Freedom in the World 2023 - Sierra Leone

/ 100
Political Rights 27 / 40
Civil Liberties 36 / 60
65 / 100 Partly Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.


Sierra Leone has held regular multiparty elections since the end of its civil war in 2002. However, demonstrators and opposition parties have faced police violence and restrictions on assembly. Civic groups are constrained and corruption remains pervasive.

Key Developments in 2022

  • In August, security officers and demonstrators clashed violently as cost-of-living protests were held in Freetown and the north, with 6 officers and at least 20 protesters being killed. The government imposed a three-day nighttime curfew immediately after the clashes, while authorities arrested over 500 people as the month progressed.
  • The opposition All People’s Congress (APC) sued in November to halt the government’s proposed transition to a proportional-representation electoral system, though no ruling was made by year’s end. The APC previously said the constitution did contain a provision allowing for such a shift.
  • Also in November, Parliament passed a bill that would impose a gender quota for elected and appointed positions, mandate equal pay, and extend paid maternity leave. President Julius Maada Bio had not signed it by year’s end.

Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 3 / 4

The president is elected by popular vote for up to two five-year terms. In the March 2018 presidential election, Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) defeated Samura Kamara of the APC and succeeded term-limited predecessor Ernest Bai Koroma. Allegations of violence and voter intimidation marred the campaign period. Nevertheless, international observers called the contest credible, praising electoral officials for effectively fulfilling their duties despite budget constraints, logistical challenges, and pressure from the government.

A2 0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 3 / 4

In the unicameral Parliament, 132 members are popularly elected and 14 seats are reserved for indirectly elected paramount chiefs. Parliamentary elections are held every five years, concurrently with presidential elections.

Following the March 2018 polls, the APC initially retained control of Parliament. But in May 2019, the High Court ruled in favor of a SLPP petition alleging electoral fraud on the part of the APC; 10 members of Parliament (MPs) were removed and the SLPP was awarded 9 seats, giving the latter party a slender majority. Several by-elections have taken place since 2018 but have been marred by violence.

A3 0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 3 / 4

Members of the Electoral Commission for Sierra Leone (ECSL) are selected by the president, though Parliament must approve appointments.

In October 2022, President Bio instructed the ECSL to introduce a proportional-representation electoral system, replacing a first-past-the-post system. The opposition criticized the shift, saying the constitution contained no provision to allow such a transition. The APC sued over the proposed shift in late November, though no ruling was issued by year’s end.

The APC also criticized the ECSL’s September-to-October 2022 voting registration exercise and the November verification process, saying that its supporters were being disenfranchised. Local stakeholders, meanwhile, reported that the verification process was marred by administrative difficulties. Some 257,000 voters were removed from the roll because entries were purportedly duplicated; the APC criticized their removal as opaque in nature and called for an audit in December.

Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 because a voter registration process was marred by administrative difficulties and accusations of partisan disenfranchisement, while a related shift in the country’s voting system was met with concerns over its constitutionality.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 0-4 pts
Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 2 / 4

Although people have the right to organize in different political parties, opposition parties and leaders have faced intimidation and harassment. In July 2022, Unity Party chairwoman Femi Claudius-Cole and National Grand Coalition chair Dennis Bright were held for several days for allegedly inciting an unlawful demonstration before being released without charge.

While candidate nomination fees are subsidized, the costs of running for office and a rule requiring public-sector personnel to resign 12 months ahead of an election serve as barriers to entry for many candidates, giving an advantage to larger parties and those with greater resources.

B2 0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 3 / 4

The SLPP’s presidential victory in 2018, despite the APC’s continued use of public resources during the campaign, marked the second peaceful transfer of power between rival parties since the end of the civil war in 2002.

B3 0-4 pts
Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means? 3 / 4

Sierra Leoneans generally enjoy freedom in their political choices, although traditional chiefs and religious leaders exercise influence on voters. Local elites from both major parties often control the selection of parliamentary candidates.

B4 0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3 / 4

Ethnic and religious minorities typically enjoy full political rights and electoral opportunities. Societal impediments to women’s political participation remain a challenge, with women holding only 13 percent of Parliament’s seats as of December 2022. In November, Parliament passed the 2021 Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Bill (GEWEB), which would impose a 30 percent gender quota for elected and appointed positions. President Bio did not sign the bill by year’s end.

Sierra Leoneans who are not of African descent do not have birthright citizenship and must be naturalized to be able to vote.

The SLPP and APC have accused each other of engaging in ethnic discrimination when appointing employees to government agencies.

C Functioning of Government

C1 0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 3 / 4

The elected president and Parliament generally determine government policy, but more power lies with the executive.

Sierra Leone has relied on Chinese and Turkish support for the construction of large-scale infrastructure in recent years. International organizations also influence policymaking, with the government withdrawing fuel subsidies in order to receive support from the International Monetary Fund in 2018.

C2 0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 1 / 4

The Bio administration has made efforts to tackle systemic corruption and hold perpetrators from the previous government accountable. However, the Anti-Corruption Commission’s efforts have largely focused on recouping stolen wealth over securing convictions, and corruption remains prevalent.

In late 2021, the government suspended Auditor General Lara Taylor-Pearce and committed to form a tribunal over her performance, weeks before her office was expected to report on government corruption. A tribunal meant to hear accusations of misconduct began in 2022 and sat as recently as October.

C3 0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 3 / 4

Sierra Leone has an uneven record on transparency. The Right to Access Information Commission was created in 2013 to facilitate transparency and openness in government, but its effectiveness has been hampered by lack of funding and limited public outreach. The Audit Service Sierra Leone, meanwhile, has highlighted concerns over transparency and procurement in recent reports.

The government continues to review and make public all mining and lease agreements, retaining its Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) compliance designation. The EITI’s October 2022 validation report assessed Sierra Leone as having made good progress on all requirements, awarding it a “high overall score.”

Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 2 / 4

Numerous independent newspapers circulate freely and dozens of public and private radio and television outlets operate. Many favor of one of the leading political parties in their coverage, however. Part V of the 1965 Public Order Act, which criminalized libel and sedition, was repealed in 2020 and was replaced by Independent Media Commission (IMC) Act.

In May 2022, officers detained Sorie Saio Sesay of Okentuhun Radio FM for nearly a week after sharing a message via WhatsApp; the message discussed a police officer’s reported killing of a taxi driver. The journalist was released without charge. Also in May, the Office of National Security filed a complaint against Chernoh Alpha Bah of the Africanist Press at the IMC, claiming that the outlet was seeking to “cause unrest in the country” through its coverage. Bah also faced death threats and accusations of treason on social media.

D2 0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4

Freedom of religion is constitutionally protected and respected in practice.

D3 0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 3 / 4

Academic freedom is generally upheld, but strained resources within the university system have led to strikes by professors. Student protests have been violently dispersed by security forces in recent years.

D4 0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 3 / 4

Private discussion remains largely open, though freedom of personal expression may be affected by the threat of violence from powerful interests. While authorities reportedly monitor discussions on social media platforms, including WhatsApp, few arrests have been made for online discussions under the 2021 Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 1 / 4

While freedom of assembly is constitutionally guaranteed, the police have repeatedly refused to grant permission to organizers planning protests.

Authorities responded forcefully to major protests in 2022. In July, hundreds of women protested over economic concerns in Freetown; officers were seen physically attacking demonstrators. Dozens were reportedly arrested, along with party leaders Claudius-Cole and Bright.

Cost-of-living protests were held in Freetown and the north in August 2022. Protesters clashed with police officers in several areas, while authorities deployed tear gas and fired live ammunition; 6 officers and at least 20 protesters died nationwide. Internet connectivity was disrupted at least twice as the demonstrations took place, while the government imposed a three-day nighttime curfew. Police had arrested over 500 people nationwide for allegedly engaging in violence or violating the curfew as of late August, a majority of whom were still in detention by then.

Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 because police violently clashed with protesters in August, resulting in the deaths of nearly 30 people.25

E2 0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 2 / 4

A variety of nongovernmental organizations and civic groups operate in the country. Stricter regulations took effect in 2018, requiring annual renewal of registrations and ministerial approval for projects.

E3 0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 2 / 4

While workers have the right to join independent trade unions, there are no laws preventing discrimination against union members or prohibiting employers from interfering with the formation of unions. Some unions have been suspended from the umbrella Sierra Leone Labour Congress after the ruling SLPP manipulated and effectively captured them.

F Rule of Law

F1 0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 2 / 4

While the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, the courts are prone to executive interference. A lack of clear procedures for appointing and dismissing judges leaves those processes vulnerable to abuse. Judicial corruption, poor salaries, and inadequate resources also undermine judicial autonomy.

F2 0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 2 / 4

Resource constraints and a shortage of lawyers hinder access to legal counsel. The constitutional right to a fair trial is sometimes limited in practice. Pretrial and remand prisoners are held for between three and five years before their cases are adjudicated on average. Police can hold criminal suspects for several days without charge and engage in arbitrary arrests.

The death-penalty provision in the 1991 constitution was removed in 2021.

F3 0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 3 / 4

Detention facilities are under strain. Prisons fail to meet basic health-and-hygiene standards, and infectious disease is prevalent.

Police, who are poorly paid and minimally trained, are rarely held accountable for their actions, even when they turn to violence. Civilians can report ill-treatment to the Police Complaints, Discipline, and Internal Investigations Department or the Independent Police Complaints Board, though these agencies have very limited capacity and efficacy.

Concerns over extrajudicial violence persisted in 2022. In April, the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa called on the government to release a report on the 2020 Pademba Road Prison riot, noting concerns that officers killed more inmates than was officially reported. In August, political leader Femi Claudius-Cole alleged that “death squads” were engaging in extrajudicial killings as the government imposed its August 2022

F4 0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 2 / 4

LGBT+ people face discrimination in employment and health-care access and are vulnerable to violence. Sex between men is criminalized under a colonial-era law.

Women experience discrimination in employment, education, and access to credit. Parliament passed the Customary Land Rights Act (CLRA) in August 2022 and President Bio signed it in September; the new law is meant to improve land rights for women. The GEWEB, which was passed in November, includes provisions mandating equal pay and extending the length of paid maternity leave.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 3 / 4

Sierra Leoneans generally enjoy freedom of movement. However, authorities imposed a three-day nighttime curfew immediately after the August 2022 protests.

G2 0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 3 / 4

The government has sought to reduce regulatory barriers to private business in recent years. Property rights are constitutionally guaranteed, though the laws do not effectively protect those rights. There is no land titling system. Outside of Freetown, land falls under customary law; its use was heavily determined by chiefs, but their ability to influence the use of land was reduced by the CLRA. Land rights for women were also bolstered by the CLRA.

The government does not effectively regulate the activities of international investors, exacerbating threats to property rights.

G3 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 2 / 4

Reports of rape and domestic violence rarely result in conviction, despite the introduction of a Sexual Offences Amendment Act in 2019. The police unit responsible for investigating and prosecuting these crimes remains underfunded and understaffed.

Female genital mutilation, which is widespread, is not prohibited by law.

In a 2019 report, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) noted that there are as many as 800,000 child brides in Sierra Leone. In an October 2022 document, UNICEF and the UN Population Fund reported that child marriage had declined between 2006 and 2016; however, the agencies noted that domestic evidence detailing the prevalence of the practice was lacking.

G4 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 2 / 4

Reports of economic exploitation among workers in the natural-resource sector are common. Human trafficking remains a problem, although the government is focused on improving its ability to convict traffickers. The first trafficking convictions in 15 years were secured in 2020. In the 2022 edition of its Trafficking in Persons Report, the US State Department noted that authorities secured another three convictions during its coverage period.