New Internationalist

Sierra Leone

October 1985

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Sierra Leone

Map of Sierra Leone

Leader: President Dr Siaka Stevens

Economy: GNP per capita $390
Monetary unit: leone
Main exports: bauxite, diamonds

People: 3.67 million

Culture: Ethnic groups: Mende, Temne, Creole and about 12 smaller groups.
Religion: 25 per cent Islam, traditional religions still strong.
Languages: English is the official language, but Krio is more widely spoken.

Health: Infant mortality 200 (per 1,000 live births)

Percentage of population with access to drinking water:
52 (urban)
2 (rural).

Source: World View 1984, State of the World’s Children 1985

WE didn’t have to fight for independence, but now we are fighting for survival,’ the man beside me said as our ancient taxi bumped past rice fields where nothing was growing because the rains were late.

After a period of relative stability, Sierra Leone faces economic crisis and political uncertainty. The leone (currency) was devalued early in 1985 by almost 60 per cent and there is a desperate shortage of foreign exchange. Luxury goods are readily available in the capital Freetown; they are imported with ill-gotten foreign exchange.

Public transport is infrequent and expensive, with vehicles off the road because of fuel shortages and the lack of spare parts. The railway was ripped up on the grounds that it was uneconomic, sadly just before the oil crisis which would have rendered it economic again.

Trade and business are run largely by Sierra Leone’s 10,000 Lebanese, the certain targets of popular unrest over prices and shortages. Most successful of all is the ‘Diamond King,’ Jamil Said Mohammed, who made his millions from diamond dealing. Diamonds are still the key to the economy; it is reckoned that about half of the $70 million a year output is illegally exported.

Like Jamil, President Siaka Stevens used his country’s gold and diamonds to become one of Africa’s richest men. During his 17 years in power, Sierra Leone has become a one-party republic, with the only organised opposition in exile. Now in his 80s, the ‘Pa’ is said to be ready to step down.

Sierra Leone was given its name by the Portuguese explorer, PedroDa Cintra, who thought the coastal mountains looked like a lioness. At the end of the eighteenth century, British philanthropists began sending over freed slaves to found a ‘Province of Freedom.’

The settlers’ descendants are the 40,000 Creoles who live on the Freetown peninsula Their pidgin English, linked to African grammar, has given rise to the expressive and witty Krio now the country’s lingua franca.

Most of the tropical rain forest has long since disappeared, and with it went much of the wildlife. Sierra Leone does have glorious golden beaches shaded by coconut palms. But without highways, hamburgers and hotels the sun and sea do not yet attract many tourists.

But, rumour has it, things are going to improve. There’s a hydroelectric project that may enable Sierra Leone to export power, and the railway may be re-laid. But, to add to the problems of inflation, devaluation and shortages of basic goods. there have recently been student riots in the capital and a corruption scandal involving government officials. The late rains have meant that this year’s hungry season will last even longer than usual. Whoever is President after this year’s election will face a stormy period.

Jonathan Blundell

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Diamonds have made some rich, but left the majority poor.

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Dependent on imports of rice (the staple food), petrol and on aid.

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Improving slowly

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[image, unknown] Centre-right. One party state – All People’s Congress

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Appalling 31% male, 17% female

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Some political detainees. Restricted press. Strong state intelligence system.

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At 34 years, one of the lowest in the world.

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This feature was published in the October 1985 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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