Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone was one of the first areas in West Africa to have contact with Europeans and it quickly became a hub for the slave trade. Slaves were taken mainly to plantations in South Carolina and Georgia in the US, where they were sought after for their knowledge of rice farming. 

1787, the British helped freed slaves from Nova Scotia, Canada and Britain return to Sierra Leone, then called Province of Freedom. Despite threats from disease and local tribes, by 1792 more returnees had arrived and the city of Freetown was established as the first British colony in West Africa. It became a base for fighting the slave trade and the British patrolled the coastal shores of Freetown for illegal slave ships.

The British expanded their territory, despite heavy resistance by indigenous tribes, and by 1896 Britain declared a protectorate over the country. Sierra Leone gained independence in 1961, opting for British parliamentary-style rule with a prime minister as head of state. The first elections were held the following year and Sir Milton Margai won but died mid-term and was replaced by his half-brother. 

The elections of 1967 were marred by contested polls and violence, and after three successive coups Siaka Stevens became prime minister in 1968. He made the country a republic in 1971 and amended the constitution in 1978 to ban all parties except his own, the All Peoples Congress (APC). 

In 1985 Stevens stepped down and chose his own successor, General Joseph Momoh, who ruled with an increasingly firm hand. 

In 1991 the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) began attacking villages near the Liberian border in the south, taking over 
diamond mines in the Kono district and destabilising the country. The rebels sold diamonds illegally to buy weapons and became notorious for chopping off the limbs of their victims.

A military coup in 1992 sent Momoh into exile and brought Captain Valentine Strasser to power. He hired mercenaries to repel the RUF who had taken over much of the country. 

A brief return to civilian rule in 1996 was quickly interrupted by another coup that was eventually repelled by the West African peacekeeping force, ECOMOG, led by troops from Nigeria. The RUF continued its brutal advance and fighting reached Freetown before a peace agreement was signed in 1999, incorporating RUF leaders into the government. 

That year, the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (
UNAMSIL) arrived but the RUF took members of the mission hostage and confiscated their arms and ammunition. The situation continued to deteriorate and violence resumed.

Fighting did not end until 2002 with the aid of international forces, including 200 British troops, who helped to disarm rebels. 

An estimated 50,000 people died during the war. The country is now trying to rebuild itself. The UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission were set up in 2002 to consolidate peace.

The Special Court has indicted several of those allegedly involved in the civil war on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including former Liberian president Charles Taylor, who is accused of backing rebel groups, and RUF leader Foday Sankoh, who died of a heart attack in custody

Development indicators

Sierra Leone is still recovering from the 11-year civil war. The disarmament of more than 70,000 soldiers created a huge number of unemployed youths and much of the country's infrastructure was destroyed. Despite rich mineral resources, including diamonds, Sierra Leone is ranked 176 out of 177 countries on the UN Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Index. 

According to UNDP, life expectancy at birth is 41 years and the likelihood of dying before the age of 40 is 47 percent. 

The percentage of children under-five who are underweight is 27 percent and 43 percent of the population is without access to an improved water source. 

The combined primary, secondary and tertiary gross enrolment ratio is 74 percent and 65 percent of the population is 


During the civil war, many schools were looted and destroyed. According to the UN Children's Fund (
UNICEF), about 50 percent of primary schools are now functioning but in very poor condition. 

Although primary school attendance is compulsory, enrolment levels remain low at 41 percent. Informal and formal school fees have kept education out of reach for many children.

UNICEF reported that enrolment is increasing by the year, but the gender gap is widening. As of 2005, the net primary school attendance ratio was 43 percent for boys and 39 percent for girls. At the secondary level, it was 14 percent for both boys and girls. 

UNHCR reported that 8,300 children at refugee camps were registered at the primary level, but only 58 percent successfully completed the academic year.

The adult literacy rate is 46.9 percent for men and 24.4 percent for women. 


The war worsened the plight of children in the country. In 2003, the UN Special Representative to the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Olara A Otunnu, remarked on the growing numbers of street children and an increase in child prostitution, both aggravated by the war and pervasive poverty. Child soldiers, including girls, were widely used during the war.

UNIOSIL reported that since the disarmament, demobilisation and reunification programme (DDR) had been completed, there had not been any child abductions by armed forces and that many children registered as 'separated' had been reunited with their families. 

Girls who were not demobilised remain highly vulnerable since they have not been able to access services and have been ostracised by their families and communities.

Sexual violence, particularly against girls, is widespread. The US State Department reported that at a Freetown sexual assault centre, 83 percent of patients were between six and 15 years old and children as young as three months old had been raped. Human rights groups say the judicial response to sexual violence is usually inadequate.

UNICEF also reported that roadside cinemas showing extreme violence and rape scenes proliferated in the busy alleys of Freetown and other cities and were full of small children as admittance costs just a few cents.

A study by the International Confederation of Trade Unions on core labour standards in Sierra Leone found that 71.6 percent of children between five and 14 were involved in paid or unpaid
labour. It noted that many former child soldiers had been forced into mining activities, including several thousand children working in diamond mines. They are mainly boys and work in an environment akin to slave labour.

The study also found that many girls are kept in slavery for sexual exploitation. Furthermore, conflicts in neighbouring countries had led to the re-recruitment of former child soldiers.

There are 340,000 orphans in the country, creating another highly vulnerable group.

Sierra Leone also has the second highest under-five mortality rate in the world. According to UNICEF, one in four children will die before the age of five. Malaria, acute respiratory infections, diarrhoea and malnutrition account for most deaths.

Work is under way on preparing a child rights bill. It has been approved by Cabinet and is expected to be passed by Parliament by the end of the year. It will be a landmark document, representing the country's compliance with the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified in 1990. 


According to the World Health Organisation (
WHO) , health services have improved their capacity to provide care from an estimated 5 to 10 percent during the conflict to 40 to 50 percent at present. But these improvements have yet to make a significant impact on morbidity and mortality.

Sierra Leone has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world with 1,800 women out of 100,000 dying during childbirth. According to UNICEF, this number shows no sign of diminishing; furthermore, 86 percent of pregnant women suffered from anaemia. 

There are only three doctors for every 100,000 people and only 41.7 percent of live births are assisted by a skilled attendant. 

Malaria, acute respiratory infections, diarrhoea and malnutrition accounted for the majority of consultations at peripheral health units, and a study by the Ministry of Health found that 42 percent of child deaths in hospitals were attributed to malaria. The same study showed that 11 percent of nursing mothers who died in hospital also succumbed to the disease.

UNICEF reports that 27 percent of children are underweight and 34 percent are stunted.

The full immunisation coverage for children younger than one year has increased, showing a positive trend countrywide, but it is still very low in certain regions. There is a similar pattern for tetanus coverage, which is 47 percent nationwide but only 35 percent in the north and east.

According to UNICEF, 57 percent of the population used improved drinking water sources, and 39 percent of the population used adequate sanitation facilities. 


According to the UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (
UNAIDS), the prevalence rate for HIV/AIDS in Sierra Leone is 1.6 percent among adults aged 15 to 49. It is higher in Freetown, at 2.3 percent.

Data on HIV/AIDS in Sierra Leone is limited and slightly out-of-date. Surveillance data from antenatal clinics indicated that the HIV epidemic is worsening. In 1989, fewer than 1 percent of pregnant women tested positive for the virus and by 1996, 7 percent were infected. 

A 1995 survey of sex workers in 1995 found that 27 percent tested positive for HIV. A 1997 survey revealed that in some unspecified locales outside major urban areas, 70 percent of sex workers tested positive, 12 percent of security forces and 9 percent of police officers. 

Sierra Leone has announced plans to launch a nationwide HIV/AIDS survey following widespread indications that the real rate of HIV prevalence is four to five times greater than the official
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