Human Rights in Africa: Review of 2019 - Sierra Leone [AFR 01/1352/2020]


Freedom of expression continued to be restricted by the use of sections of the Public Order Act on defamation and sedition. Violations of the rights of human rights defenders were reported. Police used excessive force and committed other human rights violations. Discrimination against women and LGBTI people persisted.


The High Court, on 31 May, cancelled the election of 10 members of Parliament from the opposition All Peoples Congress (APC) for breaches of the electoral law during the March 2018 legislative polls. Following this decision, violence erupted between police and supporters of the APC at the party's headquarters in Freetown. On 25 August, the National Electoral Commission cancelled the results of the 24 August by-election in Constituency 110, located southeast of Freetown, because of violence at some polling stations.

Freedoms of expression and association

Public officials continued to use Part V of the Public Order Act (POA), which deals with defamatory and seditious libel, to silence journalists, activists and other people who criticize them.

A proposed amendment to repeal Part V was approved by the Cabinet, and Parliament made recommendations to be further discussed in 2020. However, civil society organizations expressed concerns about other draconian provisions that could remain in the POA and which restrict the rights to freedom of expression.

At a conference in February, national and international NGOs expressed concerns about the Development Cooperation Framework – the regulations for NGOs - approved by the Cabinet in December 2018. The document required all NGOs to register with the Sierra Leone Association of Non-Governmental Organizations (SLANGO) and stipulated that 70% of all donor funds to an NGO must be directed to targeted beneficiaries and 30% towards administrative costs. In response to concerns expressed by civil society organizations, the Ministry of Planning and Economic Development removed the mandatory registration with SLANGO and expressed its willingness to continue discussions with NGOs in 2020.

Police and security forces

There were growing concerns about public order management by the Sierra Leone police. Notably, on 21 January 2019, two people were shot dead during clashes between members of local communities and security forces in the Sahn Malen Chiefdom in Pujehun District. On 31 May, police forces caused serious injuries when they used excessive force, including the use of tear gas, to disperse a protest on APC premises denouncing the nullification of some 2018 legislative results. In December, an investigation was launched into the rape of a minor, allegedly by a police officer in Kenema, eastern Sierra Leone.

On 26 April, the authorities committed to legal reforms to give more power and independence to the Independent Police Complaints Board, responsible for receiving individual complaints and making recommendations regarding police abuses.

Women’s rights

Sexual violence continued to be a major concern. According to statistics from the Rainbo Initiative, 2,264 sexual assault cases have been reported to its centers from January to July, an increase number when compared to 2018 in which 2,900 cases were reported nationwide for the whole year. On 19 February, President Bio declared “a State of Public Emergency over rape and sexual violence”. The announcement came amid growing outrage following a series of cases involving minors, including a 5 years old girl. Parliament on 19 June revoked the measure but on 19 September passed the Sexual Offences Amendment Bill into law. This new legislation provides that all sexual offence cases will proceed to the High Court for trial without having to be heard in a Magistrate's Court to determine the sufficiency of evidence. The law also prescribes life imprisonment as a maximum penalty for perpetrators of rape of a child.

The Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education issued a statement on October 15, clarifying that pregnant girls can now sit exams but still cannot attend school. On 12 December, the ECOWAS Court rejected the 2015 government ban on pregnant girls from sitting exams and attending mainstream school. The Court found that this policy amounted to discrimination against pregnant school girls and breached regional and international human rights law.

Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people

Same-sex conduct continued to be criminalized according to Section 61 of the Offences Against the Person Act, with a penalty of up to life imprisonment. LGBTI people continued to suffer discrimination and stigmatization within communities and at health centres.

Human rights defenders

Violations of the rights of land-rights defenders continued to be reported. On 21 January 2019, two people were shot dead during clashes that erupted between members of local communities and security forces deployed to protect the palm oil plantations of the agribusiness Socfin Group in the Sahn Malen Chiefdom in Pujehun District. After the clashes, security forces raided in villages looting properties. Nineteen members of Malen Affected Land Owners and Users Association (MALOA) were arrested and charged with alleged destruction of Socfin Group properties and attack on the police. As of 31 December, their cases were still pending.

Legal, constitutional or institutional developments

Human rights NGOs repeatedly asked authorities to reopen the discussion on the Constitutional Review Committee's 2017 recommendations to align the Constitution to international human rights norms.