Countries at the Crossroads 2006


The record of Sierra Leone’s government in providing basic personal security and guaranteeing the predictable operation of state institutions has improved since the end of an 11-year war fought primarily against the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) between 1991 and 2002. Officially the government guarantees a wide range of civil rights; however, a considerable gap remains between legal and administrative frameworks and performance. State agencies suffer from insufficient resources and difficulties of coordination, reflecting a lack of capacity after decades of corruption and mismanagement and the near collapse of the government administration during the war. The government remains heavily dependent upon security guarantees associated with a British military training contingent and foreign financial aid to provide even basic services. Societal groups that fought the central government during the war potentially hinder the exercise of state authority in some areas, especially outside the capital.

Sierra Leone’s 1991-2002 war followed more than two decades of grievous mismanagement of the economy, and the subordination of government institutions to a deeply corrupt system of rule through the manipulation of patronage. Government officials, including past presidents, participated in the illicit mining and smuggling of diamonds. This undermined state capacity to the extent that internal sources of government revenues by 2003 stood at about a third of their peak in the mid-1970s. By 2004, GDP per person was $130, about 40 percent of the 1985 figure.[1]

State officials and foreign aid donors recognize the urgent need for judicial reform. Progress in this sector remains limited, reflecting the state’s extremely weak capacity overall. The joint Government of Sierra Leone and United Nations Special Court for Sierra Leone commenced hearing cases in 2004 for those charged with greatest responsibility for human rights violations during the war. The court targets leaders from all sides in the war to demonstrate an intention to promote the rule of law.  It is not universally popular, however, as it also prosecutes leaders of armed groups that protected some local communities. Such prosecutions risk aggravating security threats from supporters of those armed groups.

Corruption undermines the legitimacy of government policies. The government created an anticorruption commission in 2000 to address administrative corruption and conflict of interest among officials, but the weakness of the judicial sector and pervasive informal influence of politicians undermines this commission’s work. The continuation of illicit diamond mining challenges the authority of the government. The influx of outsiders into mining areas causes members of some communities to defy licensing and tax regulations, although progress has been made in rebuilding government institutions in this area.

Citizens in Sierra Leone elect high state officials in regularly scheduled competitive multiparty elections. The current government, under the leadership of Ahmed Tejan Kabbah of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), was first elected in 1996 in the country’s first competitive multiparty election since 1967. International observers pronounced national elections in 1996 and 2002 to be free and fair, as well as the 2004 local elections. However, in 2004, local officials and traditional authorities were alleged to have interfered in the electoral process in many wards. These and other irregularities were brought before the National Electoral Commission, where most complaints were dismissed.

The country’s 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. Nevertheless, formidable obstacles remain, including extremely weak government institutions, poverty, and continuing fears of future insecurity. Solving these problems will require continued significant international engagement to provide security and finance and oversee the implementation of reforms.

Sierra Leone’s record of sustaining a relatively non-authoritarian government is a remarkable achievement in light of the serious nature of human rights abuses during the internal war and the nearly complete collapse of state institutions by the late 1990s. 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.  Under these conditions, the most democratic and conciliatory elements of Sierra Leone’s political culture can exercise important influence. The country’s best hope for a democratic future is to consolidate the influence of these domestic forces in an environment of relative political stability. In doing so, it must confront the problem of extreme reliance on donors. Many of the formal legal protections and new government agencies that promote human rights and accountability are heavily dependent upon donor funding and personnel to an extent that rivals the efforts of the Sierra Leone government itself.

Accountability and Public Voice: 

Sierra Leone has a directly elected president and unicameral parliament. The conduct of national elections adheres to constitutional form. The first multiparty national election since the 1978 declaration of a one-party state took place in 1996, in the middle of the war. In national presidential and parliamentary elections on May 14, 2002, 10 parties participated, including the political arm of the RUF. All parties had opportunities to campaign, although many complained that the incumbent SLPP had privileged access to information and that some local officials intimidated opposition party candidates. 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.[2]

The 1991 constitution provides for the revival of elected local governments abolished in 1972. Local elections were originally scheduled for 1999 but did not take place until May 2004. The electoral process was highly dependent on donor financial support and UN logistical and technical assistance.[3] A widening gap between revenue-generating capabilities and capacities to meet popular demands for services sparked the reemergence of historic antagonisms over financial resources between newly elected district councils and chieftaincy authorities.[4] Such conflict was a source of serious political instability in local government in the 1950s and 1960s. Paramount chiefs continue to be the most durable (and not popularly elected) basis for local governance.

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. However, despite the intrusion of these interests, recent elections were conducted without significant interference from particular political parties or armed forces. Some groups with links to wartime militias continue to exercise considerable authority, but the presence of UN and other foreign peacekeepers limits their influence in elections. Conversely, private and group interests intrude in the selection of civil servants, where weak monitoring capacity and low pay encourage corruption. Applicants must occasionally make informal payments to gain civil service positions.

The power of the president overshadows the power of the legislature and courts. This reflects the paucity of resources available to legislative representatives, who work with very little staff support. Furthermore, the tendency of  weakly institutionalized parties to focus on personal and factional quarrels undermines the legislature’s capacity to exercise a check on executive power.

Sierra Leone possesses a vigorous civic culture, with numerous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) supporting popular causes. The state protects the rights of this sector to the extent its weak capacity allows, although it is less enthusiastic about allowing civic groups to comment on or influence policy making. Activists complain of the remoteness of some officials and about the slow transmission of government information; the appearance of television and radio talk shows and discussions has brought improvements in communication. Civil society organizations freely collect donations from within Sierra Leone and from abroad. Women, minorities, and people with disabilities are prominent in this sector, reflecting both the failure of the government to take account of their interests in formulating policy, and the support for these groups by foreign NGOs and official aid programs. The post-conflict Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report, released in 2005, repeats many of the recommendations offered by these NGOs, and legitimates the monitoring role that these organizations play.

Sierra Leone’s constitution guarantees freedom of expression.  The government regulates media through the Independent Media Commission (IMC), created by parliament in 2000. Dynamic media outlets reflect social norms that support free speech. Conditions for journalists greatly improved after the war. Since 1998, when the West African expeditionary force restored the civilian government with British diplomatic and military assistance, media outlets have proliferated. Dozens of newspapers are published, many openly critical of the government. Numerous private radio stations 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.[5]

Persecution of journalists has occurred; officials continue to charge critical journalists with libel, low professional standards, and threats to public order.[6] Critical stances of some of the more established newspapers have attracted retaliation by those officials facing criticism. Seditious libel cases are often brought under the 1965 Public Order Act, long a target of criticism from journalists in Sierra Leone and abroad. The IMC banned the daily newspaper For Di People for six months in late 2004 in connection with a seditious libel case against its editor, Paul Kamara. Kamara was convicted in October 2004 and sentenced to two years in prison for his publication of a series of articles that provided excerpts of a 1967 corruption investigation into a government agency that the current president helped to oversee. He was released in November 2005 after the Freetown appellate court overturned his conviction. In February 2005 the editor of the satirical newspaper The Peep was held in connection with an article concerning official corruption. He was charged with seditious libel but released after three days. In May 2005, criminal charges of seditious libel were brought against the editor and a reporter for The Trumpet. Both were released two weeks later.[7]

Harry Yansaneh, acting editor of For Di People, alleged in May 2005 that a violent attack on him was ordered by a member of parliament. A magistrate ordered the arrest of the legislator in connection with the case, but she was later released. Yansaneh died on July 28, 2005 from complications following the beating. It was unclear whether the attack was related to the content of the journalist’s reports or to a dispute arising from the MP’s efforts to evict For Di People and five other newspapers from the offices that they rented from her and her late husband.

Some journalists allegedly accept bribes in return for favorable coverage or for promises to halt investigative reporting. Others are accused of using their newspapers to settle personal scores. Politicians continue to act as shadow proprietors for some newspapers to ensure favorable coverage. Inaccurate or false reports undermine the credibility of the press.

In spite of these problems, the coverage of the 2004 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 reporting of the government-owned SLBS helped promote equal access for political candidates to newspaper coverage.[8] SLBS television and radio gave airtime access to all 10 presidential candidates for the 2002 election 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, some are school dropouts who have discovered that setting up a newspaper and then selling favorable coverage or blackmailing targets of exposés can provide an alternative to a professional career. Low levels of investigative and editorial capacity reflect poor economic conditions. 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. The University of Sierra Leone started a degree course in journalism in 2003, which may lay the foundations for a more professionalized sector.

Civil Liberties: 

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 dilutes official guarantees of civil rights.

Sierra Leone’s 1991 constitution 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. Alleged violations of civil and political rights have been investigated and prosecuted,[9] although the weak capacity of the judicial system (see “Rule of Law”) limits the consistency of this practice. No serious allegations of extrajudicial killings of state opponents have appeared since 2000. State agencies generally do not persecute political opponents or peaceful activists as a matter of policy, although individual officials may use prerogatives of their office to pursue critics or rivals for personal interest. Protections against arbitrary arrest and access to legal counsel are rights that exist in law, but 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. Citizens do not have means to redress inconsistent enforcement of rights.

Citizens have a constitutional right to written charges within 24 hours of detention, but this is rarely observed. Suspects often suffer long-term detention in very harsh prison conditions. Prolonged detention reflects the inability of the judicial system to process cases promptly and the failure of police and prison authorities to maintain accurate and timely records. Citizens have statutory rights of redress when state authorities violate their rights, and the Special Court for Sierra Leone, hearing cases since 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.[10]

It is current state policy to protect citizens from abuse by private and non-state actors. State capacity to do this is limited by serious logistical and financial constraints, especially outside the capital. Changes in popular perceptions of security since the end of the war in 2002 reflect the presence of UN peacekeepers, the success of the disarmament process, and the restoration of government administration throughout the country; however, the estimate that more than 50 percent of diamond-mining activities in the country remain unlicensed indicates the limits of control in mining areas.[11] In September 2004, over 75 percent of those surveyed across Sierra Leone reported that they felt “safe or very safe,” with more than half of those who were adults before the war began reporting that they felt safer than they did before the war. A majority of respondents, however, anticipate that low police and army salaries will translate into threats to personal security after the UN peacekeepers’ scheduled departure in December 2005.[12]

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)). However, in practice, scarce resources and social custom limit women’s access to education, health care, and economic opportunities. Many existing statutes reinforce gender discrimination, including those in customary and family law that are exempt (Section I, 27(4)) from the constitutional guarantee.[13] This exemption extends to the widespread practice of female genital mutilation. Outside of discussion of this problem in capital-based NGOs, government officials have had very little impact on this practice.  State policy prohibits trafficking in women. Government officials now participate in the Coordinating Committee on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, and the Sierra Leone police operate a Family Support Unit. Both efforts are heavily dependent upon donor funding and coordination. Some prosecutions for human trafficking have occurred since 2004.

Rural women play a major role in subsistence agriculture, with limited chance for outside employment or education. Women in urban areas have found greater opportunities for political involvement since the end of the war, primarily within the NGO sector in Freetown. Historically, women have participated in government; Constance Cummings-John became Freetown’s first woman mayor soon after independence in 1961, and Ella Koblo Gulama distinguished herself as the country’s first female cabinet minister in 1962. Today, women find a dearth of opportunities in government. About 10 percent of the more than 1,100 candidates in the May 2004 local elections were women, and women account for 16 percent of the current parliament’s members. 

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 serious limits of state capacity to provide it. The only significant exception concerns treatment of ethnic Lebanese residents, many of whom are from families resident in the country for generations. The Sierra Leone Citizenship Act of 1973 limits citizenship to persons who are of “Negro African descent” and whose father or grandfather was born in Sierra Leone.[14] In principle, this means that those of Lebanese descent cannot be citizens, although many individuals have been able to use personal connections and persuasion to procure citizenship. This precarious legal status historically left people of Lebanese descent vulnerable to extortion by corrupt officials wielding threats of deportation, but the civilian government has not enforced this practice since it came to power in 1996.

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 interfering in the appointment of 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 strikes as 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 is able to control its own agents in a particular territory. Police were able to control rioters in Kenema and Bo in October 2005 without excessive use of force. Citizens are not compelled to belong to any association. Some NGOs complain about registration fees, but 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 opposition candidates for the 2004 elections were tolerated, and authorities have not banned any of several large demonstrations by groups critical of government policies.

Rule of Law: 

The decay of state institutions, economic collapse, and the 1991–2002 war had deeply negative consequences for the security of Sierra Leone citizens and seriously 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.[15]  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.

More than a decade of war left the judiciary and law enforcement institutions in tatters. Although Sierra Leone’s legal and judicial sectors benefit from international assistance, concerns remain over the capacity of the government to sustain this progress in the event of a decrease in foreign assistance. Nonetheless, the country’s judiciary demonstrates some independence in the administration of justice when it is able to function, such as the reversal of the conviction for Paul Kamara (see “Civil Liberties”).

Judges enjoy considerable constitutional protection from governmental interference. A judge can be removed only if incapacitated or found to have engaged in serious misconduct.  Since approval of the 1991 constitution, removal can occur only with the authorization of the president upon a recommendation from a special tribunal and approval from parliament. Salaries and pensions are paid from the Consolidated Fund, which is staffed with civil servants who are not political appointees, insulating judicial remuneration from direct political interference. Judges are subject to laws and the constitution and do not receive direction from any state official. However, legislative, executive, and other governmental authorities only sporadically comply with judicial rulings.

Judicial appointments reflect professional experience and merit. By law, Supreme Court judges must have practiced or sat on the bench for at least 20 years, court of appeals judges for 15, and high court judges for 10. 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 continuing education.

By April 2005, at least one magistrates’ court operated in each of the country’s 12 administrative districts. Only five magistrates staffed these courts, leaving local justices of the peace to hear many cases.[16] As more than 80 percent of cases in Sierra Leone are heard in magistrates’ courts, staff shortages cause serious delays in hearing cases and burden underpaid court officials. Low pay has been identified as a source of corruption in the judiciary.  In 2002, Sierra Leone’s 15 presiding magistrates earned annual salaries of only $900. High court judges were paid $8,000, and court of appeals judges received only $9,000.[17]

The office of the director of public prosecutions undertakes proceedings against any person charged before all but local courts. Prosecutors are relatively independent of political direction, although this agency suffers the same institutional deficiencies that afflict other branches of the judicial services. The attorney general’s office, however, which is fused with duties of the old office of minister of justice, lacks the independence of the public prosecutions office.  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.

Those charged with criminal offenses are presumed innocent before proven guilty. However, defendants 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 court proceedings. 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 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 facilities.

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, exceeds the means of the vast majority of citizens. The state guarantees provision of independent counsel only to those accused of capital crimes, but the capacity of the government of Sierra Leone to provide legal assistance is practically nonexistent.  Instead, civic organizations are the main source of legal aid for those able to receive it at all. In practice, most defendants appear before tribunals without assistance of a lawyer and face court proceedings in a language they do not understand.[18]

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 legal rights.

In a pattern reflecting the distribution of government authority in Sierra Leone, court decisions carry more weight in the capital. Government 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 indicates 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 police officers.[19] The UN Civilian Police program had trained almost 1,800 police recruits by late 2004 out of a force of 8,000 for the entire country.  Low pay continued to hamper the recruitment of qualified candidates.[20]

Legal bifurcation is a controversial element of the Sierra Leone judicial system. This practice is part of UN and international donors’ efforts to decentralize the country’s government administration. In practical terms, it means that Sierra Leone’s formal legal system coexists with customary legal practices inherited from traditional methods of adjudication. The current arrangement places adjudication under customary law, which affects the majority of the country’s citizens, in the hands of court chairmen appointed by unelected local paramount chiefs. These courts are administered under the jurisdiction of the ministry of the interior and not the ministry of justice.

Court chairmen often are not independent of the interests of the paramount chiefs who appoint them. Because officials receive fees from fines that they impose, local complaints that this power is used unfairly are rife. Disputes over fines are widely considered to have been an underlying grievance that motivated some youth to fight against the government as the war spread in the 1990s.[21] The chronic abuse of this authority has figured in every major instance of armed conflict from the 1950s to the present. Yet the government of Sierra Leone and its international donors lack the resources to extend formal legal institutions to all local adjudication. Recognition of these problems of legitimacy remains largely absent from government and UN documents concerning legal and administrative reform.

Customary law is not adequately codified. In instances such as the rights of women in family law, it contradicts official guarantees of human rights. In practice there is scant opportunity for appeal, owing to the poverty of most rural people and the weak capacity of formal legal institutions.

UN reports prior to 2004 expressed concern that the operation of the Special Court for Sierra Leone would provoke unrest among supporters of the leaders of armed groups who were being tried there. These concerns especially focused on indictments of Chief Sam Hinga Norman, former Civil Defense Forces national coordinator and minister of internal affairs, and two associates, all of whom still have considerable numbers of supporters in Sierra Leone’s society. To date, no significant incidents have occurred, though UN reports refer to the necessity of providing protection from attack to court employees.[22] The Special Court draws criticism from some government officials and local newspapers for financial aspects of its operation. The court now operates on a budget of $65 million from 2002 to 2005, vastly exceeding the total payroll of the Sierra Leone judiciary.

UN efforts to reinstate the rule of law include support for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which heard testimony of wartime victims and perpetrators between April and August 2003. The TRC submitted its final report to President Kabbah in October 2004 and the report has been publicly available since August 2005.[23] 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.[24] The TRC heard testimony while the Special Court for Sierra Leone was issuing indictments against suspected war criminals. Some suspected that testimony that they gave to the TRC might be used in the Special Court’s proceedings, but this did not occur. 

The international community has been slow to recognize the extent to which Sierra Leone’s security and 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,[25] despite widespread evidence that Taylor personally aided the groups responsible for the hostage taking. Taylor, who now lives in exile in Nigeria, was indicted before the Special Court on March 7, 2003. UN officials have now developed mechanisms to exchange information between missions in Sierra Leone and Liberia and with officials in Côte d’Ivoire. These include discussions about mutual threats to the rule of law from outside Sierra Leone, particularly the problem of the movement of fighters across international borders from the current conflict in Côte d’Ivoire. In June 2005, for example, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan pointed out the continued capacity of Charles Taylor to promote insecurity in the region.[26]

Members of the military and police refrain from interference in politics and remain under civilian control. The presence of British military trainers reduces the chance that any coup attempt would succeed.

Anti-Corruption and Transparency: 

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 it remains pervasive today. Corruption regularly features in citizens’ complaints about their government, despite the advent of civilian rule and regular elections. High government officials make frequent pronouncements recognizing the seriousness of the situation, and it is widely acknowledged as a problem in the society, with over 95 percent of the population citing corruption as a major concern.[27] Corruption is also a concern for international donors and businesses and is regarded as a primary obstacle to sustained recovery of an autonomous national authority capable of surviving without massive international aid. Sierra Leone scores 2.4 out of a possible 10 (where 10 indicates no corruption) on Transparency International’s 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.[28]

Corruption in Sierra Leone stems in part from excessive bureaucratic regulations and registration requirements. Low-paid civil servants have a vested interest in maintaining these rules as opportunities to solicit bribes, which remain common.[29] The pervasiveness of corruption hinders state efforts to protect against conflicts of interest; periodic requirements for officials to declare personal assets are ignored. 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 hinders the process. Moreover, state officials have a history of involvement in illicit commercial pursuits and therefore have a personal interest in manipulating the application of official regulations and law enforcement.

State enforcement of anticorruption measures is weak, despite institutional remedies. For example, the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), created in 2001, is charged with investigating allegations of corruption in government agencies and publishing regular reports of its activities. Its annual summaries do not contain reports of successful prosecutions of wrongdoing. The ACC received 897 reports of official corruption in its first four months of existence.[30] It proceeded with only 22 cases that year, one of which resulted in prosecution. Of 43 cases in 2002, 10 were prosecuted, as were 11 of 43 in 2003.[31] Subsequent annual reports are not yet available. The failure to coordinate the ACC’s activities with effective enforcement of asset declaration requirements for public officials hinders prosecution. 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, go without audits for years, and even decades. 

The president appoints the auditor general, who is confirmed by the parliament. The auditor general produces outspoken and critical reports. Her audits, however, suffer due to the failure of ministries to report accounts. Records of previous expenditures are extremely difficult to review, in part because the voucher archive room at the ministry of finance is poorly organized. A current World Bank–sponsored program is attempting to redress this problem.

Sierra Leone’s attorney general cites lost files and insufficient evidence as reasons for the failure to prosecute the bulk of cases brought before his office. The attorney-general is a political appointee, and it is plausible that concern not to weaken the president’s political base may motivate decisions on whether to prosecute cases.[32]

Corruption in the diamond-mining industry is a national problem. UN Security Council Resolution 1306 of September 2000 requires Sierra Leone’s government to institute a certification scheme to guarantee the legality of exported stones. As much as 50 percent of the country’s diamond mining still occurs clandestinely, with most of the production smuggled out of the country.[33] Under these circumstances it has the potential to help finance conflict in Sierra Leone and elsewhere. Nonetheless, great progress has been made in regulating this industry. Official diamond exports of $126 million in 2004, versus $10 million in 2000, reflect the growing capacity of the government to manage this important source of economic opportunity and state revenue.[34]

Formal regulations, including restrictions on foreigners entering mining areas and enforcement of anti-smuggling measures, remain weakly implemented.[35] Because politicians based in Freetown have been involved in illicit diamond mining, often in collusion with customs and police officials, 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 gangs that benefit from illicit mining, local popular suspicion of central authorities, and the arrival of migrants in mining areas.

Citizens have the right to obtain information about the conduct of government. 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 some sites do not post more politically sensitive information such as prosecutions for corruption or records of official expenditures. The budget material and details of the budget process that are available are beyond the reach of the great majority of citizens, who are without internet access. 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. Local newspapers are an important vehicle for dissemination of this information, as many journalists reprint material from web sites as feature articles. However, 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 in the awarding of government contracts. Foreign assistance provides vital support to administrative functions, and foreign experts play an important role in monitoring and assisting in the distribution of aid.

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. However, the ombudsman’s powers are not judicial and at present are more oriented to acknowledging inquiries than to addressing them.

  • Improvements in electoral accountability will require continued focus on local government reforms. This will entail difficult political negotiations with paramount chiefs.
  • The Government of Sierra Leone should repeal its seditious libel law under the 1965 Public Order Act, as recommended by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
  • The government of Sierra Leone should take a minimalist approach to monitoring professional standards of journalists. It should leave this task as much as possible to the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), whose efforts to establish professional standards will be more successful and less contentious than direct government regulation of the media.
  • The greatest threats to civil and political rights in Sierra Leone come from unauthorized actions of individual government agents and the lack of coordination of official policy due to continuing weakness of government institutions. Overall strengthening of administrative capacity and oversight are the most basic measures needed to remedy this problem.
  • Continued 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.
  • Rehabilitation of the country’s court system will be necessary to provide citizens with means to redress inconsistent enforcement of rights. This measure will require a mechanism to ensure the country’s impoverished majority gains access to these institutions.
  • Promotion of gender equality depends on continued development of civil society coordinating and watchdog groups, along with an increased capacity of the administration to implement and courts to enforce existing laws.
  • Constitutional provisions that limit citizenship on the basis of ancestry must be modified to address legal vulnerabilities of ethnic Lebanese Sierra Leoneans.
  • Competitive salaries must be provided for court officials, police, and military to attract competent people and to combat corruption.
  • The movement of fighters across international borders in the region remains a threat to Sierra Leone. The end of the UN peacekeeping mission in December 2005 requires that the Sierra Leone government devote greater attention to meeting the costs of operations and improving the living conditions of security service members.
  • The members of the Special Court continue to require protection, given their prosecution of individuals who still enjoy high standing among some groups in the country’s population.
  • Bringing Charles Taylor before the Special Court would increase the legitimacy of this body before the Sierra Leone public.
  • The bifurcation of the country’s legal system must be reformed, despite serious, possibly violent opposition, from those who have benefited from the arrangement. It should not be entrenched in current decentralization efforts.
  • The prosecutorial weakness of the attorney general’s office with respect to corruption is related to the general 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 must provide greater political support for oversight and investigative agencies.
  • The government needs to provide better information to the public about its programs.
William Reno

William Reno is Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University in Chicago. He is the author of Corruption and State Politics in Sierra Leone (Cambridge, 1995) and numerous other scholarly works on the politics of Sierra Leone.


[1] Sierra Leone: Selected Issues and Statistical Appendix, (Washington, DC: International Monetary Fund, 29 October 2004), 3, 13.

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

[3] Twenty-second Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (New York: UN Security Council, 6 July 2004), para. 12.

[4] Author’s discussions with local government informants in the Kenema area, July 2005.

[5] Center for Media, Education and Technology (Freetown, 2004),

[6] Sierra Leone: 2004 Annual Report (Paris: Reporters without Borders, 2005),

[7] Cases 2005: Sierra Leone (New York: Committee to Protect Journalists, 2005),

[8] Personal communication.

[9] Twenty-sixth Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (New York: UN Security Council, 20 September 2005), para. 28.

[10] Personal communications and author’s observations in Sierra Leone.

[11] Twenty-seventh Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (New York: 12 December 2005), para. 37.

[12] People’s Perceptions of UNAMSIL Withdrawal in Sierra Leone (Freetown: Post-Conflict Reintegration Initiatives for Development and Empowerment [PRIDE], with support from Military Observers / UNAMSIL and United Nations Development Programme [UNDP], March 2005), 21–23, 32.

[13] Unequal Rights: Discriminatory Laws Against Women in Sierra Leone (Freetown: Lawyers Centre for Legal Assistance, 2005).

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

[16] Twenty-fifth Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (New York: UN Security Council, 26 April 2005), para. 20.

[17] Minneh Kane, et al., Sierra Leone: Legal and Judicial Sector Assessment (Washington, DC: World Bank Legal Vice Presidency, May 2004), 13.

[18] Personal communication, Freetown, July 2005.

[19] In Pursuit of Justice: A Report on the Judiciary in Sierra Leone (Freetown: Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, 2002), 28.

[20] Liberia and Sierra Leone: Rebuilding Failed States (Brussels: International Crisis Group, 8 Dec. 2004), 17.

[21] No Rights, No Justice, More War (Freetown: CARE draft document, June 2004) and the research of Paul Richards and Steve Archibald.

[22] Twenty-fifth Report, para. 45.

[23] The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Sierra Leone,

[24] Eighteenth Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (New York: UN Security Council, 23 June 2003), para. 47.

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

[26] Report of the Secretary-General Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1579 (2004) Regarding Liberia (New York: Security Council, 7 June 2005), para. 39.

[27] National Anti-Corruption Strategy (Freetown: National Anti-Corruption Strategy Secretariat, February 2005), 13.

[28] Corruption Perceptions Index, 2005 (Berlin: Transparency International, 2005),

[29] The author observed numerous efforts of traffic police to collect bribes.

[30] Sierra Leone: Diagnostic Study of the Investment Climate and Investment Code (Washington, DC: Foreign Investment Advisory Service [International Finance Corporation and The World Bank], May 2004), 13.

[31] Analysis of Annual Report (Freetown: Anti-Corruption Commission, 2001, 2002, 2003).

[32] National Anti-Corruption Strategy, 25.

[33] Twenty-fifth Report, para. 25.

[34] Diamond Industry Annual Review: Sierra Leone 2005 (Ottawa: Partnership Africa Canada, February 2005), 6.

[35] Personal observations during visit in July 2005.

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