Sierra Leone

Partly Free
PR Political Rights 28 40
CL Civil Liberties 37 60
Last Year's Score & Status
65 100 Partly Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.

header1 Overview

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 and female genital mutilation (FGM).

header2 Key Developments in 2021

  • In November, the government of President Julius Maada Bio suspended Auditor General Lara Taylor-Pearce. Taylor-Pearce reported that no specific reason for her suspension was given, while civil society groups criticized the Bio administration’s move. Taylor-Pearce remained suspended as of year’s end.
  • Parliament voted to abolish the death penalty in July and President Bio signed the subsequent law banning the practice in October. Some 99 people facing the death penalty as of July reportedly benefited from the change.

PR Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

A2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 3.003 4.004

In the unicameral Parliament, 132 members are popularly elected and 14 seats are reserved for indirectly elected paramount chiefs. Parliamentary elections are held every five years, concurrently with presidential elections. During the 2018 polls, the APC retained its majority, winning 68 seats, while the SLPP increased its share to 49 seats. The remaining 15 seats were won by smaller parties and independents. Despite some procedural errors, international observers considered the elections credible.

In April 2018, APC members of Parliament (MPs) staged a walkout over the SLPP’s efforts to prevent a group of APC lawmakers from attending the body’s first postelectoral session. In May 2019, the High Court ruled in favor of an SLPP petition alleging APC electoral fraud in the 2018 vote. Ten MPs were removed from office and nine seats were immediately given to SLPP runners-up, giving that party a slender effective majority.

A3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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. NEC commissioners are selected by the president, though the parliament must approve appointments. European Union electoral observers reported that the NEC was “competent and impartial” in administering the 2018 elections. In November 2021, however, the APC criticized the NEC’s handling of a local contest held in Koinadugu the month before; it alleged that NEC staff engaged in fraud that benefited the SLPP.

During the 2018 campaign period, the major political parties interpreted a constitutional citizenship provision to exclude people with dual citizenship from standing for office. However, a September 2021 Supreme Court ruling declared that dual citizens can vote and seek office.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 APC and SLPP governments. In December 2021, Unity Party chairwoman Femi Claudius-Cole was detained over comments she made regarding the midterm census, though she was released after several days. APC politician Diana Konomanyi was also detained, though she was more quickly released without charge.

The APC and SLPP are the country’s main political parties. Seventeen parties officially registered for the 2018 elections but only four won parliamentary seats. In 2017, several high-profile figures left the SLPP to form the National Grand Coalition.

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.

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 2007 and 2012 presidential elections.

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 2021.

Sierra Leoneans who are not of African descent do not have birthright citizenship and must be naturalized to be able to vote.

The SLPP and APC have accused each other of engaging in ethnic discrimination when appointing employees to government agencies.

C Functioning of Government

C1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 government policy, but most power lies with the executive.

The country relies on Chinese and Turkish support for large-scale infrastructure projects. In 2020, President Bio announced an airport expansion project that would be completed by a Turkish firm. In December 2021, Bio said Turkish firms would be “favorably considered” for investment opportunities during a summit hosted by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Beijing cultivated a close relationship with the Koroma administration, which led civil society leaders to claim that Beijing had an undue influence on policymaking. The Bio administration’s relationship is relatively distant; in 2018, it cancelled a Koroma-era plan to build an airport that would have been funded with a Chinese loan. In May 2021, however, the government approved a plan to build an industrial harbor with Chinese backing.

International organizations have also influenced policymaking. For example, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) provided the country a support package in 2018; under its terms, Freetown was to end fuel subsidies.

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 1.001 4.004

Corruption remains pervasive at every level of government. Rates of bribery remain high among ordinary citizens seeking basic services.

The Bio administration has made efforts to tackle systemic corruption and hold perpetrators from the previous government accountable. However, the Anti-Corruption Commission’s (ACC) efforts have largely focused on recouping stolen wealth over securing convictions. The ACC has recovered 31 billion leones ($3 million) since 2018.

In November 2021, the government suspended Auditor General Lara Taylor-Pearce and committed to form a tribunal over her performance, though Taylor-Pearce reported she was not informed of a specific allegation. The Sierra Leone Association of Journalists and the Institute of Governance Reform criticized the government over the suspension, which remained in effect at year’s end. The auditor general’s office noted financial inconsistencies in several government agencies, including the president’s office, when it released its annual report in December.

Commissions of Inquiry (CoI) into Koroma-era corruption, which investigated 127 former officials, presented significant evidence of malfeasance to President Bio in 2020. In January 2021, the attorney general’s office reported that 85 individuals had appealed the CoI’s findings. Many appeals were successful; in April, former lands and country planning minister Alhaji Musa Tarawally won an appeal, while former local government minister Diana Konomanyi won her appeal in June. Former health minister Miatta Kargbo lost her appeal in July, however. Appeals of the CoI’s findings were still being considered at year’s end.

C3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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. Transparency in public procurement processes was raised as a concern in the Audit Service Sierra Leone’s December 2021 report.

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 April 2022.

CL Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

Part V of the 1965 Public Order Act, which criminalized libel and sedition, was repealed in 2020 and was replaced by Independent Media Commission (IMC) Act, which was gazetted that August. The IMC Act was criticized by some observers who warned that it would no longer allow the registration of newspapers as sole proprietorships.

In December 2021, a camera operator working for AYV Media was physically attacked and detained by police officers in Freetown when he solicited a comment on a police pursuit earlier in the day.

D2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

D3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

D4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

Journalists voiced concerns over the breadth of a draft cybercrime bill that was considered in 2020. Parliament passed an amended cybercrime bill that addressed some of the media sector’s concerns in June 2021 and President Bio gave his assent in November.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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. In April 2021, motorbike taxi drivers in Freetown protested against ongoing restrictions and allegedly corrupt behavior from police officers. While officers responded violently, no casualties were recorded.

Assemblies were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, though the related state of emergency was lifted in March 2021. Public gatherings were limited to 50 participants in June and an overnight curfew went into effect nationwide in July as cases rose. These restrictions ended in September.

E2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 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.

E3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

F Rule of Law

F1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

F2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

The 1991 constitution allowed for capital punishment, but Parliament voted to abolish the death penalty in July 2021. President Bio signed the law banning the practice in October. Some 99 people were facing the death penalty as of July and reportedly benefited from the change.

F3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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. Prisons fail to meet basic health-and-hygiene standards, and infectious disease is prevalent.

Police, who are poorly paid and minimally trained, are rarely held accountable for their actions, even when they turn to violence. 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.

F4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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, though this was affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The government loosened cross-border travel restrictions early in 2021 but imposed a nighttime curfew between July and September.

Petty corruption is common, and parents often must pay bribes to register their children in primary and secondary school.

G2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

G3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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. A 21-year-old woman died of suspected complications from the practice in December 2021.

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 in 2017. In 2020, the International Rescue Committee published the results of a survey of women in 15 African countries, including Sierra Leone; that survey recorded a rise in sexual violence and 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.

G4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2021 noted that authorities were doing more to investigate trafficking and prosecute suspects through the adoption of an antitrafficking action plan. The first trafficking convictions in 15 years were secured in 2020, but only one conviction has followed as of June 2021.

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  • Global Freedom Score

    63 100 partly free