New Internationalist

Sierra Leone

January 2010
Photo by Jenny Matthews / PANOS
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.

Sulakshana Gupta

Sierra Leone Fact File
Leader President Ernest Bai Koroma
Economy GNI per capita $320 (Guinea $400, UK $42,740)
Monetary unit Leone
Main exports Diamonds, rutile, cocoa, coffee, fish. The economy is largely agrarian with most adults engaged in subsistence farming. Alluvial diamond mining is the main source of hard currency.
People 5.6 million. Annual population growth rate 2.5%. People per square kilometre 78 (UK 253).
Health Infant mortality 155 per 1,000 live births (Guinea 93, UK 5). Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 8, the second highest in the world (UK 1 in 8,200). Health services are limited in physical facilities and human resources. Overall HIV prevalence is 1.5%, while in pregnant women the figure shoots up to 4.4%. Stronger efforts at prevention among high-risk groups and out-of-school children are needed, especially addressing the strong stigma attached to HIV/AIDS. Condom distribution is poor and the problem is exacerbated by the high incidence of teenage pregnancies.
Environment CO2 emissions per capita 0.2 tonnes (UK 8.6). Among other problems are rapid pollution and overharvesting of timber, overfishing and the expansion of cattle grazing.
Culture The Temne and Mende each account for nearly a third of the population, with Lokko, Sherbro, Limba, Sussu, Fulah and Kono making up 30% between them. Around 10% are Krio, descendants of slaves resettled in the 18th century. The capital city Freetown is home to NGOs of all shapes and sizes, which makes for a fairly large expatriate community.
Religion Muslim 60%, Indigenous beliefs 30%, Christian 10%. These co-exist harmoniously with little evidence of religious intolerance.
Language English is the official language. In Freetown Krio is widely spoken but in the provinces ethnic languages dominate.

Human Development Index: Sierra Leone was ranked third from last in the 2009 UNDP Human Development Report with 0.365 (Guinea 0.435, UK 0.947).
Sources UNDP, UNICEF, World Bank, CIA,
Last profiled link April 2000
Sierra Leone ratings in detail
Income distribution
Particularly wide gaps between those who earn in leones and those who earn in US dollars.
Previously reviewed
Life expectancy
42 years – the world’s second lowest, after Swaziland (Guinea 56, UK 79). The reliance on traditional healers and untrained birth attendants contributes to low life expectancy and high maternal mortality.
Previously reviewed
Just 38% – the eighth lowest in the world. High dropout rates in schools – about 300,000 children are out of school.
Previously reviewed
Position of women
Forced early marriages and female genital mutilation are highly prevalent. Despite the new gender laws, access to justice and education for women is a challenge.
Previously reviewed
There is a fair amount of political and personal freedom. However, a long-overdue Freedom of Information Bill is yet to be ratified and the press is muzzled by a criminal libel law which is up for repeal.
Previously reviewed
Sexual minorities
Homosexuality is illegal. In 2004 gay activist Fannyann Eddy was murdered for expressing her views. The topic is not openly discussed.
NI Assessment (Politics)
The Government is trying to focus on making the country more investment-friendly to the West but Sierra Leoneans argue that it should channel its energies into addressing people’s basic insecurities about food and shelter. President Koroma’s promises on infrastructure reform leave much to be desired. There is, however, a positive move towards transparency in government: Koroma was the first to declare his assets in 2008 and others followed.

This column was published in the January 2010 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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Country ratings (details)
Income distribution2
Previously reviewed
Life expectancy1
Previously reviewed
Previously reviewed
Position of women2
Previously reviewed
Previously reviewed
Sexual minorities1
NI Assessment (Politics)3

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