Sierra Leone (06/94)

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


Official Name:
Republic of Sierra Leone

Area:  72,325 sq. km. (29,925 sq. mi.); slightly smaller than South Carolina. 
Cities:  Capital--Freetown (est. 470,000).  Principal district towns--Bo (269,000), Kenema (337,000), Makeni (316,000).
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 ( 1990 est.):  4.1 million. 
Annual growth rate (1990 est.):   2.4%. 
Ethnic groups:  Temne 30%, Mende 29%, Creole 2%; 39% spread over 15 other ethnic groups. 
Religions:  Muslim 60%, Animist 30%, Christian 10%. 
Languages:  English, Krio, Temne, Mende, and various other indigenous languages. 
Education:  Literacy--less than 21%. 
Health:  Life expectancy--42 yrs. 
Work force:  Agriculture--75%.  Industry--17%.  Services--1%.

Type:  Republic currently under military rule.  The National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) rules by decree. 
Independence:  From Britain, April 27, 1961. 
Constitution:  October 1, 1991, in force, but severely restricted by military decrees. 
Political parties:  Political parties were suspended by the NPRC after the April 29, 1992, coup.

GDP (1990 est.):  $950 million. 
GDP growth rate:  0.5%. 
Per capita GNP (est.):  $230. 
Annual inflation rate:  20%. 
Natural resources:  Diamonds, rutile, bauxite, iron ore, gold, platinum, and chromite.
Agriculture:  Coffee, cocoa, ginger, palm kernels, kassava, bananas, citrus, peanuts, plantains, rice, sweet potatoes, vegetables.  Land--30% potentially arable, 8% cultivated.
Industry:  Diamonds, bauxite, and rutile mining; forestry; beverages; cigarettes; construction goods;
Trade (1991):  Exports--$149 million:  mining 62%, agriculture 37%.  Major markets--Netherlands 31%, U.K. 15%, Germany 11%, U.S. 9%.  Imports--$161 million:  crude oil, rice, chemicals, machinery, pharmaceuticals, building materials, light consumer goods, foodstuffs, used clothing, textiles.
Exchange rate: 580 Leones=U.S.$1.

Eighteen ethnic groups make up the indigenous population of Sierra Leone.  The Temne in the north and the Mende in the South are the largest.  About 60,000 are Creoles, descendants of freed slaves who returned to Sierra Leone from Great Britain and North America.  In addition, about 11,000 Lebanese, 500 Indians, and 2,000 Europeans reside in the country. 

In the past, Sierra Leoneans were noted for their educational achievement, trading activity,
entrepreneurial skills, and arts and crafts work, particularly wood carving.  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 have declined sharply over the last 20 years.

European contacts with Sierra Leone were among the first in West Africa, and Sierra Leone was one of the first West African British colonies. 

Foreign settlement did not occur until 1787, when the British prepared a refuge within the British empire for freed slaves; that year, the site of Freetown received 400 freedmen from Great Britain.  Disease and hostility from the indigenous people nearly eliminated the first group of returnees.   

Thousands of slaves were returned to or liberated in Freetown.  Most chose to remain in Sierra Leone.  These returned Africans--or Creoles 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 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 Creole 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 bi-elections beginning in the fall of 1978 and the appointment of an all-APC cabinet.  Tranquillity was not completely restored.  In 1970, a state of emergency was declared after provincial disturbances, and in March 1971 and July 1974, alleged military coup plots were uncovered by the government.  The leaders of the plots 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 five-year term in April 1977.  In the national 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, elections in 13 constituencies were canceled by the government.  Bi-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 Joseph Saidu Momoh as party candidate
to succeed Stevens; he was Stevens' own choice.  Momoh was elected President in a one-party referendum on October 1, 1985.  A formal inauguration was held in January 1986; new parliamentary elections were held in May 1986. 

In October 1990, President Momoh set up a constitutional review commission to review the one-party 1978 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 received presidential assent in September and 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 posed an increasing burden on the country, and on April 29, 1992, a group of young RSLMF officers launched a military coup which sent Momoh into exile in Guinea and established the NPRC as the ruling authority in Sierra Leone.

The NPRC suspended the 1991 constitution and rules by decree of the Supreme Council of State (SCS).  In November 1993, the NPRC announced a timetable which calls for debate on and adoption of a new constitution, and general elections in late-1995.  Most civil rights are
respected.  A critical press continues to operate, though the government has intervened with individual editors in response to alleged inaccuracies.  Press guidelines enacted  early in 1994 impose heavy new financial burdens on publishers, and may serve to reduce the number of
newspapers being published.  Political parties remain suspended. 

The judicial system continues to function for civil cases.  It is comprised of a supreme court, court of appeal and a high court of justice with judges appointed by the head of state.  Local courts administer traditional law, with lay judges; appeals move from these courts to the superior courts.

The basic unit of local government generally is the paramount chief and council elders.  There is also an elected council and mayor in Freetown, Bo, Kenema, and Makeni.  The three provinces each have a resident minister. 

Principal Government Officials
Head of State and Chairman of the National Provisional Ruling Council--Captain Valentine E.M.  Strasser
Deputy Chairman of the National Provisional Ruling Council and Chief Secretary of State--Captain Julius Maada Bio
Secretary of State in the Chairman's Office--John Benjamin
Foreign Minister--Dr. Abass Bundu
Ambassador to the U.S.--Dr. Thomas K. Kargbo
Ambassador to the UN--Paolo Bangura

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 75% of the population engages in subsistence agriculture, and despite the fact that most Sierra Leoneans derive their livelihood from it, agriculture accounts for only 30% 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.  Diamonds alone account for more than half of export earnings.  The loss in 1992 of the Kono district diamond mining area to rebel forces has deprived the country of this major source of foreign exchange. 

Sierra Leone's second largest recorded export is bauxite,  mined in the Sherbro area by a Swiss firm.  This production reached 50,000 tons in 1990.  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 Ltd., wholly owned by Nord Resources of the United States, began commercial mining operations near
Bonthe in early 1979.  Sierra Rutile is the largest non-petroleum 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.

Sierra Leone, since independence, has been traditionally a pro-business nation.  The government encourages foreign investment, although the business climate has been hampered by a shortage of foreign exchange 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.  The MRU has so
far been inactive, however, in part because of domestic problems and the civil war in Liberia.  The future of the MRU depends on the ability of its members to deal with the Liberian civil war.

Sierra Leone continues to rely on significant amounts of foreign assistance, principally from multilateral donors.  After the United States, Italy is the largest bilateral donor, concentrating on electricity development, and it is followed by Germany, 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 North Korea and Iran.  President Stevens' Government had sought closer relations with neighboring Guinea and Liberia; the NPRC 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.

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 FY 1992, total U.S. aid to Sierra Leone in all categories was about $13.5 million, primarily through commodity contributions through PL-480, Title II programs with the World Food Program and Catholic Relief Services.  U.S. aid also stressed vocational education, agriculture, rural development, and health and human resources development.

Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador--Lauralee M. Peters
Deputy Chief of Mission--Charles Ray
Public Affairs Officer--Kiki Munshi
Peace Corps Director--(vacant)

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.