Sierra Leone has held regular multiparty elections since the end of its civil war in 2002. However, opposition parties have faced police violence and restrictions on assembly. Civic groups are constrained by onerous regulations and government corruption remains pervasive. Other long-standing concerns include gender-based violence (GBV) and female genital mutilation (FGM).
- Former president Ernest Bai Koroma was questioned by investigators in November after an inquiry documented widespread corruption during his tenure. Koroma and as many as 130 other individuals were barred from leaving the country after a report containing the Commissions of Inquiry’s (COI) findings was published in September.
- While Sierra Leoneans faced a COVID-19-related ban on large public assemblies for much of the year, notable protests, including June demonstrations prompted by the rape and murder of a child, took place. The authorities reported 2,560 cases and 76 deaths to the World Health Organization (WHO) at year’s end.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||3.003 4.004|
The president is elected by popular vote for up to two five-year terms. In the March 2018 presidential election, Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) defeated Samura Kamara of the incumbent All People’s Congress (APC) and succeeded term-limited predecessor Ernest Bai Koroma. Bio won nearly 52 percent of the vote in the second round. Allegations of violence and voter intimidation marred the campaign period. Nevertheless, international observers determined that the election was credible, praising the National Election Commission (NEC) for effectively fulfilling its duties despite budget constraints, logistical challenges, and pressure from the government, which disbursed election funds late and occasionally threatened to withhold resources.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||3.003 4.004|
In the unicameral Parliament, 132 members are chosen by popular vote, and 14 seats are reserved for indirectly elected paramount chiefs. Parliamentary elections are held every five years, concurrently with presidential elections. During the 2018 parliamentary elections, the APC retained its majority, winning 68 seats, while the SLPP increased its share to 49 seats. The Coalition for Change won 8 seats, the National Grand Coalition (NGC) took 4, and independents captured the remaining 3. Despite some procedural errors, international observers considered the parliamentary elections credible.
In March 2019, APC members of Parliament (MPs) staged a walkout over the SLPP’s efforts to remove several APC lawmakers. That May, the High Court ruled in favor of an SLPP petition alleging APC electoral fraud in 2018, resulting in the removal of 10 MPs and a securing a parliamentary majority for the SLPP. The APC filed a petition for the Supreme Court to hear the case in October 2020.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||4.004 4.004|
The electoral laws and framework are generally deemed to be fair. The NEC, which administers elections, works impartially and independently. However, restrictions that limit who can run for office, such as a requirement that candidates be citizens by birth, have drawn criticism from international observers.
During the 2018 campaign period, the major political parties interpreted the citizenship provision to exclude people with dual citizenship from standing for office. Analysts believe this interpretation was meant to push NGC presidential candidate Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella out of the race. Many other candidates reportedly failed to secure party nominations due to their dual citizenship.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||2.002 4.004|
Although people have the right to organize in different political parties, opposition parties and leaders have faced intimidation and harassment from the current SLPP government and the APC when it held the presidency.
The APC and SLPP are the country’s main political parties, but 17 parties officially registered for the 2018 elections. In 2017, several high-profile figures left the SLPP to form the NGC. While candidate nomination fees are subsidized, the costs of running for office and a rule requiring public-sector personnel to resign 12 months ahead of an election serve as barriers to entry for many candidates, giving an advantage to larger parties and those with greater resources.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||3.003 4.004|
The SLPP’s presidential victory in 2018, despite the APC’s continued use of public resources during the campaign, marked the second peaceful transfer of power between rival parties since the end of the civil war in 2002. The APC had won the previous two presidential elections in 2007 and 2012.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||3.003 4.004|
Sierra Leoneans generally enjoy freedom in their political choices, although traditional chiefs and religious leaders exercise influence on voters. Local elites from both major parties often control the selection of candidates for Parliament.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||3.003 4.004|
Ethnic and religious minorities typically enjoy full political rights and electoral opportunities. Societal impediments to women’s political participation remain a challenge, with only 18 of 146 Parliament seats held by women in 2020.
Sierra Leoneans who are not of African descent do not have birthright citizenship and must be naturalized to be able to vote; naturalized citizens cannot run for elected office.
The SLPP has accused the APC of engaging in ethnic discrimination when appointing employees to government agencies.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||3.003 4.004|
The elected president and Parliament generally determine the government policy, but most power lies within the executive.
China has become the largest investor in Sierra Leone, providing billions of dollars in aid and infrastructure financing since 2013. Beijing cultivated a close relationship with the Koroma administration, which led civil society leaders to claim that China had an undue influence on policymaking. In 2018, the SLPP government cancelled a controversial deal with China to build a new airport near Freetown, though other bilateral projects were ongoing as of 2020.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||1.001 4.004|
Corruption remains a pervasive problem at every level of government. Although there has been a decrease in perceived corruption among political institutions, rates of bribery remain high among ordinary citizens seeking basic services.
The Bio administration has promised to tackle systemic corruption and hold perpetrators from the previous government accountable. Commissions of Inquiry (CoI) into Koroma-era corruption presented significant evidence of malfeasance to President Bio in March 2020. A report containing their findings was published in September, with Koroma and as many as 130 other individuals subsequently facing travel bans. Investigators questioned Koroma twice in November, and investigations based on the report’s findings were ongoing at year’s end.
In March 2020, Labor Minister Alpha Osman Timbo and four other individuals were accused of misappropriating a donation of rice from the Chinese government in 2019, while Timbo was education minister. The High Court discharged the case against Timbo and the other defendants in July, after the ACC declined to offer evidence.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||3.003 4.004|
Sierra Leone has an uneven record on transparency. The Right to Access Information Commission was created in 2013 to facilitate transparency and openness in government, but its effectiveness has been hampered by lack of funding and limited public outreach.
The government continues to review and make public all mining and lease agreements, retaining its Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) compliance designation. Its 2019 compliance report assessed it as having made meaningful but not satisfactory progress on all requirements. EITI will next validate the government’s compliance in October 2021.
|Are there free and independent media?||2.002 4.004|
Numerous independent newspapers circulate freely, and there are dozens of public and private radio and television outlets. However, public officials have previously employed libel and sedition laws to target journalists, particularly those reporting on elections and high-level corruption. In July 2020, Parliament voted to repeal Part V of the 1965 Public Order Act, which criminalized libel and sedition, and introduced the Independent Media Commission Act, which was criticized by some observers who warned that it would no longer allow the registration of newspapers as sole proprietorships.
In April 2020, soldiers in the city of Kenema physically attacked Standard Times reporter Fayia Amara Fayia after he photographed a COVID-19 quarantine facility. Fayia was later arrested for attacking a soldier and was denied medication for a preexisting condition while in custody; his case was ongoing as of November.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||4.004 4.004|
Freedom of religion is constitutionally protected and respected in practice.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||3.003 4.004|
Academic freedom is generally upheld, but strained resources within the university system have led to strikes by professors. Student protests have been violently dispersed by security forces in recent years.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||3.003 4.004|
Private discussion remains largely open, though freedom of personal expression may be affected by the threat of violence from powerful interests. While authorities reportedly monitor discussions on social media platforms, including WhatsApp, few arrests have been made for online discussions or comments.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||2.002 4.004|
While freedom of assembly is constitutionally guaranteed, the police have repeatedly refused to grant permission to organizers planning protests, and peaceful demonstrations have been violently dispersed in recent years.
Public gatherings of more than 100 people were banned via COVID-19 measures from March through at least early December. Protests and clashes were nevertheless recorded during the year. In June, the rape and murder of a child prompted several days of demonstrations; authorities in Freetown detained at least 20 demonstrators during one of the protests, though they were released soon after. In July, protesters objecting to the relocation of a power station attacked SLPP offices in Makeni. Authorities responded forcefully, killing at least four people.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||2.002 4.004|
A variety of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and civic groups operate in the country. However, stricter regulations were adopted in 2017 and took effect in 2018, requiring annual renewal of registrations and ministerial approval for projects. The SLPP government upheld the policy after a 2018 review. Many NGOs expressed dissatisfaction with the review’s lack of transparency and inclusivity, and concern over the narrowing of space for civil society.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||2.002 4.004|
While workers have the right to join independent trade unions, there are no laws preventing discrimination against union members or prohibiting employers from interfering with the formation of unions. Reports of the SLPP replacing union leaders or pressuring them to resign since it returned to government have provoked condemnation from regional union affiliates.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||2.002 4.004|
While the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, the courts are prone to executive interference, particularly in corruption cases. A lack of clear procedures for appointing and dismissing judges leaves those processes vulnerable to abuse. Judicial corruption, poor salaries, and inadequate resources also undermine judicial autonomy.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||2.002 4.004|
Resource constraints and a shortage of lawyers hinder access to legal counsel. Although the constitution guarantees a fair trial, this right is sometimes limited in practice, largely due to corruption. Pretrial and remand prisoners spend between three and five years behind bars on average before their cases are adjudicated. Police can hold criminal suspects for several days without charge and sometimes engage in arbitrary arrests.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||3.003 4.004|
Detention facilities are under strain, with occupancy levels at 220 percent of official capacity as of 2019. Prisons and detention facilities fail to meet basic health-and-hygiene standards, and infectious disease is prevalent. In April 2020, a riot broke out at the Pademba Road Prison in Freetown after a COVID-19 case was confirmed there. Restrictions on movement within the prison prompted the riot, according to a report issued by prison authorities in July. According to that report, 30 inmates and 1 corrections officer died in the incident.
Police are rarely held accountable for physical abuse and extrajudicial killings, which remain frequent. Police are poorly paid and minimally trained. Civilians can report ill-treatment to the Police Complaints, Discipline, and Internal Investigations Department or the Independent Police Complaints Board, though these agencies have limited capacity and efficacy. At the local level, Police Partnership Boards, whose chairpersons are elected by community members, are intended to provide accountability for arbitrary arrests.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||2.002 4.004|
LGBT+ people face discrimination in employment and health-care access and are vulnerable to violence. Sex between men is criminalized under a colonial-era law, and anti-LGBT+ discrimination is not explicitly prohibited by the constitution. Women experience discrimination in employment, education, and access to credit. Employers frequently fire women who become pregnant during their first year on the job.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||3.003 4.004|
Sierra Leoneans generally enjoy freedom of movement, but the government periodically imposed lockdowns and curfews throughout the year to curb the spread of COVID-19. A national curfew was also employed, though the government shortened it in June and lifted it in October.
Petty corruption is common, and parents often must pay bribes to register their children in primary and secondary school.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||3.003 4.004|
The government has sought to reduce regulatory barriers to private business in recent years. Property rights are constitutionally guaranteed, though the laws do not effectively protect those rights. There is no land titling system. Outside of Freetown, land falls under customary law, and its use is determined by chiefs. The government often fails to regulate the activities of international investors, exacerbating threats to property rights.
Laws passed in 2007 grant women the right to inherit property, but many women have little power to contest land issues within the customary legal system.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||2.002 4.004|
Reports of rape and domestic violence rarely result in conviction, and the police unit responsible for investigating and prosecuting these crimes remains underfunded and understaffed. In 2019, Parliament passed the Sexual Offences Amendment Act, which allows life sentences for those convicted of raping a child.
FGM is not prohibited by law, and the practice remains widespread.
Girls who were pregnant or previously had children were prohibited from attending schools under a 2010 ban which was lifted in March 2020. The Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) ruled the practice was discriminatory in late 2019.
Child marriage has consistently been a problem, with a reported 39 percent of women aged 20–24 having been married by age 18 according to a report published by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in 2017. In October 2020, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) published the results of a survey of women in 15 African countries, including Sierra Leone; that survey recorded a rise in sexual violence as well as in early or forced marriages when COVID-19 restrictions were imposed.
Women experience discrimination on personal status matters such as marriage and divorce. Customary law governs many of these issues, making it difficult for women to seek legal recourse.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||2.002 4.004|
Reports of economic exploitation among workers in the natural-resource sector are common. Human trafficking remains a problem, though the 2020 edition of the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report noted that the authorities were doing more to investigate trafficking and prosecute suspects. The first trafficking convictions in 15 years were secured in February 2020. Reports of judicial corruption and police abuse of victims remained common, however.
On Sierra Leone
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Global Freedom Score63 100 partly free