Photo by Jenny Matthews / PANOS
Every home in Sierra Leone is well stocked with candles, gasoline lanterns and trusty flashlights. These are life essentials in the capital, Freetown, where electricity is intermittent at best; in many of the provinces residents have long resigned themselves to darkness.
Like stable power supply, access to other basic amenities is a challenge. In 2009, Sierra Leone was placed third from last in the UNDP Human Development Index and it’s not hard to see why. Only half the country has access to safe water sources, while sanitation facilities fall short even of that. Freetown has continued to expand into the neighbouring hills with slums adding to the poor sanitary and environmental conditions.
The country has had a chequered history. It was selected by abolitionists in the late 18th century as a destination for slaves who had run away or been freed from plantations in the Caribbean. In the 1780s, the freed slaves arrived from London but half died within the first year. A rebuilt settlement was christened Freetown and operated according to democratic principles but by 1808 Sierra Leone had become a British colony. As elsewhere in the world, colonial rule was tumultuous and contested by local people. Conditions did not improve after independence in 1961; the period from then until the start of the civil war was marred by corruption and economic decay. Military coups, gross abuse of power and misappropriation of diamond resources were succeeded by the formation of ruthless rebel groups, which from 1991 launched attacks from their Liberian bases, initiating a civil war that was to last more than a decade, till 2002.
The country’s recovery from this brutal civil war still continues and the most obvious reminder of that is the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which recently meted out the last of its judgments against rebel groups, concluding the pursuit of justice that began seven years ago. Most former victims, however, live indigent existences and a nationwide reparations programme has only just commenced.
The most recent presidential and parliamentary elections in 2007 signalled that the country was finally emerging from the shadow of the war. The polling was free and all parties campaigned on development platforms such as food security, freedom of expression, and education. President Ernest Bai Koroma of the All People’s Congress party is popular and has pioneered a policy of attitudinal and behavioural change through which he hopes to reform government institutions.
Women and children are the most vulnerable segment of the population, and around 90 per cent of girls undergo genital mutilation. In 2007 the new government passed landmark legislation in the form of the Child Rights and Gender Acts, but these are yet to have a major influence, existing, as they do, alongside customary law, which undermines the status of women.
The country continues to be heavily reliant on foreign aid but the Government is attempting to improve infrastructure in order to attract foreign investment. The recent discovery of offshore oil points to new opportunities – as well as new dangers. Tourism, however, is billed as the next big income generator and already brand new five-star hotels are mushrooming along the Freetown shoreline. Most basic commodities are imported, even rice, milk and eggs. There is widespread discontent with the constantly fluctuating rate of the US dollar against the local currency, the leone, which puts pressure on imports and periodically increases the prices of everyday essentials.
Notwithstanding stray incidences of youth violence, the country has been largely peaceful in recent years. Unlike its neighbour Guinea, which is reeling under an unpopular dictatorship, Sierra Leone has made considerable progress towards democracy – a heartening development in a country associated in the international mind with the extreme brutality of the civil war.
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