total: 71,740 sq km
land: 71,620 sq km
water: 120 sq km
Total: 1,093 km
border countries (2):
Guinea 794 km,
Liberia 299 km
Coastline: 402 km
Total: 1495 km
summer rainy season (May to December);
winter dry season (December to April)
coastal belt of mangrove swamps, wooded hill country, upland plateau, mountains in east
mean elevation: 279 m
elevation extremes: lowest point: Atlantic Ocean 0 m
highest point: Loma Mansa (Bintimani) 1,948 m
diamonds, titanium ore, bauxite, iron ore, gold, chromite
agricultural land: 56.2%
arable land 23.4%; permanent crops 2.3%; permanent pasture 30.5%
other: 6.3% (2011 est.)
300 sq km (2012)
Population – distribution:
population clusters are found in the lower elevations of the south and west; the northern third of the country is less populated
dry, sand-laden harmattan winds blow from the Sahara (December to February);
sandstorms, dust storms
People and Society
In 2017 Sierra Leone had an officially projected population of 6,163,195 and a growth rate of 2.216% a year. The country’s population is mostly young, with an estimated 41.7% under 15, and rural, with an estimated 62% of people living outside the cities. As a result of migration to cities, the population is becoming urbaner with an estimated rate of urbanization growth of 2.9% a year. Sierra Leone’s youthful and growing population is driven by its high total fertility rate of almost 5 children per woman, which has declined little over the last two decades. Its elevated TFR is sustained by the continued desire for large families, the low level of contraceptive use, and the early start of childbearing.
Despite its high TFR, Sierra Leone’s population growth is somewhat tempered by high infant, child, and maternal mortality rates that are among the worlds highest and are a result of poverty, a lack of potable water and sanitation, poor nutrition, limited access to quality health care services, and the prevalence of female genital cutting. Sierra Leone’s large youth cohort – about 60% of the population is under the age of 25 – continues to struggle with high levels of unemployment, which was one of the major causes of the country’s 1991-2002 civil war and remains a threat to stability today. Its estimated 60% youth unemployment rate is attributed to high levels of illiteracy and unskilled labor, a lack of private sector jobs, and low pay.
Sierra Leone has been a source of and destination for refugees. Sierra Leone’s civil war internally displaced as many as 2 million people, or almost half the population, and forced almost another half million to seek refuge in neighboring countries (370,000 Sierra Leoneans fled to Guinea and 120,000 to Liberia). The UNHCR has helped almost 180,000 Sierra Leoneans to return home, while more than 90,000 others have repatriated on their own. Of the more than 65,000 Liberians who took refuge in Sierra Leone during their country’s civil war (1989-2003), about 50,000 have been voluntarily repatriated by the UNHCR and others have returned home independently. As of 2015, less than 1,000 Liberians still reside in Sierra Leone.
6,163,195 (July 2017 est.)
Temne 35.5%, Mende 33.2%, Limba 6.4%, Kono 4.4%, Fullah 3.4%, Loko 2.9%, Koranko 2.8%, Sherbro 2.6%, Mandingo 2.4%, Creole 1.2, other Sierra Leone 4.7%, other foreign 0.5%
English (official, regular use limited to literate minority), Mende (principal vernacular in the south), Temne (principal vernacular in the north), Krio (English-based Creole, spoken by the descendants of freed Jamaican slaves who were settled in the Freetown area, a lingua franca and a first language for 10% of the population but understood by 95%)
Muslim 78.6%, Christian 20.8%, other 0.3%, unspecified 0.2% (2013 est.)
Ethnicity, Language, and Religion
Sierra Leone is home to about sixteen ethnic groups, each with its own language. Which exhibit similar cultural features, such as secret societies, chieftaincy, patrilineal descent, and farming methods. The Mende, found in the east and south, and the Temne, found in the center and northwest, form the two largest groups. Other major groups include the Limba, Kuranko, Susu, Yalunka, and Loko in the north; the Kono and Kisi in the east; and the Sherbro in the southwest. Minor groups include the coastal Bullom, Vai, and Krim and the Fulani and Malinke, who are immigrants from Guinea concentrated in the north and east. The Creoles—descendants of liberated blacks who colonized the coast from the late 18th to the mid-19th century—are found mainly in and around Freetown. Throughout the 19th century, blacks from the United States and West Indies also settled in Sierra Leone. Ethnic complexity is further enhanced by the presence of Lebanese and Indian traders in urban centers.
Krio, a language derived from English and a variety of African languages is the mother tongue of the Creoles and the country’s lingua franca. Among the Niger-Congo languages, the Mande group is the largest and includes Mende, Kuranko, Kono, Yalunka, Susu, and Vai. The Mel group consists of Temne, Krim, Kisi, Bullom, Sherbro, and Limba. English, the official language, is used in administration, education, and commerce. Arabic is used among Lebanese traders and adherents of Islam. School texts, information bulletins, and collections of folktales are produced in indigenous languages such as Mende and Temne. The Vai script used in Liberia and Sierra Leone has the distinction of being one of the few indigenous scripts in Africa. Some of the local languages are written in European script, and a few, especially in the Muslim areas in the north, have been transcribed into Arabic.
Reliable data on the exact numbers of practitioners of major religions is not available. However, most sources estimate that the population is 60% Muslim, 30% Christian, and 10% practitioners of traditional indigenous religions. Muslims were traditionally concentrated in the northern part of the country, and Christians in the south. However, an ongoing civil war has prompted relocation by large masses of the population. Reportedly, many syncretic practices exist, with up to 20% of the populace practicing a mixture of either Muslim or Christianity with traditional indigenous religions. Certain Muslim and Christian holidays are recognized as national holidays. The Inter-Religious Council serves an important role in civil society and works to promote the peace process within the country.
Education in Sierra Leone is legally required for all children for six years at primary level and three years in junior secondary education, but a shortage of schools and teachers has made implementation impossible. The Sierra Leone Civil War resulted in the destruction of 1,270 primary schools and in 2001, 67 percent of all school-age children were out of school. The situation has improved considerably since then with primary school enrollment doubling between 2001 and 2005 and the reconstruction of many schools since the end of the war.
The system of education in Sierra Leone comprises three basic levels: primary, junior secondary and senior secondary. All six years of primary education are free of cost. Students begin junior secondary school around the age of 12 and remain at that level through age 15. Girls living in rural areas typically have the toughest time reaching this level of schooling due to cultural beliefs that often discourage their participation. Students enroll in senior secondary schools from the ages of 15 to 18, and it is at this level that they may choose to between continuing their academic education with plans of proceeding to university or focusing on vocational training. Most vocational education programs focus on agricultural skills, followed by other proficiencies like mechanics, carpentry, and bricklaying. Students wishing to pursue a university degree in Sierra Leone have two options to choose from: Njala University and the University of Sierra Leone.
Despite these opportunities, education in Sierra Leone continues to face significant hurdles. More than 40 percent of primary school teachers are untrained. There is also a massive shortage of textbooks, and it is not uncommon for four or five students to share a single book. The literacy rate among 15 to 24-year-olds is below 60 percent, and the total adult literacy rate is even lower, at about 43 percent. However, this is not to say that Sierra Leone has failed to improve from the initial damage left by the war. In fact, education in Sierra Leone has experienced notable advances in recent years. Just after the conflict, a mere 55 percent of children were finishing primary school. That number has since jumped to 76 percent of students finishing primary school, and 77 percent of those children advancing to the junior secondary level. The youth literacy rate jumped a full percentage point since 2010. The government of Sierra Leone spends 14 percent of its national budget on education and half of that figure is devoted to primary education.
Sierra Leone possesses substantial mineral, agricultural, and fishery resources. In recent years, economic growth has been driven by one of these natural resource – iron ore. The country’s principal exports are iron ore, diamonds, and rutile, and the economy is vulnerable to fluctuations in international prices. Until 2014, the government had relied on external assistance to support its budget, but it was gradually becoming more independent. The Ebola outbreak of 2014 and 2015, combined with falling global commodities prices, caused a significant contraction of economic activity in all areas. While the World Health Organization declared an end to the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone in November 2015, low commodity prices in 2015-2016 contributed to the country’s biggest fiscal shortfall since 2001. In 2017, increased iron ore exports, together with the end of the Ebola epidemic, supported a resumption of economic growth.
After growing at an average annual rate of 7.8% over the period 2003-2014, Sierra Leone’s economic growth slowed to 4.3% in 2017 from 6.3% in 2016, due largely to the weak recovery in mineral production. Inflationary pressures eased owing to the relative stability of the exchange rate and the tight monetary policy stance of the Bank of Sierra Leone. Fiscal outturn deteriorated in 2017 due to a shortfall in revenue mobilization and spending overruns in all the major expenditure categories. Domestic financing remains high, exceeding the 2.0% limit on which the government’s fiscal program is anchored. The current account of the balance of payments remained under pressure as the trade deficit widened, reflecting weak export growth and increased imports of food items, machinery, and petroleum products.
Iron ore production grew by only 5.6% to 6.5 million metric tons compared to an anticipated 9.0 million metric tons. The main iron ore company, Shandong Iron and Steel Group, stopped production in November 2017 due to high operating costs and cash constraints as it reported record loses since it took over the mines from African Minerals Limited in 2016. The non-iron ore economy grew by 3.6%, slower than the 4.3% in 2016 due largely to a fall in construction activities following the slowdown in public investment in infrastructure.
The fiscal position deteriorated in 2017, due largely to a shortfall in revenue mobilization and spending overruns in all the major expenditure categories. Total domestic revenue was 3.0% short of its 2017 target of Le3.4 trillion, increasing only slightly to 12.3% of gross domestic product (GDP) from 11.9% of GDP in 2016. The National Revenue Authority (NRA) collected Le273.3 billion in January 2018 compared Le261.5 billion in January 2017 due to the collection of tax arrears. Total expenditure increased to Le6.4 trillion in 2017 from Le5.4 trillion in the previous year. Total public debt increased to 54.5% in 2017 from 53.8% in 2016.
Until the outbreak of Ebola in May 2014, Sierra Leone was seeking to attain middle-income status by 2035, but the country still carries its post-conflict attributes of high youth unemployment, corruption, and weak governance. The country continues to face the daunting challenge of enhancing transparency in managing its natural resources and creating fiscal space for development. Problems of poor infrastructure and widespread rural and urban impoverishment still persist in spite of remarkable strides and reforms.
GDP (purchasing power parity):
$11.75 billion (2017 est.)
$11.08 billion (2016 est.)
$10.45 billion (2015 est.)
note: data are in 2017 dollars
GDP (official exchange rate):
$3.897 billion (2017 est.)
GDP – real growth rate:
6% (2017 est.)
6.1% (2016 est.)
-20.5% (2015 est.)
GDP – per capita (PPP):
$1,800 (2017 est.)
$1,700 (2016 est.)
$1,700 (2015 est.)
Gross national saving:
-1.9% of GDP (2017 est.)
-9.3% of GDP (2016 est.)
-5.9% of GDP (2015 est.)
GDP – composition, by sector of origin:
services: 32.9% (2017 est.)
Agriculture – products:
rice, coffee, cocoa, palm kernels, palm oil, peanuts, cashews; poultry, cattle, sheep, pigs; fish
diamond mining; iron ore, rutile and bauxite mining; small-scale manufacturing (beverages, textiles, footwear)
Population below poverty line:
70.2% (2004 est.)
revenues: $684.3 million
expenditures: $962.6 million (2017 est.)
Agriculture (including forestry and fisheries) is the mainstay of the Sierra Leonean economy employing over 60 percent of the labor force mostly at the subsistence level. Rice and cassava are the key staples, while cocoa, coffee; oil palm and cashew nut are the major cash crops. The agricultural sector is constrained by several factors including lack of improved inputs, labor shortages, and post-harvest losses. Land degradation and deforestation have resulted in declining soil fertility, undermining sustainable agricultural development in the country. Most Sierra Leoneans live on small, scattered farms, following a scheme of bush-fallow rotation, slash-and-burn field preparation, and limited use of fertilizer.
Rice is the most important staple crop in Sierra Leone with 85 percent of farmers cultivating rice during the rainy season and an annual consumption of 76 kg per person. An area of 2,500 km2 (810 sq mi) being cultivated for rice producing an annual yield of 265,000 t. Rice is grown in three different ecologies, mangrove swamp rice, upland rice and deepwater rice. With around 200 km2 (77 sq mi) of land in deepwater rice cultivation, Sierra Leone is the main area for tropical deepwater rice.
The second staple food grown across the country is cassava with an annual yield of 350,000t in 2006. The main areas of production are in the south-west, central and far north. The main problems with cassava cultivation include disease and pests. Major diseases are the cassava mosaic disease and cassava bacterial blight, which have the greatest economic impact, cassava brown leaf spot, cassava anthracnose, and white thread fungus
Coffee is grown in the eastern and southern provinces; production totaled 15,000 tons in 1999. Cocoa is grown in the Kenema and Kailahun districts of the Eastern Province and in the Pujehun District of the Southern Province, mainly on smallholdings of about 0.4–1.2 hectares (1–3 acres). In 1999, an estimated 11,000 tons of cocoa beans were produced. Palm produce is derived from stands of wild palms, mainly in the northeast and southeast; production in 1999 included 22,000 tons of palm kernels and 36,000 tons of palm oil. Although there is substantial local consumption of palm kernels, they are a major agricultural export. Piassava, a raffia palm fiber used for broom and brush bristles, is grown in the swampy areas of the extreme south. Small amounts of kola nuts were also exported, and modest crops of bananas, pineapples, and sugarcane were grown.
Common livestock in Sierra Leone is cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and poultry. The civil war seriously depleted the level of livestock in the country, although numbers have recovered since the end of the war in 2002. Most cattle are of the Typanotolerant N’Dama breed and problem diseases include contagious bovine pleuropneumonia. Cattle are found in the north of the country and farming is dominated by the Fula ethnic group who own the majority of cattle in the country and often manage cattle owned by other groups. Poultry farming consists mainly of chickens, with some guinea fowl and Muscovy ducks.
population without electricity: 5,800,000
electrification – total population: 5%
electrification – urban areas: 11%
electrification – rural areas: 1% (2013)
Electricity – production:
175 million kWh (2015 est.)
Electricity – consumption:
162.8 million kWh (2015 est.)
Electricity – exports:
0 million kWh (2015 est.)
Electricity – imports:
0 billion kWh (2015 est.)
Electricity – installed generating capacity:
81,000 kW (2015 est.)
Electricity – from fossil fuels:
33.3% of total installed capacity (2015 est.)
Electricity – from nuclear fuels:
0% of total installed capacity (2015 est.)
Telephones – fixed lines:
total subscriptions: 17,000
subscriptions per 100 inhabitants: less than 1 (July 2016 est.)
Telephones – mobile cellular:
subscriptions per 100 inhabitants: 102 (July 2016 est.
Internet country code:
percent of population: 11.8% (July 2016 est.)
Industry and Mining
The manufacturing sector in Sierra Leone is a developing one with great potential. Currently, it is concentrated in the following areas: Rubber/Plastic with companies like Milla Group, Shankerdas, and sons as key players. Chemical, confectionary and most recently agro based product such as juices. Manufacturing at the moment plays an important role in adding value to the above stated areas , with high demand for locally produced goods, regional and International markets are accessible for product manufactured in Sierra Leone owing to its membership to the following key International and regional organisations such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS – Market size of 220 Million People), EU-Everything But Arms – EBA (Market Size of 456 million People), U.S African Growth & Opportunity Act (AGOGA – Market Size of 310 Million People) and the Mano River Union (MRU).
Sierra Leone holds the second-least competitive economy in the world (2012–13, World Economic Forum, Global Competitiveness Report) with manufacturing contributing just 1.8% of GDP in 2011. The country is classified 140 out of 185 countries by the World Bank for ease of doing business, a ranking based on how conducive the regulatory environment is to the opening and operation of a local firm. From the low base, industrial production is estimated to be growing at a value-added annual rate of 9.7%, and manufacturing at 15% (World Bank, 2011).
Industries in Sierra Leone cover diamond mining and petroleum refining alongside commercial ship repair. Extractive industries are popular in Sierra Leone due to the country’s wealth of diamonds, gold, bauxite, rutile, and iron ore deposits, and mining now accounts for almost a third of GDP (CIA World Factbook, 2012). The mining sector is controlled by strict regulations, and mining licenses can be obtained only from the government. The manufacturing sector in Sierra Leone is small-scale, generally producing beverages, textiles, footwear, and cigarettes.
Exports of goods and services made up 16.5% of GDP according to the World Bank, an increase of 3.2% since 2008. The main export industries include diamonds, rutile, cocoa, coffee, and fish, with more than half of all goods exported to China.
The 2016 Global Competitiveness Report scores and ranks the sophistication of production processes around the world, where a low country score of 1 means “no sophistication and labor intensive” and a high score of 7 means production processes are the “world’s best and apply the most efficient technologies”. In this respect, Sierra Leone ranks 140 out of 144 countries with a score of 2.3 out of 7.0.
Banking and Finance
The Bank of Sierra Leone is the country’s central bank; it issues currency (the leone), maintains external reserves, and acts as banker and financial adviser to the government. The National Development Bank is charged with providing finances to investors within the country. The Sierra Leone Commercial Bank provides credit and technical assistance to farmers. Private commercial banks also exist in the country. The Banking Act of 1964 provides for the regulation of commercial banks by the central bank, including the control of the money supply. Poor revenue collection, failure to control expenditures, and heavy debt servicing requirements as a result of past borrowing characterized government finances in the 1980s and early 1990s.
The financial sector is critical for any economic development as it pools and allocates resources to promote productivity and economic growth. But the central bank is said to be facing challenges in banking regulation and supervision. In his speech during the State Opening of Parliament last week, President Julius Maada Bio highlighted several challenges faced by the banking sector and key amongst them are the flaws in directives and management. President Bio accentuated some other challenges dealing with weak infrastructure, weak policy and legal environment, inadequate bank coordination, shortage of skilled professionals, insufficient technological resources, a weak interbank market, the lack of payments mechanisms, absence of credit-risk information, inadequate short-term financial markets, absence of longer-term finance and foreign currency lending and ignorance of banking products and procedures.
Sierra Leone has 14 licensed functional banks, amongst the three local banks only two, the Sierra Leone Commercial Bank and Rokel Commercial Bank, are solely and partly owned by the government. The other, Union Trust Bank, is entirely owned by Sierra Leoneans and 11 are foreign-owned banks. These foreign-owned banks control 75% of financial sector assets. In his New Direction administration efforts, the President said he will focus on capacitating Bank of Sierra Leone (BSL), strengthening commercial banks, developing micro-Finance institutions, commencing actions towards a re-establishing of a Development Bank and strengthening non-bank financial institutions.
In the 2018 Budget Speech, the BSL is said to be in an advanced stage in piloting a number of bills for enactment which includes the Borrowers and Lenders Bill that seeks to improve access to credit by widening the scope of collateral usable by borrowers in a bid to obtain credit from lending institutions operating in the financial sector. The Collective Investment Bill, that seeks to support the establishment and operation of collective investment schemes with a view to deriving benefits through synergy. The Security and Exchange Bill which, when enacted, will create the enabling environment required for the Bank to cede its current regulatory and supervisory role of the Stock Exchange to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). The Bill will also provide for an increased supply of long-term capital, through the Stock Exchange, to promote private sector-led growth as well as deepen the financial system.
Recently, the Bank Governor, Patrick Conteh, affirmed in a press briefing that the banking sector is stable, safe and sound. The Governor’s annual dinner speech stated that the microfinance industry has expanded rapidly and this component of the financial system is becoming an important provider of financial services to micro, small and medium-sized enterprises and lower income segments of the population. Banking products and services he said are still largely limited to accepting deposits, granting of loans and advances, and foreign exchange dealings. The main source of income for the entire banking industry is an investment in government Treasury Bills.
For the traveler, Sierra Leone is a secret beach destination. Sweet sands rise from the soft waters of the Atlantic, with the backdrop dressed in sun-stained hues, rainforest green and the red, red roads of the north. The United Nations World Tourism Organization found that Sierra Leone saw a 310 percent increase in visitors last year in comparison to 2015; the closest country, Nepal, saw just a 39.7 percent hike in tourism.
A country once devastated by war and an Ebola outbreak (completely cleared in 2015), Sierra Leone is an unfailingly hopeful nation, filled with pristine beaches, a buzzing capital city, and a melting pot of cultures. A spike in tourism could play a big role in boosting this warm-hearted country’s prosperity, and there are so many reasons travelers are making the trip. Here are the top five (if you need any more convincing)!
Place of Attraction
THE BEACHES; West Africa’s best-kept secret is undoubtedly the beaches of Sierra Leone. The soft sand and gentle waters of the Atlantic are framed by lush green rainforest — on a clear day, they’re said to be a reflection of the country’s flag.
Freetown; The Cotton tree is may be an ordinary tree at Freetown, but it contains extraordinary significance. It’s a symbol of freedom of the Africans from the slavery. At this place, the Afro-American people arrived at first. They stop at this place under the big cotton tree when they got their land as free land. They gather to sing and thank God for their freedom. This old cotton tree has been standing there for so long. The Supreme Court is located near the tree.
Gola Forest Reserve, Kenema; The Gola Forest Reserve is the largest rainforest of the lowland area of Sierra Leone. This part of the county is known as the green diamond of Sierra Leone. The forest is being given so much importance as it holds most of the threatened wildlife. It’s located at Kenema District and includes some portions of Gaura, Tunkia, Nomo, and Koya.
The Turtle Islands are known by its character. These are the nest to the hundreds of turtles. It’s a combination of eight peaceful islands. There lies a fishing community on those islands. The fresh air and the clean and fresh water create the most amazing tourism field ever. You can enjoy fishing by yourself with the local experts. This Island can be reached by speedboat from Freetown within 3 hours. There is an option of saving money while taking the taste of the beach by waiting for the local boat to get there.
The Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary is one of the amazing Sanctuary of Sierra Leone. It is located in Freetown and it will take about 40 minutes from the mainland of Freetown. The western area forest reserve has become more visited by the tourists because of the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary. It covers about 100 acres. You can go through Sanctuary by the new dirt motorway. It will be the best if you come on a one-day excursion to see the lovely waterfalls, villages surrounding the Sanctuary easily.
Archaeological finds show that Sierra Leone has been inhabited continuously for at least 2,500 years, populated by successive movements of peoples from other parts of Africa. Traditional historiography has customarily presented it as peopled by successive waves of invaders, but the language pattern suggests that the coastal Bulom (Sherbro), Temne, and Limba have been in continuous settled occupation for a long time, with subsequent sporadic immigration from inland by Mande-speaking peoples, including Vai, Loko, and Mende. They organized themselves in small political units—independent kingdoms or chiefdoms—whose rulers’ powers were checked by councils. Secret societies, notably the Poro society, also exercised political power, as well as instructing initiates in the customs of the country.
The use of iron was introduced to Sierra Leone by the 9th century, and by the end of the 10th century, agriculture was being practiced by coastal tribes. The dense tropical rainforest partially isolated the region from other West African cultures, and it became a refuge for peoples escaping violence and jihads. Sierra Leone’s dense tropical rainforest and the swampy environment was considered impenetrable; it also hosted to the tsetse fly, which carried a disease fatal to horses and the zebu cattle used by the Mande people. This environmental factor protected its people from conquests by the Mande and other African empires. This also reduced the Islamic influence of the Mali Empire but Islam, introduced by Susu traders, merchants and migrants from the north and east.
Muslim traders brought Islam, which became firmly established in the north and subsequently spread through the rest of the country. Portuguese voyagers gave the name Serra Lyoa (“Lion Mountains”), later corrupted to Sierra Leone, to the mountainous peninsula at the mouth of the Rokel (Seli) River where, from the 15th century onward, European traders congregated near the site of present-day Freetown under the protection of African rulers, who welcomed them for the commercial opportunities they provided—namely, the exchange of imported manufactured goods for ivory and slaves to be employed across the Atlantic.
Early European Contacts
European contacts with Sierra Leone were among the first in West Africa. In 1462, Portuguese explorer Pedro de Sintra mapped the hills surrounding what is now Freetown Harbour, naming the oddly shaped formation Serra Lyoa (Lioness Mountain). At this time the country was inhabited by numerous politically independent native groups. Several different languages were spoken, but there was a similarity of religion. In the coastal rainforest belt, there were Bulom-speakers between the Sherbro and Freetown estuaries, Loko-speakers north of the Freetown estuary to the Little Scarcies River, Temne-speakers found at the mouth of the Scarcies River, and Limba-speakers farther up the Scarcies. In the hilly savannah north of all of these lands were the Susu and Fula tribes. The Susu traded regularly with the coastal peoples along river valley routes, bringing salt, clothes woven by the Fula, ironwork, and gold.
Soon after Sintra’s expedition, Portuguese traders arrived at the harbor. By 1495 they had built a fortified trading post on the coast. The Dutch and French also set up trade here, and each nation used Sierra Leone as a trading point for slaves brought by African traders from interior areas undergoing tribal wars and conflicts over territory. In 1562, the English initiated the Triangle Trade when Admiral Sir John Hawkins of the Royal Navy transported 300 enslaved Africans – acquired “by the sword and partly by other means” – to the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo on Hispaniola in the Caribbean Sea area of the West Indies islands, where he sold them.
Portuguese ships began visiting regularly in the late 15th century, and for a while, they maintained a fort on the north shore of the Freetown estuary. This estuary is one of the largest natural deep-water harbors in the world and one of the few good harbors on West Africa’s surf-battered “Windward Shore” (Liberia to Senegal). It soon became a favorite destination of European mariners, to shelter and replenish drinking water. Some of the Portuguese sailors stayed permanently, trading and intermarrying with the local people.
The Arrival of The British
There had been a lucrative trans-Saharan trade of slaves in West Africa from the 6th century. At its peak (c.1350) the Mali Empire surrounded the region of modern-day Sierra Leone and Liberia, though the slave trade may not have significantly penetrated the coastal rainforest. The peoples who migrated into Sierra Leone from this time would have had greater contact with the indigenous slave trade, either practicing it or escaping it. When Europeans first arrived at Sierra Leone, slavery among the African peoples of the area was believed to be rare.
The Mane invasions of the mid-16th century had a profound impact on Sierra Leone. The Mane (also called Mani), southern members of the Mande language group, were a warrior people, well-armed and well-organized, who lived east and possibly somewhat north of present-day Sierra Leone, occupying a belt north of the coastal peoples. Sometime in the early 16th century, they began moving south. According to some Mane who spoke to a Portuguese (Dornelas) in the late 16th century, their travels had begun as a result of the expulsion of their chief, a woman named Macario, from the imperial city in Mandimansa, their homeland Their first arrival at the coast was east of Sierra Leone, at least as far away as River Cess and likely farther. They advanced northwest along the coast toward Sierra Leone, conquering as they went. They incorporated large numbers of the people they conquered into their army, with the result that by the time they reached Sierra Leone, the rank and file of their army consisted mostly of coastal peoples; the Mane was its commanding group.
In the 17th century, Portuguese imperialism waned and, in Sierra Leone, the most significant European group became the British. By 1628, they had a “factory” (trading post) in the vicinity of Sherbro Island, about 50 km (30 mi) south-east from present-day Freetown. At that time the island was easily accessible from the coast, and elephants were still living there.[relevant? – discuss] One commodity they purchased was camwood, a hard timber, from which also could be obtained a red dye. The Portuguese missionary, Baltasar Barreira, left Sierra Leone in 1610. Jesuits, and later in the century, Capuchins, continued the mission. By 1700 it had closed, although priests occasionally visited.
Following the American Revolutionary War, the British evacuated thousands of freed African-American slaves and resettled them in Canadian and Caribbean colonies and London, which gave them new lives. In 1787 the British Crown founded a settlement in Sierra Leone in what was called the “Province of Freedom”. It intended to resettle some of the “Black Poor of London,” mostly African Americans freed by the British during the war. About 400 blacks and 60 whites reached Sierra Leone on 15 May 1787. The group also included some West Indians of African descent from London. After they established Granville Town, most of the first group of colonists died, owing to disease and warfare with the indigenous African peoples (Temne and Mende), who resisted their encroachment. The 64 remaining colonists established a second Granville Town.
After the British Parliament made the slave trade illegal in 1807, the British government took over the settlement (January 1, 1808) as a naval base against the slave trade and as a center to which slaves, captured in transit across the Atlantic, could be brought and freed. Between 1807 and 1864, when the last slave ship case was adjudicated in the Freetown courts, the British navy brought in more than 50,000 “recaptives,” also known as “liberated Africans.” Drawn from all over western Africa, these heterogeneous people lacked any common language or culture. The government, therefore, introduced a deliberate policy of turning them into a homogeneous Christian community. Protestant missionaries, along with the black pastors of Freetown churches, worked with such success that within a generation the policy was virtually fulfilled. The (Anglican) Church Missionary Society founded an institution to train teachers and missionaries, Fourah Bay College, which was affiliated to the University of Durham in England in 1876. The society also opened the boys’ and girls’ secondary schools.
The recaptives and their children, known as Creoles (today usually rendered Krios), prospered as traders, and some entered the professions, qualifying in Britain as doctors and lawyers. Thus, they formed an educated West African elite. Notable examples include James Africanus Beale Horton, who qualified as a doctor and served as an officer in the British army and published books on medical and political subjects, and Sir Samuel Lewis, a distinguished barrister. Many Creoles sought employment opportunities in other parts of West Africa. At their suggestion, Anglican missions were founded in what is now Nigeria, where one of them, Samuel Adjai Crowther, became a bishop.
In the early 19th century, Freetown served as the residence of the British colonial governor of the region, who also administered the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and the Gambia settlements. Sierra Leone developed as the educational center of British West Africa. The British established Fourah Bay College here in 1827, which rapidly became a magnet for English-speaking Africans on the West Coast. For more than a century, it was the only European-style university in western Sub-Saharan Africa. The British interacted mostly with the Krios in Freetown, who did most of the trading with the indigenous peoples of the interior. In addition, educated Krios held numerous positions in the colonial government, giving them status and good-paying positions.
Following the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885, the UK decided that it needed to establish more dominion over the inland areas, to satisfy what was described by the European powers as “effective occupation” of territories. The colonial government made treaties of friendship with neighboring rulers and gradually acquired jurisdiction over the coastline. At the period of the European partition of Africa, frontiers were delimited with the neighboring French and Liberian governments, and a British protectorate was proclaimed in 1896 over the area within the frontier lines, though the original colony retained its status. To raise revenue to pay for administration of the protectorate, a hut tax was imposed.
The ruling chiefs, who had not been consulted about the protectorate, objected, and a revolt broke out in 1898 under Bai Bureh. It was suppressed by the end of the year. There were no further large-scale armed risings against the British. In the protectorate, the chiefs ruled under the supervision of British district commissioners. Innovation was discouraged, and little was done to extend education. In the colony, many Creoles had held senior official posts in the 19th century and looked forward to governing themselves ultimately. After the protectorate was assumed, however, they were gradually removed from office, and the colony and protectorate were governed by British administrators.
Struggle for Independence
In 1924, a new constitution was put in place, introducing elected representation (3 out of 22 members) for the first time, with the first elections held on 28 October. Prominent among the Creoles demanding change were the bourgeois nationalist H.C. Bankole-Bright, General Secretary of the Sierra Leone Branch of the National Congress of British West Africa (NCBWA), and the socialist I.T.A. Wallace-Johnson, founder of the West African Youth League (WAYL). African resistance was not limited to political discussion. Sierra Leone developed an active trade union movement whose strikes were often accompanied by sympathetic rioting among the general population.
Besides the colonial employers, popular hostility was targeted against the tribal chiefs who the British had transformed into functionaries in the colonial system of indirect rule. Their role was to provide policing, collect taxes, and obtain corvee labor (forced labor exacted from those unable to pay taxes) for the colonialists; in return, the colonialists maintained them in a privileged position over the other Africans. Chiefs not willing to play this role were replaced by more compliant ones. According to Kilson, the attitude of the Africans toward their chiefs became ambivalent: frequently they respected the office but resented the exactions made by the individual occupying it. From the Chiefs’ point of view, the dilemma of an honorable ruler faced with British ultimatums cannot have been easy.
In November 1951, Margai oversaw the drafting of a new constitution, which united the separate Colonial and Protectorate legislatures and—most importantly—provided a framework for decolonization. In 1953, Sierra Leone was granted local ministerial powers, and Margai was elected Chief Minister of Sierra Leone. The new constitution ensured Sierra Leone a parliamentary system within the Commonwealth of Nations. In May 1957, Sierra Leone held its first parliamentary election. The Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), which was then the most popular political party in the colony of Sierra Leone, won the most seats in Parliament. Margai was also re-elected as Chief Minister by an overwhelming majority.
Independent Sierra Leone
On April 20, 1960, Sir Milton Margai led the Sierra Leonean delegation in the negotiations for independence at the constitutional conferences held with Queen Elizabeth II and British Colonial Secretary Iain Macleod, at Lancaster House in London. All twenty-four members of the Sierra Leonean delegation were prominent and well-respected politicians including Sir Milton’s younger brother lawyer Sir Albert Margai, trade unionist Siaka Stevens, SLPP-strongman Lamina Sankoh, Creole activist Isaac Wallace-Johnson, Paramount chief Ella Koblo Gulama, educationist Mohamed Sanusi Mustapha, Dr John Karefa-Smart, Professor Kande Bureh, lawyer Sir Banja Tejan-Sie, former Freetown Mayor Eustace Henry Taylor Cummings, educationist Amadu Wurie, and Creole diplomat Hector Reginald Sylvanus Boltman.
On 27 April 1961, Sir Milton Margai led Sierra Leone to independence from Great Britain and became the country’s first Prime Minister. Thousands of Sierra Leoneans took to the streets in celebration. Sierra Leone retained a parliamentary system of government and was a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. The leader of the main opposition All People’s Congress (APC), Siaka Stevens, along with Isaac Wallace-Johnson, another outspoken critic of the SLPP government, were arrested and placed under house arrest in Freetown, along with sixteen others charged with disrupting the independence celebration. In May 1962, Sierra Leone held its first general election as an Independent nation. The Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) won a plurality of seats in parliament, and Milton Margai was re-elected as prime minister.
Margai was very popular among Sierra Leoneans during his time in power, most known for his self-effacement. He was neither corrupt nor did he make a lavish display of his power or status. He based the government on the rule of law and the separation of powers, with multiparty political institutions and fairly viable representative structures. Margai used his conservative ideology to lead Sierra Leone without much strife. He appointed government officials to represent various ethnic groups. Margai employed a brokerage style of politics, by sharing political power among political parties and interest groups; and with the powerful paramount chiefs in the provinces, most of whom were key allies of his government.
The Civil War
The difficulties in the country were compounded in March 1991 when the conflict in neighboring Liberia spilled over the border into Sierra Leone. Momoh responded by deploying troops to the border region to repel the incursion of Liberian rebels known as the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), led by Charles Taylor. Sierra Leone’s army came under attack not only from the NPFL but also from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), led by former Sierra Leone army corporal Foday Sankoh, who was collaborating with the Liberian rebels; this was the beginning of what would be a long and brutal civil war. In April 1992 Momoh was deposed in a coup led by Capt. Valentine E.M. Strasser, who cited the poor conditions endured by the troops engaged in fighting the rebels as one of the reasons for ousting Momoh. A National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) was established with Strasser as the head of state.
Strasser was ousted in another military coup in January 1996 after it was feared that he would not transfer power to a civilian government, as originally promised. In May 1997 the country experienced yet another coup as Maj. Johnny Paul Koroma seized power. Koroma, who attributed the previous government’s failure to implement the Abidjan Agreement as the reason for the coup, formed the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), which included members of the RUF, to rule the country; President Kabbah was sent into exile. President Kabbah’s government was restored in March, but ECOMOG and government troops continued to battle rebel forces until July 1999, when another peace accord—the Lomé Agreement—was signed.
With Sankoh doing little to rein in the rebels, a fierce battle around Freetown erupted in May 2000, during which Sankoh was captured by government forces, and the RUF was driven away from the capital by the Sierra Leonean army, with the help of British troops and pro-government militias. After Sankoh’s capture, the RUF continued to operate under Gen. Issa Sesay; other heavily armed militias also held power in the country.
An official end to the civil war was declared in January 2002. By that time, it was estimated that at least 50,000 people had died, with hundreds of thousands more affected by the violence and some 2,000,000 people displaced by the conflict.
Present day Sierra Leone
In August 2007, Sierra Leone held presidential and parliamentary elections. They had a good turnout and were initially judged by official observers to be “free, fair and credible”. However, no presidential candidate won the 50% plus one vote majority stipulated in the constitution on the first round of voting. A run-off election was held in September 2007, and Ernest Bai Koroma, the candidate of the APC, was elected president and sworn-in the same day. In his inauguration address at the national stadium in Freetown, President Koroma promised to fight corruption and the mismanagement of the country’s resources.
By 2007, there had been an increase in the number of drug cartels, many from Colombia, using Sierra Leone as a base to ship drugs to Europe. It was feared that this might lead to increased corruption and violence and turn the country, like neighboring Guinea-Bissau, into a narco-state. President Koroma quickly amended the existing legislation against drug trafficking—inherited at independence in 1961—to address the international concerns, increasing punishment for offenders in terms of prohibitive fines, lengthier prison terms, and provision for extradition of offenders wanted elsewhere, including the United States.
Sierra Leone’s slowly but steadily progress in recovering from more than a decade of conflict was derailed in 2014 by an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus disease that also struck the neighboring countries of Liberia and Guinea. The outbreak was traced to a patient in Guinea who had died in December 2013. The disease emerged in Sierra Leone in March or April of the next year and spread rapidly, as efforts to curtail it were hampered by public health infrastructure limitations in the country. By the time the outbreak was contained in 2016, Ebola virus disease had infected more than 14,000 Sierra Leoneans, killed almost 4,000 of them, and devastated the country’s economy.