In 2018, Sierra Leone held its fourth national elections since the end of the civil war in 2002. However, opposition parties have faced police violence and restrictions on assembly. Government corruption is pervasive, and the work of journalists is hampered by the threat of defamation charges. Other longstanding concerns include gender-based violence and female genital mutilation (FGM).
Key Developments in 2018:
- In the presidential election, Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) defeated Samura Kamara of the incumbent All People’s Congress (APC) in the second round of voting in March. Despite some allegations of violence and intimidation during the campaign period, international observers determined that the election was credible.
- In July, the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) indicted two officials from the previous APC government for corruption: former vice president Victor Bockarie Foh and former minister of mines Minkailu Mansaray. A sweeping inquiry into corruption during the administration of former president Ernest Bai Koroma was slated to begin at the beginning of 2019. The APC claimed that the inquiry was politically motivated and condemned it as a “witch hunt.”
- In January, restrictive new regulations which increase government oversight of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) came into effect. Rights advocates expressed deep concern that the regulations would severely undermine the independence of civil society and discourage NGOs from criticizing the government.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 28 / 40
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 10 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 3 / 4
The president is elected directly by popular vote for up to two five-year terms. In the March 2018 presidential election, Julius Maada Bio of the SLPP defeated Samura Kamara of the incumbent APC in the second round of voting, marking the second peaceful transfer of power since the end of the civil war in 2002. Sixteen candidates competed in the first round, but none gained the required 55 percent of valid votes to win the election outright. A legal challenge to the first-round results by an APC member, who alleged irregularities, delayed the second round by four days, highlighting the authorities’ inability to adjudicate disputes in a timely manner. 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) in particular for carrying out its duties effectively, despite budget constraints, logistical challenges, and pressure from the government, which disbursed election funds late and threatened to withhold resources on occasion.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 3 / 4
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 concurrently with the presidential election every five years. During the 2018 parliamentary elections, the APC retained its majority, winning 68 seats, while the SLPP increased its share to 49 seats, up from 42 in 2012. Two new parties, the Coalition for Change (C4C) and the National Grand Coalition (NGC), entered Parliament with 8 and 4 seats, respectively. Despite some procedural errors, international observers stated that the parliamentary elections were credible.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 4 / 4
The electoral laws and framework are generally deemed to be fair, although restrictions which limit who can run for office, such as a requirement that candidates are 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 the NGC’s presidential candidate, Dr. Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella, out of the race. Yumkella ultimately continued his campaign and finished in third place. Many candidates also reportedly failed to secure nominations from their parties due to their dual citizenship. Additionally, only around 25 percent of Parliament members, many of whom hold dual citizenship, sought reelection in 2018.
The NEC, which administers elections, works impartially and independently.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 11 / 16
B1. 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 / 4
Although people have the right to organize in different political parties, opposition parties and leaders faced intimidation and harassment from the government and the APC when it held the presidency. The SLPP government also intimidated some opposition politicians after it took power in 2018. In July, for example, Mohamed Kamarainba Mansaray, the leader of the Alliance Democratic Party (ADP), was questioned by the police following a series of interviews in which he criticized President Bio’s performance during his first hundred days in office.
The APC and SLPP are the main political parties, but 17 parties are officially registered. In 2017, several high-profile figures left the SLPP to form the NGC, which won four seats in Parliament during the 2018 elections.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 3 / 4
The SLPP, the main opposition party, won the presidency in 2018, despite the APC’s continued use of public resources during the campaign. The APC won the previous two presidential elections, in 2007 and 2012. Both main parties gained seats in the 2018 parliamentary elections.
Despite government subsidies for candidate nomination fees, the costs to run for office, as well as a rule requiring people in public-sector posts to resign 12 months in advance of an election, remained a barrier to entry for many candidates.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 3 / 4
Sierra Leoneans generally enjoy freedom in their political choices, although traditional and religious leaders remain influential on the political choices of voters. Local elites from both major parties often control the selection of candidates for Parliament, limiting voters’ choices.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3 / 4
Ethnic and religious minorities typically enjoy full political rights and electoral opportunities. Women’s political participation remains a challenge, with only 18 of 146 parliament seats held by women in 2018, while 5 of 26 members of the president’s cabinet are women.
Sierra Leoneans who are not of African descent must become naturalized citizens to be able to vote, and they are not allowed to run for elected office.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 7 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 3 / 4
The president and Parliament generally determine the policies of the government, although most power lies in the executive branch. China has become the largest investor in Sierra Leone, providing billions of dollars of aid and infrastructure financing since 2013. It cultivated a close relationship with the Koroma administration, which led civil society leaders to claim that China has an undue influence on policymaking. The SLPP maintained a cooler stance toward China throughout its 2018 election campaign, and in October, the new SLPP government cancelled a controversial $318 million deal with China to build a new airport near Freetown, signaling increased resistance to Chinese influence.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 1 / 4
Corruption remains a pervasive problem at every level of government. In recent years, the ACC has made some progress toward uncovering corruption among high-level officials, but it has a poor prosecutorial record, especially in trials involving former president Koroma’s friends, family, and political allies.
The new administration of President Bio promised to take measures to tackle systemic corruption and hold corrupt officials from Koroma’s presidency accountable. An incendiary government report published in June 2018 alleged widespread, systemic corruption in the former APC government. In July, the ACC indicted two officials from the previous government for corruption: former vice president Victor Bockarie Foh and former minister of mines Minkailu Mansaray. Their trial was ongoing at year’s end, and a sweeping inquiry into Koroma-era corruption was slated to begin at the beginning of 2019. The APC claimed that the inquiry was politically motivated and condemned it as a “witch hunt.”
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 3 / 4
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.
Sierra Leone continues to review and make public all mining and lease agreements, retaining its Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) compliance designation. The latest review of its compliance began in September 2018.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 37 / 60 (–1)
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 12 / 16
D1. Are there free and independent media? 2 / 4
Numerous independent newspapers circulate freely, and there are dozens of public and private radio and television outlets. However, public officials have employed the country’s libel and sedition laws to target journalists, particularly those reporting on high-level corruption. In December 2018, President Bio promised that he would push for the repeal of the laws, which press freedom advocates viewed as an encouraging development.
Nevertheless, some journalists faced intimidation and even physical attacks during the year. In July, in the wake of protests against the removal of fuel subsidies, the police issued a statement warning the media against the publication of “misleading, disrespectful, and inciting” pronouncements, which was viewed as a threat by many journalists. Political party activists from both the APC and SLPP also attacked or threatened a number of journalists throughout the year, particularly around the election campaign.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4
Freedom of religion is protected by the constitution and respected in practice.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 3 / 4
Academic freedom is generally upheld, but resource strains within the university system have led to strikes by professors. Student protests have also been violently dispersed by security forces in recent years.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 3 / 4
Private discussion remains largely open. Authorities reportedly monitor discussions on social media platforms, including WhatsApp, although few arrests have been made for online discussions or comments. On election day in 2018, the police briefly shut down the internet, preventing people from communicating about the polls and the results.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 6 / 12 (–1)
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 2 / 4
While freedom of assembly is constitutionally guaranteed, the police have repeatedly refused to grant permission to organizers planning protests, and violently cracked down on a number of peaceful demonstrations in recent years. In July 2018, authorities arrested the organizer of a protest against the removal of fuel subsidies for “organizing an unlawful demonstration.”
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 2 / 4 (–1)
NGOs and civic groups generally operate freely. However, several laws and policy regulations enacted in 2009 subject civil society groups to significant government oversight and intervention. Stricter regulations were adopted in late 2017 and went into effect in January 2018. The new regulations include a requirement that NGOs renew their registration annually, as well as a provision requiring NGOS to sign an agreement with the ministry relevant to their work before they can commence operations. Additionally, all projects must be discussed with the relevant ministry and registered before they can commence. Some civil society groups were unaware of the regulations until February, a month after they came into force. Rights advocates expressed deep concern that the regulations would severely undermine the independence of civil society and discourage NGOs from criticizing the government.
Since the elections in March, the new SLPP government has indicated that it is open to reviewing and revising the policy in cooperation with NGOs.
Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 2 due to the implementation of a restrictive new policy regulating nongovernmental organizations, which threatened to undermine their independence and ability to speak out against the government.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 2 / 4
While workers have the right to join independent trade unions, there are no laws preventing discrimination against union members or prohibiting employers from interfering in the formation of unions.
F. RULE OF LAW: 9 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 2 / 4
While the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, in practice the judiciary is prone to interference from the executive branch, particularly in corruption cases. A lack of clear procedures for appointing and dismissing judges makes these processes vulnerable to abuse. Corruption, poor salaries, and a lack of resources impede judicial effectiveness.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 2 / 4
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. The average defendant spends between three and five years in detention awaiting trial. In 2017, the judiciary developed new bail and sentencing guidelines to limit the amount of time prisoners spend in pretrial detention facilities.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 3 / 4
Detention facilities are under strain, with occupancy levels at 233 percent of official capacity as of November 2018, according to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research at the University of London. Prisons and detention facilities fail to meet basic standards of health and hygiene, and infectious disease is prevalent.
Police are rarely held accountable for abuses and extrajudicial killings, which remain frequent. People can report abuse or ill treatment to the Police Complaints, Discipline, and Internal Investigations Department (CDIID) or the Independent Police Complaints Board (IPCB), although these agencies have limited capacity.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 2 / 4
Members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community face discrimination in employment and access to health care, and are vulnerable to violence. Discrimination against LGBT people 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.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 10 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 3 / 4
Sierra Leoneans generally enjoy freedom of movement. However, petty corruption is common and parents often must pay bribes to register their children in primary and secondary school. In August 2018, the government launched a program offering all children free education at primary and secondary schools, starting in September.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 3 / 4
Property rights are constitutionally guaranteed, but 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. In 2016, Sierra Leone reduced the cost of registering a new business.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 2 / 4
The law prohibits domestic violence, but gender-based violence remained a serious problem in 2018. 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. Women experience discrimination in marriage and divorce laws. Customary law guides many of these issues, and under such laws women are often considered equal to children and the property of their husbands.
FGM is not prohibited by law and the practice remains widespread. A challenge to a 2015 ban preventing “visibly pregnant” girls from attending school was filed in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Community Court of Justice in May 2018. The case had not yet been heard at year’s end, and the ban remained in place. Child marriage remains a problem, with almost half of all girls married before the age of 18.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 2 / 4
Reports of economic exploitation of workers in the natural-resource sector are common. Barriers to access remain for individuals who wish to seek redress for economic exploitation.
Human trafficking remained a problem in 2018, and the government has made minimal efforts to combat it. According to the US State Department’s 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report, authorities investigated 33 allegations of trafficking between April 2017 and March 2018, which resulted in 7 prosecutions and no convictions. Child labor is prevalent, despite laws limiting it.