Sierra Leone | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone

Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Sierra Leone's civil liberties rating improved from 5 to 4 due to increased security in the country.


Sierra Leone further consolidated its peace process in 2002 by holding presidential and parliamentary elections that were free and fair. Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, a former UN diplomat, was reelected as president with 70 percent of the vote compared with 22 percent for Ernest Koroma of the All People's Congress (APC). The Revolutionary United Front Party candidate, Alimamy Pallo Bangura, lagged with barely 2 percent of the vote. Kabbah's Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) dominated parliamentary elections, winning 83 of 112 available seats, followed by the APC with 27. The party of former junta leader Johnny Paul Karoma won 2 seats. Because of his victory and his party's wins in the parliamentary polls, Kabbah will need to prove that his government is inclusive. Steps were taken in 2002 to get the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which is to try people for war crimes, up and running. Respect for human rights improved markedly during the year, although press freedom suffered a slight setback.

Founded by Britain in 1787 as a haven for liberated slaves, Sierra Leone became independent in 1961. The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) launched a guerrilla campaign from neighboring Liberia in 1991 to end 23 years of increasingly corrupt one-party rule by President Joseph Momoh. Power fell into the lap of Captain Valentine Strasser in 1992, when he and other junior officers attempted to confront Momoh about poor pay and working conditions at the front. Momoh fled the country. The Strasser regime hired South African soldiers from the security company Executive Outcomes to help win back key diamond-rich areas. In January 1996, Brigadier Julius Maada-Bio quietly deposed Strasser. Elections proceeded despite military and rebel intimidation, and voters elected Kabbah as president.

The following year, Major Johnny Paul Koroma toppled the Kabbah government, established the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, and invited the RUF to join the junta. Nigerian-led West African troops, backed by logistical and intelligence support from the British company Sandline, restored President Kabbah to power in February 1998, but the country continued to be racked by war. A peace agreement in July 1999 led to the beginning of disarmament, but the disarmament process stopped in May 2000 with a return to hostilities and the taking of about 500 peacekeepers as hostages. British troops flew in to help, and disarmament resumed in May 2001.

A phased withdrawal of the 17,300-strong UN Mission in Sierra Leone, the world's largest peacekeeping mission, began in October 2002. By December 2004, only 2,000 peacekeepers are expected to remain in Sierra Leone. The more than 300 British soldiers in Sierra Leone began their withdrawal in 2002. More than 45,000 fighters have been disarmed, but their reintegration into civilian life has been slow. The United Nations warned that Liberian President Charles Taylor still supported rebels in Sierra Leone and that delayed resettlement of former combatants could hinder the country's peace process. Sierra Leonean mercenaries reportedly have joined up with a rebel group fighting Taylor or with Taylor's armed forces. Insecurity on Sierra Leone's border with Liberia and Guinea posed a continued threat to lasting peace in 2002. Although Sierra Leone's decade-long war has ended, Kabbah still faces daunting problems, many of which contributed to causing the war. He must adequately address entrenched corruption, a culture of impunity, rampant poverty, and unequal distribution of the country's diamond wealth if Sierra Leone is to have lasting peace.

Sierra Leone has vast resources of diamonds, but smuggling and war have turned it into one of the world's poorest countries. A ban on rough-diamond imports from Sierra Leone does not include diamonds that carry proven certificates of origin from the government. The government earned about $26 million in legal diamond sales in 2001. Sierra Leone also stood to benefit from $950 million in debt relief and $12 million in aid from the IMF in 2002.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Presidential and legislative elections in February and March 1996 were imperfect, but considered legitimate. President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and his SLPP had the advantage of incumbency and state resources for the presidential and parliamentary elections in May 2002, but despite some logistical problems the polls were considered the country's fairest since independence. Eight candidates had vied for the presidency.

The judiciary is active, but corruption and a lack of resources are impediments. Despite these obstacles, it has demonstrated independence, and a number of trials have been free and fair. There are often lengthy pretrial detentions in harsh conditions. A British program, the Law Development Project, has helped Sierra Leone update its legal code and strengthen its judicial system. Eight judges, from Sierra Leone, Canada, Austria, The Gambia, the United Kingdom, and Nigeria were appointed in December 2002 to sit on the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Among those indicted for war crimes include former RUF leader Foday Sankoh. The country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, modeled on South Africa's truth commission, was also established in 2002. The aim of both the court and the truth commission is to try to help end Sierra Leone's culture of impunity. The United Nations is to send some 170 police officers from member states to train security forces in Sierra Leone. Many have already received training from the United Kingdom.

Sierra Leone once had one of Africa's worst human rights records. Abduction, maiming, rape, forced conscription, and extrajudicial killing were commonplace. By the end of 2002, however, except for areas bordering Guinea and Liberia, virtually all of the countryside was safe for travel because of disarmament and the deployment of peacekeepers, although there were reports that civilians had been abducted and taken into Liberia. Kabbah in March 2002 lifted the state of emergency that had been imposed during the war. A number of national and international nongovernmental organizations and human rights groups operate openly in Freetown.

Freedom of speech and of the press is guaranteed, but the government at times restricts these rights. Criminal libel laws occasionally are used to jail journalists. Several government and private radio and television stations broadcast. The Independent Media Commission has failed to demonstrate independence. It refused to give a broadcast license to an independent radio station in 2002 that planned to broadcast programs by shortwave to Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea. The United Nations sponsors a community radio project that also receives support from the Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Health. Newspapers openly criticize the government and armed factions. Dozens of newspapers are printed in Freetown, but most are of poor quality and often carry sensational or undocumented stories. Editor Paul Kamara, of For Di People, was sentenced in November 2002 to nine months in jail, his newspaper was closed, and he was ordered to pay a fine. He was accused of libel and defamation by a judge.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed and respected in practice. The rights of freedom of assembly and association are guaranteed, and these rights are generally respected. Despite constitutionally guaranteed equal rights, women face extensive legal and de facto discrimination as well as limited access to education and formal (business) sector jobs. Married women have fewer property rights than men, especially in rural areas, where customary law prevails. Female genital mutilation is widespread. Abuse of women, including rape, sexual assault, and sexual slavery were rampant during the war.

Workers have the right to join independent trade unions of their choice. About 60 percent of workers in urban areas, including government employees, are unionized. There is a legal framework for collective bargaining.