OBJECTIVE: To reconstruct and analyse mortality trends in children younger than 5 years in sub-Saharan Africa between 1950 and 2000. METHODS: We selected 66 Demographic and Health Surveys and World Fertility Surveys from 32 African countries for analysis. Death rates were calculated by yearly periods for each survey. When several surveys were available for the same country, overlapping years were combined. Country-specific time series were analysed to identify periods of monotonic trends, whether declining, steady or increasing. We tested changes in trends using a linear logistic model. FINDINGS: A quarter of the countries studied had monotonic declining mortality trends: i.e. a smooth health transition. Another quarter had long-term declines with some minor rises over short periods of time. Eight countries had periods of major increases in mortality due to political or economic crises, and in seven countries mortality stopped declining for several years. In eight other countries mortality has risen in recent years as a result of paediatric AIDS. Reconstructed levels and trends were compared with other estimates made by international organizations, usually based on indirect methods. CONCLUSION: Overall, major progress in child survival was achieved in sub-Saharan Africa during the second half of the twentieth century. However, transition has occurred more slowly than expected, with an average decline of 1.8% per year. Additionally, transition was chaotic in many countries. The main causes of mortality increase were political instability, serious economic downturns, and emerging diseases.