacao, and other crops, and its coastal waters teeming with marine resources, Sierra Leone should be among the wealthiest of the emerging nations. But its wealth has been its curse, providing a fertile ground for criminals, arms dealers, mercenaries and drug dealers. The whole world is now looking to Sierra Leone to see if good governance can be restored there, to see if this wealthy nation can be transformed into a haven of peace and progress.