Sierra Leone Democracy and Rights

Democracy and rights

Democracy seems to be about to take root in the country hard hit by the civil war that raged between 1991 and 2002. But opposition parties still find it difficult to assert themselves and sexual violence is a major problem.

The election in 2018 was considered by foreign election observers to be largely correct, despite the fact that the election movement was bordered by fractions. Although the constitution guaranteed everyone’s right to form parties, the then opposition party SLPP was harassed in various ways by the APC-led government. When SLPP itself came to power after the election, it responded with the same coin (see Current policy). By and large, citizens are free to choose which party they want to vote for, although traditional and religious leaders still have a major influence on how many Sierra Leoneans vote.

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The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, but it happens that the regime denies permission for planned demonstrations or dissolves peaceful demonstrations by force.

Voluntary organizations have until now been able to operate unrestricted in the country, but a new law forces all organizations to renew their license with the government every year. Human rights organizations fear that the law will affect their ability to criticize the government.

Religious freedom is enshrined in the constitution and is usually respected. Same-sex sexual relations are prohibited by law and can provide imprisonment for up to ten years. Discrimination against LGBTQ people is widespread.

Sexual violence against women is a major problem. According to police statistics, the number of reported sexual offenses increased from 4,700 in 2017 to more than 8,500 in 2018. President Julius Maada Bio announced in 2019 a “national disaster” to deal with the problems (see Calendar).

Modern laws give women basically the same inheritance rights as men, but in practice it looks different. A woman who loses her husband risks her husband’s brothers taking her home and the possessions she has had. Women are also discriminated against in the labor market and find it difficult to obtain loans. Women’s participation in politics is still low. In 2018, twelve percent of the members of Parliament were women (see Social conditions).

Freedom of expression and media

Each person is relatively free to express differing opinions, but according to human rights organizations, authorities often monitor what is written in social media. During Election Day 2018, the authorities shut down the internet.

Freedom of the press is guaranteed in the Constitution, but is rubbed to the brim by hard-to-interpret rules and political interference. Violence and threats against journalists exist. President Julius Maada Bio, who took office in 2018, has promised to tear down the laws that make it possible to prosecute journalists, but in the summer of 2019 this had not yet happened. In 2019, Sierra Leone ranked 86th on Reporters Without Borders Index of Press Freedom in 180 countries. A clear deterioration since 2013 when the country was in place 61.


Corruption is extensive at all levels of the social apparatus. Not until 2005 did Sierra Leone adopt a law against money laundering, but the IMF and the World Bank have found so many deficiencies in it, and how it is applied, that it is considered virtually ineffective. One explanation is likely that many people in high societal positions are themselves involved in “laundering” illegal income – generally from illegal diamond mining.

Abbreviated as SLE by Abbreviationfinder, Sierra Leone is ranked 129th in Transparency International’s index of expected corruption in 180 countries. Recently, however, an anti-corruption authority has been created that has made some progress: some 20 officials have been prosecuted, including the former mining minister.

In the spring of 2019, Sierra Leone’s former president Ernest Bai Koroma and his government were accused of wasting more than a billion dollars during their time in power from 2007 to 2018. The Ministry of Finance published a report, funded by British aid, which reported irregularities in public procurement (see Calendar).

Judicial system and legal security

According to the Constitution, the judiciary should be independent but in practice is under severe pressure from politicians and strong individuals, especially when it comes to corruption. The courts are considered corrupt and ineffective.

The system is largely based on the British judiciary but has also captured the impression of traditional African legal thinking and Islamic ideas. There are also local courts that adjudicate under traditional law in cases not covered by the ordinary justice system.

In prisons there is great overcrowding and substandard conditions. Detainees often get unreasonably long on trial. There are major problems with corruption within the police force, which may require payment to investigate crimes. There are reports that it is possible to rob people out of the way by “buying” a crime suspect from the police.

Sierra Leone still has the death penalty, but no execution has taken place since 1998 and discussions are ongoing to abolish it. In 2014, the president converted five death sentences to life sentences; the same year, however, three new death sentences were sentenced.

In 2003 and 2004, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission collected testimonies of abuse during the war. However, its report on corruption and mismanagement as the main causes of the war is not considered to be of such importance. Recommendations for damages to the victims of the war have not been heeded.

In collaboration with the United Nations, the Special Tribunal for Sierra Leone was established in 2002 to investigate the highest level of responsibility for the crimes committed after November 30, 1996, when the government and the rebel movement Revolutionary United Front (Revolutionary United Front, Ruf) (see Modern History) concluded a peace agreement and the rebels were granted amnesty. The court in Freetown differed from the UN courts of Rwanda and ex-Yugoslavia in that both the UN and the country appointed judges and prosecutors, with a barely numerical overweight for the foreign lawyers.

The Special Court was active between 2003 and 2009. Three leaders of Ruf were sentenced to prison for between 25 and 52 years, while the two highest leaders of the movement died before the trial ended, three people with links to the military junta AFRC (see Modern History) were sentenced to between 45 and 50 years in prison. Two representatives of the Kamajormilis, officially called the Civil Defense Forces (CDF), first escaped with shorter sentences but were sentenced in the higher court to 15 and 20 years in prison respectively.

Also Liberia’s former President Charles Taylor was indicted for active involvement in the war. The trial against him was conducted in the Netherlands and ended in 2011. The following year, the court sentenced him to eleven counts, including for helping and facilitating war crimes in Sierra Leone, and he was sentenced to 50 years in prison. The verdict included crimes against humanity, murder, rape and exploitation of child soldiers. According to the judge, Taylor had known early on the terror campaign against the civilian population planned by Ruf and its allies, but he still continued to provide them with weapons. However, he was not personally considered to have ordered the crimes. He appealed the verdict but it stuck.

Sierra Leone Crime Rate & Statistics