Last Updated: Thursday, 26 May 2016, 08:56 GMT

Countries at the Crossroads 2004 - Sierra Leone

Publisher Freedom House
Author William Reno
Publication Date 2004
Cite as Freedom House, Countries at the Crossroads 2004 - Sierra Leone, 2004, available at: [accessed 26 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

(Scores are based on a scale of 0 to 7, with 0 representing weakest and 7 representing strongest performance.)

Executive Summary


William Reno is an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University. He is the author of many publications concerning Sierra Leone, including Corruption and State Politics in Sierra Leone and Warlord Politics and African States.

Sierra Leone's government officially guarantees a wide range of civil rights. However, the government's record in providing basic personal security and guaranteeing the predictable operation of state institutions is much more troubled than well-crafted laws alone can provide. State agencies suffer from insufficient resources and difficulties of coordination, but most of all there is a lack of capacity as a result of decades of corruption and mismanagement followed by a disastrous 11-year war, fought primarily against forces of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). The government under the leadership of Ahmed Tejan Kabbah of the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP), elected in 1996 in the first competitive multiparty election since 1967, remains heavily dependent upon UN and British soldiers and foreign financial aid to provide even basic social services. Judicial reform lags, which is largely a symptom of this sector's extremely weak capacity and persecution at the hands of the RUF. Fighters from the RUF and renegade elements of the army forced Kabbah into exile in May 1997. He was restored to office in early 1998 only through the intervention of a West African force that received British diplomatic and military assistance. Non-state armed groups rival the government's authority in significant parts of the country. Many Sierra Leoneans believe that a special court charged with prosecuting war criminals promotes the rule of law, but the court also aggravates security threats from existing armed groups whose members face prosecution.

Corruption continues to pose major threats to the legitimacy of government policies. The government created an anticorruption commission in 2000 to address the problem of administrative corruption and conflict of interest among officials, but the weakness and disorganization of the judicial sector and the informal influence of politicians undermines this commission's work. The continuation of illicit diamond mining poses an even greater challenge to the government. Illicit exports of diamonds finance the purchase of arms by non-state groups. The influx of outsiders into mining areas causes members of some communities to field armed groups and undermines their confidence in the government's ability to restore order and rebuild government institutions in these areas.

Citizens select high state officials in competitive multiparty elections. International observers pronounced the most recent elections, in 1996 and 2002, as credible and peaceful. The country's vigorous media, especially radio and newspapers, partially compensate for the lack of official transparency. Sierra Leone's democratic transition benefits from a political culture that values critique, considerable international engagement and financial resources, and a leadership interested in reform in principle. But formidable obstacles remain in the form of extremely weak government institutions, poverty, and continuing insecurity. Solving these problems will require continued significant engagement by the international community to provide security, finances, and oversight to implement reforms. Sierra Leone stands as an unusual case of such extensive state-building efforts by outsiders. Official statements of British and other foreign officials indicate that most serious policy makers foresee a need for a lengthy, intensive involvement that possibly will be measured in decades and will have to be pursued as part of a regional strategy to resolve conflict in the West African region.

Sierra Leone has managed to sustain a relatively nonauthoritarian government, especially in light of its terrible internal conflict. This is due in part to the government's very weak bureaucratic capacity – it cannot organize effective repressive measures – and its extreme dependence on Western military and financial aid to remain in office, conditions under which the most democratic and conciliatory elements of Sierra Leone's political culture can exercise maximum influence. The country's best hope for a democratic future is to consolidate the authority of these forces in a context of political stability.

Civil Liberties – 3.81

The 1991 Constitution Act provides for freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, freedom of conscience, and equal access for women to political and civil rights. Nonetheless, weak state capacity casts a long shadow over official guarantees of civil liberties. More than 60,000 people were killed during Sierra Leone's 1991-2002 war.1 This followed at least two decades of serious official mismanagement of the country's economy and the subordination of government institutions to a deeply corrupt system of rule through the manipulation of patronage. Government officials, including presidents, were involved in the illicit mining and smuggling of diamonds. This sapped state capacity to the extent that internal sources of government revenues by 2001 stood at about a quarter of their peak in the mid-1970s. By 2002, GDP per person was only a third of the 1970 peak.2

Sierra Leone's 1991 constitution prohibits arbitrary detention and detention without trial. It also prohibits "any form of torture or any punishment or other form of treatment which is inhuman or degrading" (Section III, 21(1)). Torture is a punishable offense. State officials accused of torture have been charged in court, although the weak capacity of the judicial system (detailed below) limits the consistency of this practice. Since the death of a spokesman for the RUF in detention in 2000, there have been no significant allegations of extrajudicial killings of state opponents. In areas under government control, state agencies generally do not persecute political opponents or peaceful activists. Protections against arbitrary arrest and access to legal counsel are rights that exist in law. However, poor pay for police and a dearth of legal professionals seriously inhibit state enforcement of these rights. Police are rarely disciplined for abuse of citizens or solicitation of bribes (which may result in the victim's arrest).

Suspects often suffer long-term detention in very harsh prison conditions. Prolonged detention reflects the inability of the judicial system to process cases and of police and prison authorities to maintain accurate and timely records. Citizens have a constitutional right to written charges within 24 hours of detention, but this is rarely observed. It is current state practice to protect citizens from abuse by private and non-state actors. State capacity is limited, however, by the inability of police and the army to extend state control in places where armed militias currently resist this infringement on their powers. Citizens have statutory rights of redress when state authorities violate their rights. An internationally sponsored special court, in operation in 2003, extends the right of redress against officials who violated rights during the 1991-2002 war. However, in practice citizens' complaints confront incapacity and disorganization in government institutions, regardless of official policy or intent.

Sierra Leone is a party to the African Charter on Human and People's Rights, which guarantees "elimination of every discrimination against women." This right is incorporated in Sierra Leone's constitution (Section III, 19(1)). Although women's rights to access to education, health care, and economic opportunities are enshrined in the constitution, in practice scarce resources and social custom limit women's access to these opportunities. Rural women play a major role in subsistence agriculture, leaving little chance for outside employment or education. Women in urban areas have found greater opportunities for political involvement since the advent of an elected civilian government in 1996, primarily within the nongovernmental organization (NGO) sector in Freetown. Women's involvement in NGOs reflects the dearth of opportunities that they currently find in government, although this was not always the case: Constance Cummings-John became Freetown's first woman mayor soon after independence in 1961, and Ella Koblo Gulama distinguished herself as a cabinet minister. State policy prohibits trafficking in women, and the government generally has abolished laws that discriminate against women, although protections are unevenly applied.

State policy does not discriminate against ethnic, cultural, and linguistic rights of minorities. Most minorities do not suffer systematic discrimination with regard to the enforcement of rights and freedoms and enjoy full equality before the law, within the limits of state capacity to provide it. The only significant exception concerns treatment of ethnic Lebanese residents, many of whom cannot become citizens due to jus sanguinis constitutional provisions for citizenship, even if they are from families that have resided in the country for generations.

Freedom of religious observance is constitutionally guaranteed and widely respected in practice. Nonbelievers and adherents of minority religious faiths enjoy official protections. State officials refrain from appointing spiritual leaders. The government does not have requirements for recognizing, registering, or regulating religious groups.

The state has a strong record of adhering to constitutional provisions recognizing every person's right of association. The state respects citizens' rights to form and join trade unions, although police abuses have occurred during strike actions. This appears to be a result of inadequate institutional control of police officers. The state effectively protects the rights of citizen organizations to mobilize and advocate for peaceful purposes insofar as the government controls a particular territory. Citizens are not compelled to belong to any association. Some NGOs complain about registration fees, although there is no evidence of systematic discrimination. Political organizations with ties to the RUF have been allowed to organize and register. Demonstrations in support of candidates for the 2002 election were tolerated, and authorities have not banned any of several large demonstrations by groups critical of government policies.


In order to protect civil liberties in Sierra Leone, unauthorized actions of individual government agents need to cease and the lack of coordination of official policy due to continuing insecurity and the weakness of government institutions needs to be remedied. Police training and more vigorous prosecution of police abuse of citizens are basic measures necessary to improve the government's record for protecting existing rights. Political interest in reform exists at high levels of government, but this will require commitment of resources well beyond what is available to the government now. Rehabilitation of the country's court system will be necessary to provide citizens with means to redress inconsistent enforcement of rights. Prior to this, however, a mechanism must be put in place to ensure the country's impoverished majority access to these institutions.

Rule of Law – 3.76

The decay of state institutions, economic collapse, and the 1991-2002 war had serious negative consequences for the security of Sierra Leone citizens and deeply undermined the rule of law in civil and criminal matters. In a nationwide poll conducted in November 2002, 82 percent of respondents reported that they were forced to leave their homes at some point during the war.3 RUF fighters and renegade elements of the Sierra Leone Army occupied large portions of the country from 1993 to 2001, holding the capital for over eight months in 1997-98 until a West African force expelled them. During that time, and again during their invasion of Freetown in January 1999, RUF forces systematically targeted judicial institutions and employees.

Today, Sierra Leone's judiciary demonstrates substantial independence and nondiscrimination in the administration of justice when it is able to function. More than a decade of war, however, left the judiciary and law enforcement institutions in tatters. In September 2000, Sierra Leone's 5 million citizens had only 15 presiding magistrates (earning annual salaries of only $900) and 18 judges. Only two judges served outside Freetown.4 By mid-2003, magistrates sat in all of Sierra Leone's 12 districts outside Freetown, although only as a result of the appointment of local justices of the peace as magistrates and with British financial assistance.5 The paucity of court personnel and the absence of legal reference materials contribute to the serious problems of lengthy delays of cases and imprisonment of suspects without formal charge.

Judges in office enjoy some security from governmental interference. Salaries and pensions are paid from the Consolidated Fund, which is staffed with civil servants who are not political appointees and therefore insulates judicial remuneration from direct political interference. Judges are subject only to laws and the constitution and do not receive direction from any state official. They can be removed only if found incapable of functioning or found guilty of misconduct while serving. Removal must be authorized by the president upon recommendation of a special tribunal and subsequent approval by a two-thirds parliamentary majority. However, legislative, executive, and other governmental authorities comply with judicial rulings only sporadically.

In a pattern typical of the distribution of government authority in Sierra Leone, court decisions appear to carry more weight in the capital. Governmental agents, especially police, exercise more ad hoc power outside the capital to deal with directives in their own fashion. This is due in part to the absence of resources to publish and communicate court decisions to relevant agencies. It also reflects the fact that the war struck the country's national police force particularly hard. RUF fighters deliberately targeted police officers as part of a campaign to undermine state capacity; during one week of fighting in Freetown in 1999, RUF fighters killed about 250 Sierra Leone police officers.6 As of June 2003, a UN Civilian Police (UNCIVPOL) program reached its full strength of 128 foreign police advisers, and by September it had trained about 600 new police officers.7

Judicial appointments appear to be unbiased, based primarily on professional experience and merit. Supreme Court judges must have practiced or sat on the bench for at least twenty years, Court of Appeals judges for fifteen, and High Court judges for ten. However, the exigencies of rebuilding judicial institutions after the war have necessitated relaxing some of those requirements. The paucity of state resources means that magistrates receive no training or upgrading in the form of conferences or courses.

Those charged with criminal offenses have the right to be presumed innocent before proven guilty according to the law. Defendants, however, are often held for long periods without charge and are not offered reasonable prospects for bail, reflecting the scarcity of resources and the inability of state agencies to keep records and monitor defendants. In principle, citizens are promised fair hearings in competent, independent, impartial tribunals. However, the public perception is that corruption often determines the outcome of hearings, especially in civil cases. Such reports occasionally appear in the press. Courts lack adequate translation services to render hearings and documents comprehensible in Krio or other indigenous languages. This situation leaves at least three-quarters of the country's population without judicial services in a language that they understand. All of these problems are related to the abysmal conditions of service in the judiciary, its crushing caseload, low pay, and poor physical conditions.

The state guarantees provision of independent counsel only to those accused of capital crimes. The constitution promises all defendants "access to a legal practitioner or any person of his choice" (Section XVII, 2 (b)). The cost of hiring a lawyer, however, is far beyond the means of the vast majority of citizens. Thus, most appear before tribunals without assistance of a lawyer, facing a court that operates in a language that many do not understand.

The office of the director of public prosecutions undertakes proceedings against any person charged before all but local courts, and prosecutors are relatively independent of political direction, although this agency suffers the same institutional deficiencies that afflict other branches of the judicial services. An exception to the relative independence exists in the attorney general's office, which is fused with duties of the old office of minister of justice. In high-profile cases, it is conceivable that an attorney general can act as liaison between the judiciary and other branches of government, while simultaneously appearing in court as counsel for the state.

Insecurity, poverty, and the consequences of the 1991-2002 war reduce official capacity to afford all citizens in Sierra Leone access to equal treatment under the law without distinction of condition or circumstance. Nonetheless, the extent to which these rights are exercised within the constraints noted above is remarkable. This includes judicial enforcement of property rights, which receives strong backing in law but is subject to constraints of resources and corruption. Rebuilding state institutions and addressing related problems of corruption remain the primary challenges to enforcing rights.

Courts must also contend with the power of non-state armed groups that obstruct the judicial process and interfere in the execution of judgments. Groups such as the Movement of Concerned Kono Youth (MOCKY) and the Lower Bambara Youth Council (LBYC) use force independent of formal state authority. Both organizations mobilize youth from diamond-mining areas to resist the influx of fortune seekers in the illicit alluvial diamond-mining sector, mostly other young men who, like many MOCKY and LBYC members, are former combatants. MOCKY is alleged to collaborate with local police units and Civil Defense Force (CDF) fighters to attack former RUF combatants and their families.8

Former soldiers attacked Wellington Army Barracks in Freetown on January 13, 2003, allegedly to prevent a UN-sponsored Special Court from indicting war crimes suspects. The indictments of Chief Sam Hinga Norman, former CDF national coordinator and minister of internal affairs, and two associates generated further protests among militia members, who attempted to stage violent protests. This prompted the British government to deploy 300 Royal Gurkha Rifles in March 2003.9 Protesters argued that "Chief Hinga Norman stayed to confront the rebels and renegade soldiers ... [W]ithout his contribution and tenacity, the rebels would not have come to the peace table and would have still been in the city, killing and maiming at will."10 CDF spokesmen point out that the militia operated in the stead of a reliable organized state army amid the collapse of state administration and that President Ahmen Tejan Kabbah's government materially supported CDF fighters in return for defense against rebel attacks during the war.11 The CDF still exists as an organized group, despite a December 2002 agreement between the government and foreign donors to dismantle it. The CDF's offer to assist the Sierra Leone Army's efforts to stem incursions of Liberian fighters in 2003 and reports that it assisted insurgents in Liberia against Liberian president Charles Taylor suggest that it may have a greater capacity than the national army, at least in some parts of the country.12

UN efforts to reinstate the rule of law include support for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which heard testimony of wartime experiences from victims and perpetrators between April and August 2003. The TRC is to produce a report by mid-2004 with recommendations on how to avoid future conflict. The paucity of donor support for the commission contributed to the relatively short duration of hearings. Of an initial budget of $4.5 million, only $2.3 million was received from donors.13

At the same time as the TRC heard testimony, the Special Court began issuing indictments against suspected war criminals. The Special Court was created jointly by the Government of Sierra Leone and the United Nations to prosecute persons bearing greatest responsibility for serious violations of human rights under Sierra Leonean and international humanitarian law. The Special Court's budget is maintained separately from Sierra Leone government accounts; its chief prosecutor is a retired U.S. military prosecutor, assisted by British and U.S. lawyers. It was set up this way to ensure the court's impartiality and to avoid siphoning off resources from the country's struggling judicial system.

The anomalous situation of a simultaneous TRC and Special Court has caused uncertainty among Sierra Leoneans over whether TRC testimony is allowable as evidence in the Special Court's prosecutions. Polls indicate that issues connected to the simultaneous proceedings are a matter of popular discussion and confusion and that statements of Special Court, UN, and Sierra Leone government officials contradicting one another have done little to change public perceptions.14

The broad mandate of the court to investigate leaders of pro-government militias and government army officers has also raised security concerns and provoked a domestic political debate about who should be held liable for their actions in wartime. In addition, financial aspects of the Special Court draw criticism from some government officials and local newspapers. It was originally projected to cost $114 million for three years, more than the entire annual revenue of the country's government. Donors rejected this figure, and the court now operates on the basis of a $60 million three-year budget. Nonetheless, this greatly exceeds the total 2001 payroll of the Sierra Leone judiciary, which was only $215,000.15

The international community has been slow to recognize the extent to which Sierra Leone's security and the rule of law depend upon regional developments. As late as 2000, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan thanked Liberia's President Charles Taylor for helping to release UN peacekeepers taken hostage,16 despite widespread evidence that Taylor personally aided groups that took those hostages and were responsible for much of the violence in Sierra Leone's war. Taylor, who now lives in exile in Nigeria, was indicted before the Special Court on March 7, 2003.


The Special Court requires protection in the short term, given its intent to prosecute individuals who still enjoy high standing among non-state armed groups. Greater attention needs to be paid to tensions between existing militias and the Special Court. Given the extent to which some Sierra Leoneans hold these militias in high regard for protecting them from rebel attacks, the Special Court's insistence on prosecuting all human rights violations needs to be reconsidered, or else it will need to be more persuasive in addressing this concern in its public information and do so in local languages.

Ultimately, improving Sierra Leone's perilous security situation and weak institutions of law and order and ending the movement of fighters across international borders in the region will require continued international security commitments. It may be necessary to delay the departure of UN peacekeepers beyond the proposed withdrawal in mid-2004, especially if the security situation in Guinea deteriorates. In any event, the government's physical security will remain dependent upon the continued presence of British troops and police trainers and a British political commitment to remain engaged in the country.

Anticorruption and Transparency – 3.01

Official corruption lay at the heart of the collapse of state authority and legitimacy in the decades prior to the 1991 start of the war, and corruption remains extensive today. It regularly features in citizens' characterization of their government, despite the advent of civilian rule and regular elections. Sierra Leone government officials recognize the seriousness of this situation. The minister of finance, for example, announced that about 70 percent of customs revenue disappears into the pockets of customs officers.17 Corruption remains a major concern for international donors and is regarded as a primary obstacle to sustained recovery of an autonomous national authority capable of surviving without massive international aid.

Corruption stems from a government administration that is encumbered with excessive bureaucratic regulations and registration requirements. Low-paid civil servants have a vested interest in maintaining these rules as opportunities to solicit bribes. The pervasiveness of corruption hinders state efforts to protect against conflicts of interest. Periodic requirements for officials to declare personal assets pass unfulfilled. The slow process of divestment of state-owned companies, begun in the early 1990s, has helped mitigate corruption, but the decrepit condition of many of these enterprises slows the process.

Overall, state enforcement of the separation of the personal and public interests of officeholders is weak, despite institutional measures put in place. For example, Britain's Department of International Development (DFID) funded the January 2001 initiation of the Sierra Leone government's Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC). The ACC is charged with investigating allegations of corruption in government agencies and publishing regular reports of its activities. However, although reports have been written, they do not contain information of successful prosecutions of wrongdoing. The commission's deputy director, a British development worker, complained in June 2002 that the attorney general had not acted upon recommendations in 57 cases submitted since early 2001. By September 2003, three quarters of these cases had not been acted upon. Those that were brought before the courts moved slowly. For example, Momoh Pujeh, a former minister of transport, was arrested in November 2001 for illicit diamond mining and possession of conflict diamonds, but he was not charged until August 2002.18 The failure to coordinate the ACC's activities with effective enforcement of asset declaration requirements for public officials hinders prosecution.

Sierra Leone's attorney general complains that the ACC does not adequately prepare cases that it presents, and ACC officials and DFID concur that the ACC suffers from the weak capacity of the auditor general's office.19 Strengthening audit capabilities is crucial for the success of the ACC. Almost all quasi-governmental organizations, such as the University of Sierra Leone, and state-run companies have gone without audits for years, and in some cases, decades.

Corruption in the diamond-mining industry is a national problem. According to a British government report, halting illicit diamond mining, and especially the involvement of politicians in this activity, is a precondition to the revival of government finances, which would reverse institutional decay in official agencies.20 At the same time, it was widely recognized that revenues from diamond mining supported armed groups inside Sierra Leone and in the West Africa region during Sierra Leone's war.21

UN Security Council Resolution 1306 of September 2000 required Sierra Leone's government to stop exporting diamonds until government forces controlled the mining areas and instituted a certification scheme to guarantee the legality of exported stones. RUF fighters controlled most of the mining areas until a Pakistani contingent of the UN peacekeeping force arrived in June 2001. As noted above, non-state armed groups remain active in the mining areas and are suspected of illicit activities. Despite formal UN prohibition of diamond exports, UN officials and donors welcomed the modest success of the Sierra Leone government in certifying $41 million in legal diamond exports in 2002.22 But many stones continued to leave the country through illicit channels, and the UN prohibition was lifted only in June 2003.

In an address to parliament the same month, President Kabbah acknowledged: "While our efforts at reorganizing the industry have yielded some results, by and large, the age-old problems of smuggling, exploitation, cheating and chaos in the diamond mining areas have not been brought under full control."23 Formal regulations, including restrictions on foreigners entering mining areas, and enforcement of anti-smuggling measures remain weakly implemented.24 One researcher reported that the ministry of mineral resources, responsible for monitoring mining activities, possessed no vehicles in mid-2002.25 Because government officials have been involved in illicit diamond mining, often in collusion with customs and police officials charged with enforcing regulations, investigations of corruption, much less its prosecution, remain bound up in problems of institutional capacity and conflicts of interest among officials. Investigations also confront risks and challenges from armed groups that benefit from illicit mining, local popular suspicion of central authorities, and continuing regional instability.

In terms of transparency, government efforts to provide public access to information are limited. The lack of organization of many offices means that mandated information is not made available to the public. Efforts have been made to put information on Internet sites, but many sites are not maintained. Still, budget material and details of the budget process are more accessible to those with Internet access than to the great majority of Sierra Leone's citizens, who do not have access to computers. Often more extensive information is found in World Bank and International Monetary Fund internal documents on Sierra Leone than in official government open-source documents. Budgets are subject to legislative review, but actual expenditures, especially cost overruns, receive cursory legislative attention. This may be because individual legislators occasionally derive personal benefit from these practices.

The country's news media publish regular accounts of insider influence on the awarding of government contracts. The failure of the government to publish comprehensive accounts of expenditures contributes to perceptions of corruption, although for those motivated to visit government offices in Freetown, hard-copy versions of more extensive accounts are occasionally available. Citizens possess the right to obtain information about the conduct of government. The office of ombudsman was created in April 2000 to work closely with the AAC and assist in handling citizen complaints and petitions to government. The ombudsman's powers are not judicial and at present are more adapted to acknowledging inquiries than to addressing them. He moderates a popular radio show, "Security Talks," which takes up some of these matters.

The government enables the legal administration and distribution of foreign assistance to the best of its ability. Foreign assistance provides vital support to administrative functions, and foreign experts play an important role in monitoring and assisting in the distribution of aid.


Recommendations for dealing with corruption come up against the country's extreme poverty and weak state institutions. The prosecutorial weakness of the attorney general's office, as well as the weak mechanisms for those who are charged to pursue their legal rights, is related to the overall weakness and understaffing of the country's judiciary and will have to be addressed in the context of overall reform of that governmental sector. The government needs to provide better information to the public about its programs. The Kabbah government has been especially remiss in this regard, failing even to inform citizens about its successes in securing foreign aid and other assistance for crucial programs. Foreign advisers should avoid the tendency – stemming from Sierra Leonean officials' persistent corruption – to only take on tasks of governance to achieve short-term progress. A large body of public opinion is concerned about corruption as well, and these critics, in NGOs and other civic organizations, should be mobilized to pressure the government to provide greater political support for oversight and investigative agencies.

Accountability and Public Voice – 4.13

Sierra Leone has a directly elected president and unicameral parliament, and the 1991 Constitution Act provides for regular multiparty elections. The conduct of national elections conforms to constitutional principle. The first national election took place in 1996, in the middle of the 11-year war. Eleven parties participated in national presidential and parliamentary elections held on May 14, 2002, including the political arm of the RUF. The incumbent president, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, of the SLPP was reelected with 70 percent of the popular vote. Many international monitors pronounced the election to be free and fair, although confusion in registration and organization of voting stations was observed.26

The constitution also provides for the revival of elected local governments abolished in 1972. A plan for local elections, the basis for current discussions, scheduled elections for 1999, then postponed them until April 2003; they are now projected for mid-2004. Financial aspects of the electoral process are entirely donor dependent and are projected to amount to $8 million.27 Fiscal affairs of local governments remain to be worked out with existing paramount chiefdoms, the current framework of administration by customary authorities. Aid agency consultations with the local populace reveal considerable grievances toward some chiefs, who divert aid to personal uses and arbitrarily impose fines and levies on resentful citizens.28

Campaign finance regulations are weakly enforced. Campaign resources usually come from the personal fortunes of candidates. It is widely believed that many candidates acquire these resources through corrupt means. Despite the intrusion of these interests, however, recent elections were conducted without pressure or menace from particular political parties or armed forces. Some political groups, especially those with ties to armed groups, continue to exercise extra-legal powers, but the presence of UN and other foreign peacekeepers limits their influence in elections. Private and group interests intrude, however, in the selection of civil servants, particularly at lower levels of administration. Weak monitoring capacity and low pay increase corruption. Civil service positions occasionally require applicants to make informal payments to be hired.

Sierra Leone possesses a vigorous civic culture, with many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) advocating for popular causes. Women, minorities, and people with disabilities are particularly prominent in this sector, partly due to the failure of government practice to meet legal requirements that it take account of their interests in formulating policy and due to support of these groups by foreign NGOs and official aid programs. Civic groups complain about the slow transmission of government information, although the appearance of television and radio talk shows and discussions has resulted in improvement. These organizations freely collect donations from within Sierra Leone and from abroad. The state protects the rights of the independent civic sector to the extent its weak capacity allows. It is less enthusiastic about allowing civic groups to comment on or influence policy making, and activists complain of the remoteness of some officials.

Sierra Leone's constitution guarantees freedom of expression, and Sierra Leone's dynamic media outlets point to social norms that support free speech. However, government officials have prosecuted journalists. Since the establishment of the elected civilian government, official charges against journalists have centered on allegations of libel, low professional standards, and threats to public order. Nevertheless, journalists suffered far more at the hands of RUF fighters and military rule than from the current government. RUF killed 14 journalists between 1996 and 2000.29 Since the West African expeditionary force restored the civilian government with British diplomatic and military assistance in 1998, media outlets have proliferated. More than 50 newspapers were published in 2002-03, many openly critical of the government.30 The country has numerous private FM radio stations that offer a wide array of views and information. The Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service (SLBS) operates a television station in Freetown with considerable civil society input in the production of some shows.

The government regulates media through the Independent Media Commission (IMC), created by parliament in 2000. The IMC's banned African Champion for two months in March 2002 after its editor, Mohamed Koroma, published an article accusing the president's son of corruption. Koroma ignored the ban, alleging that a member of the commission was retaliating for articles that reported allegations of corruption in the commissioner's relations with a cell phone company while a director of the Bank of Sierra Leone. The IMC took no further action against Koroma.

In April 2002 judge Methland Tholla Thomson filed suit against For di People and its editor Paul Kamara for libel under provisions of the Public Order Act of 1965. The Freetown High Court found Kamara guilty, fined him approximately $2,000, and banned the paper for six months. This suit followed public tussles between the two men over the management of Sierra Leone's soccer association, which Thomson heads. Kamara owns a popular soccer team and has written numerous articles alleging mismanagement of the soccer association.31

The IMC rejected West Africa Democracy Radio's request for a short-wave broadcast license in 2002. This decision appears to have been made for political reasons. The government of Sierra Leone was anxious to avoid establishing a relationship with Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), a Liberian antigovernment insurgency. The group requesting the broadcast license was politically linked to LURD. Many in government and among the international community recognized that earlier Sierra Leone government support for Liberian dissidents played a major role in destabilizing Sierra Leone and attracting counter attacks from Liberia. The Kabbah government has been careful to avoid supporting Liberian insurgents, and the refusal to grant Democracy Radio's license request was seen as part of that policy.

Some journalists participated in the politics they reported. Twelve journalists ran for parliament in the 2002 election, although only one was victorious. Former Voice of America correspondent Raymond Bamidele Thompson unsuccessfully challenged President Kabbah.32 Other journalists accepted bribes in return for favorable coverage and took payments to halt investigative reporting. Politicians continue to act as shadow proprietors for some newspapers to ensure favorable coverage.

In spite of these problems, the coverage of the 2002 elections demonstrated the considerable value of Sierra Leone's media for enhancing public voice and ensuring accountability. Media provided access for all political parties, including the political leadership of the RUF. In the opinion of several newspaper editors, the government-owned SLBS reporting helped promote equal access for political candidates to newspaper coverage.33 SLBS television and radio gave airtime access to all 10 presidential candidates on a quota basis to avoid favoring any one candidate.

The country's poverty hampers efforts to improve the quality of media. While many editors adhere to high professional standards, people who have dropped out of school discover that setting up a newspaper and then selling favorable coverage or blackmailing targets is one of the few jobs available to those aspiring to a professional career. Low levels of investigative and editorial capacity also reflect general economic problems. But the tumult of Sierra Leone's media, particularly newspapers, also reflects a long history of vigorous press participation in political debates stretching back to the earliest days of nationalist ferment.


Improvements in electoral accountability will require grappling with the difficult task of implementing local government reforms. This will entail difficult political negotiations with paramount chiefs, the existing (and not popularly elected) basis for local governance. Implementing these reforms will require considerable foreign financial support. Thus, continued close Sierra Leonean-British collaboration on this issue should be encouraged. Although regulation of NGOs and media is surprisingly even-handed for a country that has suffered such severe internal conflict in recent years, improvements could be made in government-media relations. The government of Sierra Leone should take a minimalist approach to monitoring professional standards of journalists, leaving this task as much as possible to the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, as their efforts will be more successful and less contentious than direct government regulation of the media. Measures should be taken to encourage broader circulation of newspapers, which still do not circulate widely outside the capital, to promote political debate.


1 Taylor Seybolt, "Major Armed Conflicts," SIPRI Yearbook 2001 (Oxford: Oxford University Press for Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2001), 31.

2 Transitional Support Strategy for the Republic of Sierra Leone, World Bank Report 23758-SL (Washington, DC: World Bank, Africa Region, 3 March 2002), 2.

3 Campaign for Good Governance (Freetown) poll conducted November 2002, results in the possession of the author.

4 In Pursuit of Justice: A Report on the Judiciary in Sierra Leone (Freetown: Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative [CHRI], 2002), 10.

5 Nineteenth Report of the Secretary-General of the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (New York: UN Security Council, 5 September 2003), para. 23.

6 In Pursuit of Justice (CHRI), 28.

7 Eighteenth Report of the Secretary-General of the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (New York: UN Security Council, 23 June 2003), para. 12.

8 World Report 2003, Sierra Leone (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2003),

9 Nineteenth Report (UN Security Council), para. 4.

10 Augustine Beecher, "A Tale of Two Betrayals," Standard Times (Freetown), 27 May 2003, 3.

11 "How Kabbah Supported Kamajor Militia," For di People (Freetown), 18 March 2003, 1-2.

12 Sierra Leone: The State of Security and Governance (Freetown: International Crisis Group [ICG], 5 September 2003),, 13.

13 Eighteenth Report (UN Security Council), para. 47.

14 Poll conducted by Campaign for Good Governance, 23 March 2003, results in possession of the author.

15 In Pursuit of Justice (CHRI), 39.

16 Fourth Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (New York: UN Security Council, 19 May 2000), para 67.

17 Kelvin Lewis, "Foreign Judges to Preside over Anti-Corruption Cases," Awoko (Freetown), 3 April 2003, 1.

18 Sierra Leone Web,, and Freetown newspaper reports.

19 Sierra Leone: A Long-term Partnership for Development (London: Department for International Development [DFID], November 2002),, 4.

20 John Williams, Donald Sutherland, Kimberly Cartwright, Martin Byrnes, Sierra Leone: Diamond Policy Study (London: DFID, January 2002).

21 Report of the Panel of Experts Appointed Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1306 (2000), Paragraph 19, in Relation to Sierra Leone (New York: UN, 20 December 2000).

22 Seventeenth Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (New York: UN Security Council, 17 March 2003), para. 33.

23 Cited in Other Facets, no. 11 (Ottawa: Partnership Africa Canada [PAC], September 2003), 2.

24 Personal observations.

25 Lansana Gberie, War and Peace in Sierra Leone: Diamonds, Corruption, and the Lebanese Connection (Ottawa: PAC, November 2002),, 6.

26 Observing the 2002 Sierra Leone Elections: Final Report (Atlanta: Carter Center, May 2003).

27 Mission to Sierra Leone (Washington, DC: International Foundation for Electoral Systems [IFEC], 2003); Nineteenth Report (New York: UN Security Council), para. 24.

28 Agency Self-assessment about Transparency and Accountability in Sierra Leone (Geneva: Humanitarian Accountability Project [HAP], 2002).

29 Sierra Leone: 2003 Annual Report (Paris: Reporters sans Frontieres, 2003),

30 Sierra Leone, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – 2002 (Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 31 March 2003),

31 Both cases were covered extensively in Freetown's newspapers.

32 Identity Crisis (New York: Committee to Protect Journalists, 2002),

33 Personal communication.

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