Sierra Leone (01/02)

For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.


Republic of Sierra Leone

Area: 72,325 sq. km. (29,925 sq. mi.); slightly smaller than South Carolina.
Cities: Capital--Freetown (est. 550,000). Provincial Capitals--Southern Province,Bo; Eastern Province, Kenema; Northern Province, Makeni.
Terrain: Three areas--mangrove swamps and beaches along the coast, wooded hills along the immediate interior, and a mountainous plateau in the interior.

Nationality: Noun and adjective--Sierra Leonean(s).
Population (2001 est., no census since 1989): 4.5 million.
Annual growth rate (1990 est.): 2.4%.
Ethnic groups: Temne 30%, Mende 30%, Krio 1%, balance spread over 15 other tribal groups, and a small Lebanese community.
Religions: (est.) Muslim 60%, Christian 30%, animist 10%.
Languages: English, Krio, Temne, Mende, and 15 other indigenous languages.
Education: (2000) Literacy--30%.
Health: Life expectancy--38 yrs. Access to safe water--54%. Infant mortality rate--170/1,000. Under five mortality--286/1,000.
Work force: Agriculture--67%; industry--15%; services--18%.

Type: Republic with a democratically elected President and Parliament.
Independence: From Britain, April 27, 1961.
Constitution: October 1, 1991
Political parties: Thirteen political parties contested the 1996 elections. There are now 22 registered political parties. Major parties--All People's Congress (APC), Democratic Center Party (DCP), National Unity Party (NUP), Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP), United National People's Party (UNPP).

Flag: Sierra Leone flag

GDP (2000 est.): $634.1 million.
GDP growth rate: 3.8%.
Per capita income (2000 est.) $106.9.
Avg, annual inflation rate (2000 est.) 8%.
Natural resources: Diamonds, rutile, bauxite, gold, platinum and chromite.
Agriculture: Products--coffee, cocoa, ginger, palm kernels, cassava, bananas, citrus, peanuts, plantains, rice, sweet potatoes, vegetables. Land--30% potentially arable, 8% cultivated.
Industry: Types--diamonds, bauxite, and rutile mining; forestry; beverages; cigarettes; construction goods; tourism.
Trade (2000 est.): Exports--$72.5 million: rutile, diamonds, bauxite, coffee, cocoa, fishes. Major markets--U.S., Belgium, Spain, U.K. and other west European nations. Imports--$14.5 million: foodstuffs, machinery and equipment, fuel and lubricants, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, building materials, light consumer goods, used clothing, textiles.

The indigenous population is made up of 18 ethnic groups. The Temne in the north and the Mende in the South are the largest. About 60,000 are Krio, the descendants of freed slaves who returned to Sierra Leone from Great Britain and North America and slave ships captured on the high seas. In addition, about 4,000 Lebanese, 500 Indians, and 2,000 Europeans reside in the country.

In the past, Sierra Leoneans were noted for their educational achievements, trading activity, entrepreneurial skills, and arts and crafts work, particularly woodcarving. Many are part of larger ethnic networks extending into several countries, which link West African states in the area. However, the level of education and infrastructure has declined sharply over the last 30 years.

European contacts with Sierra Leone were among the first in West Africa. In 1652, the first slaves in North America were brought from Sierra Leone to the Sea Islands off the coast of the southern United States. During the 1700s there was a thriving trade bringing slaves from Sierra Leone to the plantations of South Carolina and Georgia where their rice-farming skills made them particularly valuable.

In 1787 the British helped 400 freed slaves from the United States, Nova Scotia, and Great Britain return to Sierra Leone to settle in what they called the "Province of Freedom." Disease and hostility from the indigenous people nearly eliminated the first group of returnees. This settlement was joined by other groups of freed slaves and soon became known as Freetown. In 1792, Freetown became one of Britain's first colonies in West Africa.

Thousands of slaves were returned to or liberated in Freetown. Most chose to remain in Sierra Leone. These returned Africans--or Krio as they came to be called--were from all areas of Africa. Cut off from their homes and traditions by the experience of slavery, they assimilated some aspects of British styles of life and built a flourishing trade on the West African coast.

In the early 19th century, Freetown served as the residence of the British governor who also ruled the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and the Gambia settlements. Sierra Leone served as the educational center of British West Africa as well. Fourah Bay College, established in 1827, rapidly became a magnet for English-speaking Africans on the West Coast. For more than a century, it was the only European-style university in western Sub-Saharan Africa.

The colonial history of Sierra Leone was not placid. The indigenous people mounted several unsuccessful revolts against British rule and Krio domination. Most of the 20th century history of the colony was peaceful, however, and independence was achieved without violence. The 1951 constitution provided a framework for decolonization. Local ministerial responsibility was introduced in 1953, when Sir Milton Margai was appointed Chief Minister. He became Prime Minister after successful completion of constitutional talks in London in 1960. Independence came in April 1961, and Sierra Leone opted for a parliamentary system within the British Commonwealth.

Sir Milton's Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) led the country to independence and the first general election under universal adult franchise in May 1962. Upon Sir Milton's death in 1964, his half-brother, Sir Albert Margai, succeeded him as Prime Minister. Sir Albert attempted to establish a one-party political system but met fierce resistance from the opposition All Peoples Congress (APC). He ultimately abandoned the idea.

In closely contested elections in March 1967, the APC won a plurality of the parliamentary seats. Accordingly, the Governor General (representing the British Monarch) declared Siaka Stevens--APC leader and Mayor of Freetown--as the new Prime Minister. Within a few hours, Stevens and Margai were placed under house arrest by Brigadier David Lansana, the Commander of the Republic of Sierra Leone Military Forces (RSLMF), on grounds that the determination of office should await the election of the tribal representatives to the house. A group of senior military officers overrode this action by seizing control of the government on March 23, arresting Brigadier Lansana, and suspending the constitution. The group constituted itself as the National Reformation Council (NRC) with Brigadier A.T. Juxon-Smith as its chairman. The NRC in turn was overthrown in April 1968 by a "sergeants' revolt," the Anti-Corruption Revolutionary Movement. NRC members were imprisoned, and other army and police officers deposed. Stevens at last assumed the office of Prime Minister under the restored constitution.

The return to civilian rule led to by-elections beginning in the fall of 1968 and the appointment of an all-APC cabinet. Tranquillity was not completely restored. In November 1968 a state of emergency was declared after provincial disturbances. In March 1971 the government survived an unsuccessful military coup and in July 1974, it uncovered an alleged military coup plot. The leaders of both were tried and executed. In 1977, student demonstrations against the government disrupted Sierra Leone politics.

Following the adoption of the republican constitution in April 1971, Siaka Stevens was appointed President of the Republic by the House; he was inaugurated for a second 5-year term in March 1976. In the national parliamentary election that followed in May 1977, the APC won 74 seats and the opposition SLPP 15. The next year, Stevens' Government won approval for the idea of one-party government, which the APC had once rejected. Following enactment of the 1978 constitution, SLPP members of parliament joined the APC.

The first election under the new one-party constitution took place on May 1, 1982. Elections in about two-thirds of the constituencies were contested. Because of irregularities, the government canceled elections in 13 constituencies. By-elections took place on June 4, 1982. The new cabinet appointed after the election was balanced ethnically between Temnes and Mendes. It included as the new Finance Minister Salia Jusu-Sheriff, a former leader of the SLPP who returned to that party in late 1981. His accession to the cabinet was viewed by many as a step toward making the APC a true national party.

Siaka P. Stevens, who had been head of state of Sierra Leone for 18 years, retired from that position in November 1985, although he continued his role as chairman of the ruling APC party. In August 1985, the APC named military commander Maj. Gen. Joseph Saidu Momoh, Steven's own choice, as the party candidate to succeed Stevens. Momoh was elected President in a one-party referendum on October 1, 1985. A formal inauguration was held in January 1986, and new parliamentary elections were held in May 1986.

In October 1990, President Momoh set up a constitutional review commission to review the 1978 one-party constitution with a view to broadening the existing political process, guaranteeing fundamental human rights and the rule of law, and strengthening and consolidating the democratic foundation and structure of the nation. The commission, in its report presented January 1991, recommended re-establishment of a multi-party system of government. Based on that recommendation, a constitution was approved by Parliament in July 1991 and ratified in September; it became effective on October 1, 1991. There was great suspicion that Momoh was not serious, however, and APC rule was increasingly marked by abuses of power. The rebel war in the eastern part of the county, led by Capt. Foday Sankoh and his Revolutionary United Front (RUF), posed an increasing burden on the country. On April 29, 1992, a group of young military officers, led by Capt. Valentine Strasser, launched a military coup, which sent Momoh into exile in Guinea and established the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) as the ruling authority in Sierra Leone.

As a result of popular demand and mounting international pressure, presidential and parliamentary elections were held in April 1996. Out of 13 candidates that contested, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah won the presidential elections. Because of the prevailing war conditions, parliamentary elections were conducted, for the first time in Sierra Leone, under the system of proportional representation. Thirteen political parties participated, with the SLPP winning 27 seats, UNPP 17, PDP 12, APC 5 and DCP 3.

The Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), led by Maj. Johnny Paul Koroma, overthrew President Kabbah on May 25, 1997, and invited the RUF to join the government. After 10 months in office the junta was ousted by the Nigerian-led ECOMOG forces, and the democratically elected government of President Kabbah was reinstated in March 1998. On January 6, 1999, another unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the government by the RUF resulted in massive loss of life and destruction of property in Freetown and its environs.

With the assistance of the international community, President Kabbah and RUF leader Sankoh negotiated the Lome Peace Agreement, which was signed on July 7, 1999. The accord granted amnesty to Sankoh and other members of the RUF and provided a framework for the transformation of the RUF into a political party. Under Lome, members of the RUF were granted positions of responsibility within the government. Sankoh was made Chairman of the Strategic Mineral Resources Council and given the title of Vice President. Almost immediately, however, the RUF began to violate the agreement, most notably by holding hundreds of UNAMSIL personnel hostage and capturing their arms and ammunition in the first half of 2000. On May 8, 2000, members of the RUF shot and killed as many as 20 people demonstrating outside Sankoh's house in Freetown against the RUF's violations of Lome. Following these events, Sankoh and other senior members of the RUF were arrested and the group was stripped of its positions in government.

Despite the suspension of the political arrangements and a general view that the Lome agreement was invalidated by RUF actions, Lome established some steps for bringing about a permanent cessation of hostilities which remain valid. The agreement provided for a Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) program to assist the combatants from all sides in their return to society. Lome called for an international peacekeeping force run initially by both ECOMOG and the United Nations. The UN Security Council established the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) in 1999, with an initial force of 6,000. Over time, the mandate of UNAMSIL was broadened and the authorized force strength increased to its current level of 17,500 troops. A large part of UNAMSIL's growth has been as a result of its absorption of the functions performed by the ECOMOG forces, which departed in April 2000. After the events of May 2000, a new cease-fire was necessary to reinvigorate the peace process. This agreement was signed in Abuja in November of that year. However, DDR did not resume, and fighting continued. In late 2000, Guinean forces entered Sierra Leone to attack RUF bases from which attacks had been launched against Liberian dissidents in Guinea. A second Abuja Agreement, in May 2001, set the stage for a resumption of DDR on a wide scale and a significant reduction in hostilities. As disarmament has progressed, the government has begun to reassert its authority in formerly rebel-held areas.

The Lome Accord also called for the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to provide a forum for both victims and perpetrators of human rights violations during the conflict to tell their stories and facilitate genuine reconciliation. In June 2000 the government asked the UN to help set up a Special Court for Sierra Leone. The court, which has not been set up as of November 2001, will try those who "bear the greatest responsibility for the commission of crimes against humanity, war crimes and serious violations of international humanitarian law, as well as crimes under relevant Sierra Leonean law within the territory of Sierra Leone since November 30, 1996."

The country has remained under a state of emergency since 1999. Under the constitution, the term of office of the President and the life of Parliament, originally due to expire in March 2001, have each been extended twice for 6 months. Presidential and parliamentary elections have been announced for May 2002.

Sierra Leone is a republic with an executive president and a multi-party system of government. Civil rights and religious freedom are respected. A critical press continues to operate, although the government has intervened for alleged inaccurate reporting.

The judicial system continues to function for civil cases but is severely handicapped by shortages of resources and qualified personnel. It is comprised of a Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, and a High Court with judges appointed by the President on the advice of the Judicial and Legal Service Commission with the approval of Parliament. There also are magistrate and local courts and from these appeals lie to the superior courts of judicature. The 1991 constitution created an ombudsman responsible for looking into complaints of abuses and capricious acts on the part of public officials. In 2000 the GOSL promulgated the Anti-Corruption Act to combat corruption, which is endemic.

The basic unit of local government generally is the chiefdom, headed by a paramount chief and council of elders. There also is an elected council and mayor in Freetown, Bo, Kenema, and Makeni.

Principal Government Officials
President and Minister of Defense--Ahmad Tejan Kabbah
Vice President--Albert Demby
Minister of Foreign Affairs--Ramadan Dumbuya
Minister of Finance--Peter Kuyembeh
Minister of Development and Economic Planning--Ms. Kadi Sesay
Attorney General and Minister of Justice--Solomon Berewa
Minister of Rural Development and Local Government--Joseph Bandabla Douda
Minister of Information and Broadcasting--Cecil Blake
Minister of Internal Affairs--Charles Margai
Minister of Mineral Resources--Mohamed Deen
Minister for Presidential Affairs--Momodu Koroma
Ambassador to the U.S.--John Leigh.

Sierra Leone maintains an embassy in the United States at 1701 19th Street, NW, Washington, DC, 20009, tel. 202-939-9261; and a permanent mission to the United Nations in New York at 245 East 49th Street, New York, New York 10017, tel. (212) 688-1656.

Rich in minerals, Sierra Leone has relied on the mining sector in general, and diamonds in particular, for its economic base. In the 1970s and early 1980s, economic growth rate slowed because of a decline in the mining sector. Maintaining unrealistic exchange rates and excessive government budget deficits led to sizable balance-of-payments deficits and inflation. Inappropriate policy responses to external factors and inefficient implementation of aid projects and maintenance have led to a general decline in economic activity and a serious degradation of economic infrastructures. Sierra Leone's short-term prospects depend upon continued adherence to IMF programs and continued external assistance.

Although two-thirds of the population engages in subsistence agriculture, and despite the fact that most Sierra Leoneans derive their livelihood from it, agriculture accounts for only 42% of national income. The government is trying to increase food and cash crop production and upgrade small farmer skills. Also, the government works with several foreign donors to operate integrated rural development and agricultural projects.

Mineral exports remain Sierra Leone's principal foreign exchange earner. Sierra Leone is a major producer of gem-quality diamonds. Though rich in this resource, the country has historically struggled to manage its exploitation and export. Annual production estimates range between $70-$250 million; however, only a fraction of that passes through formal export channels (1999: $1.2 million; 2000: $16 million; 2001: projections $25 million). The balance is smuggled out and has been used to finance rebel activities in the region, money laundering, arms purchases, and financing of other illicit activities, leading some to characterize Sierra Leone's diamonds as a "conflict resource." Recent efforts on the part of the country to improve the management of the export trade have met with some success. In October 2000, a new UN-approved export certification system for exporting diamonds from Sierra Leone was put into place that led to a dramatic increase in legal exports. In 2001, the Government of Sierra Leone created a mining community development fund, which returns a portion of diamond export taxes to diamond mining communities. The fund was created to raise local communities' stake in the legal diamond trade.

Sierra Leone has one of the world's largest deposits of rutile, a titanium ore used as paint pigment and welding rod coatings. Sierra Rutile Limited, wholly owned by Nord Resources of the United States, began commercial mining operations near Bonthe in early 1979. Sierra Rutile was then the largest nonpetroleum U.S. investment in West Africa. The export of 88,000 tons realized $75 million for the country in 1990. The company and the Government of Sierra Leone concluded a new agreement on the terms of the company's concession in Sierra Leone in 1990. Rutile and bauxite mining operations were suspended when rebels invaded the mining sites in 1995. Negotiations for reactivation of rutile and bauxite mining are in progress. The U.S. interest in the company has been reduced to 25%.

Since independence, the Government of Sierra Leone has encouraged foreign investment, although the business climate has been hampered by a shortage of foreign exchange, corruption, and uncertainty resulting from civil conflicts. Investors are protected by an agreement that allows for arbitration under the 1965 World Bank Convention. Legislation provides for transfer of interest, dividends, and capital.

Sierra Leone is a member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). With Liberia and Guinea, it formed the Mano River Union (MRU) customs union, primarily designed to implement development projects and promote regional economic integration. However, the MRU has so far been inactive because of domestic problems and internal and cross-border conflicts in all three countries. The future of the MRU depends on the ability of its members to deal with the fallout from these internal and regional problems.

Sierra Leone continues to rely on significant amounts of foreign assistance, principally from multilateral donors. The bilateral donors include the United States, Italy, and Germany, the largest being the United Kingdom and the European Union.

Sierra Leone has maintained cordial relations with the West, in particular with the United Kingdom. It also maintains diplomatic relations with the Republics of the former Soviet Union as well as with China and Libya. President Stevens' government had sought closer relations with West African countries under the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The present government is continuing this effort.

Sierra Leone is a member of the UN and its specialized agencies, the Commonwealth, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Development Bank (AFDB), the Mano River Union (MRU), the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).

U.S.-SIERRA LEONE RELATIONSUSAID grain assistance for displaced persons in Freetown, Sierra Leone; USAID Photo
U.S. relations with Sierra Leone began with missionary activities in the 19th century. In 1959, the U.S. opened a consulate in Freetown and elevated it to embassy status when Sierra Leone became independent in 1961.

U.S.-Sierra Leone relations today are cordial, with ethnic ties between groups in the two countries receiving increasing historical interest. Many thousand Sierra Leoneans reside in the United States.

In fiscal year 2001, total U.S. aid to Sierra Leone in all categories was about $75 million, primarily through commodity contributions through PL-480, Title II programs with the World Food Program and Catholic Relief Services. U.S. aid also stresses restoration of peace, democracy and human rights, health education, particularly combating HIV/AIDS, and human resources development.

Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador--Peter R. Chaveas
Deputy Chief of Mission--Michael L. Bajek.

The U.S. Embassy is located at the corner of Walpole and Siaka Stevens Streets, Freetown, tel: 232 22 226 481; fax: 232 22 225 471.