U.S. Department of State
The State Department does not guarantee the
authenticity of documents on the Internet. If for legal
or other reasons you require the original version of a
document in hard copy, please contact the Office of
Public Communication, Bureau of Public Affairs.
Note that State Department information is not
copyrighted unless indicated and can be reproduced
without consent. Citation of source is appreciated.
Permission to reproduce any copyrighted material
(including photos or graphics) must be obtained from the
BACKGROUND NOTES: SIERRA LEONE
PUBLISHED BY THE BUREAU OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
Official Name: Republic of Sierra Leone
Area: 72,325 sq. km. (29,925 sq. mi.); slightly smaller
than South Carolina.
Cities: Capital--Freetown (est. 470,000). Principal
district towns--Bo (269,000), Kenema (337,000), Makeni
Terrain: Three areas--mangrove swamps and beaches along
the coast, wooded hills along the immediate interior, and
a mountainous plateau in the interior.
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Sierra Leonean(s).
Population ( 1990 est.): 4.1 million.
Annual growth rate (1990 est.): 2.4%.
Ethnic groups: Temne 30%, Mende 29%, Creole 2%; 39%
spread over 15 other ethnic groups.
Religions: Muslim 60%, Animist 30%, Christian 10%.
Languages: English, Krio, Temne, Mende, and various
other indigenous languages.
Education: Literacy--less than 21%. Health: Life
Work force: Agriculture--75%. Industry--17%. Services-
Type: Republic currently under military rule. The
National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) rules by
Independence: From Britain, April 27, 1961.
Constitution: October 1, 1991, in force, but severely
restricted by military decrees.
Political parties: Political parties were suspended by
the NPRC after the April 29, 1992, coup.
GDP (1990 est.): $950 million. GDP growth rate: 0.5%.
Per capita GNP (est.): $230. Annual inflation rate:
Natural resources: Diamonds, rutile, bauxite, iron ore,
gold, platinum, and chromite.
Agriculture: Coffee, cocoa, ginger, palm kernels,
kassava, bananas, citrus, peanuts, plantains, rice, sweet
potatoes, vegetables. Land--30% potentially arable, 8%
Industry: Diamonds, bauxite, and rutile mining;
forestry; beverages; cigarettes; construction goods;
Trade (1991): Exports--$149 million: mining 62%,
agriculture 37%. Major markets--Netherlands 31%, U.K.
15%, Germany 11%, U.S. 9%. Imports--$161 million: crude
oil, rice, chemicals, machinery, pharmaceuticals,
building materials, light consumer goods, foodstuffs,
used clothing, textiles.
Exchange rate: 580 Leones=U.S.$1.
Eighteen ethnic groups make up the indigenous population
of Sierra Leone. The Temne in the north and the Mende in
the South are the largest. About 60,000 are Creoles,
descendants of freed slaves who returned to Sierra Leone
from Great Britain and North America. In addition, about
11,000 Lebanese, 500 Indians, and 2,000 Europeans reside
in the country.
In the past, Sierra Leoneans were noted for their
educational achievement, trading activity,
entrepreneurial skills, and arts and crafts work,
particularly wood carving. Many are part of larger
ethnic networks extending into several countries, which
link West African states in the area. However, the level
of education and infrastructure have declined sharply
over the last 20 years.
European contacts with Sierra Leone were among the first
in West Africa, and Sierra Leone was one of the first
West African British colonies.
Foreign settlement did not occur until 1787, when the
British prepared a refuge within the British empire for
freed slaves; that year, the site of Freetown received
400 freedmen from Great Britain. Disease and hostility
from the indigenous people nearly eliminated the first
group of returnees.
Thousands of slaves were returned to or liberated in
Freetown. Most chose to remain in Sierra Leone. These
returned Africans--or Creoles as they came to be called--
were from all areas of Africa. Cut off from their homes
and traditions by the experience of slavery, they
assimilated British styles of life and built a
flourishing trade on the West African coast.
In the early 19th century, Freetown served as the
residence of the British governor who also ruled the Gold
Coast (now Ghana) and the Gambia settlements. Sierra
Leone served as the educational center of British West
Africa as well. Fourah Bay College, established in 1827,
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 colonial history of Sierra Leone was not placid. The
indigenous people mounted several unsuccessful revolts
against British rule and Creole domination. Most of the
20th century history of the colony was peaceful, however,
and independence was achieved without violence. The 1951
constitution provided a framework for decolonization.
Local ministerial responsibility was introduced in 1953,
when Sir Milton Margai was appointed Chief Minister. He
became Prime Minister after successful completion of
constitutional talks in London in 1960. Independence
came in April 1961, and Sierra Leone opted for a
parliamentary system within the British Commonwealth.
Sir Milton's Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) led the
country to independence and the first general election
under universal adult franchise in May 1962. Upon Sir
Milton's death in 1964, his half-brother, Sir Albert
Margai, succeeded him as Prime Minister. Sir Albert
attempted to establish a one-party political system but
met fierce resistance from the opposition All Peoples
Congress (APC). He ultimately abandoned the idea.
In closely contested elections in March 1967, the APC won
a plurality of the parliamentary seats. Accordingly, the
governor general (representing the British Monarch)
declared Siaka Stevens--APC leader and Mayor of Freetown-
-as the new Prime Minister. Within a few hours, Stevens
and Margai were placed under house arrest by Brigadier
David Lansana, the Commander of the Republic of Sierra
Leone Military Forces (RSLMF), on grounds that the
determination of office should await the election of the
tribal representatives to the house. A group of senior
military officers overrode this action by seizing control
of the government on March 23, arresting Brigadier
Lansana, and suspending the constitution. The group
constituted itself as the National Reformation Council
(NRC) with Brigadier A.T. Juxon-Smith as its chairman.
The NRC in turn was overthrown in April 1968 by a
"sergeants' revolt," the Anti-Corruption Revolutionary
Movement. NRC members were imprisoned, and other army
and police officers deposed. Stevens at last assumed the
office of Prime Minister under the restored constitution.
The return to civilian rule led to bi-elections beginning
in the fall of 1978 and the appointment of an all-APC
cabinet. Tranquillity was not completely restored. In
1970, a state of emergency was declared after provincial
disturbances, and in March 1971 and July 1974, alleged
military coup plots were uncovered by the government.
The leaders of the plots were tried and executed. In
1977, student demonstrations against the government
disrupted Sierra Leone politics.
Following the adoption of the republican constitution in
April 1971, Siaka Stevens was appointed President of the
Republic by the House; he was inaugurated for a second
five-year term in April 1977. In the national election
that followed in May 1977, the APC won 74 seats and the
opposition SLPP 15. The next year, Stevens' Government
won approval for the idea of one-party government, which
the APC had once rejected. Following enactment of the
1978 constitution, SLPP members of parliament joined the
The first election under the new one-party constitution
took place on May 1, 1982. Elections in about two-thirds
of the constituencies were contested. Because of
irregularities, elections in 13 constituencies were
canceled by the government. Bi-elections took place on
June 4, 1982. The new cabinet appointed after the
election was balanced ethnically between Temnes and
Mendes. It included as the new Finance Minister Salia
Jusu-Sheriff, a former leader of the SLPP who returned to
that party in late 1981. His accession to the cabinet
was viewed by many as a step toward making the APC a true
Siaka P. Stevens, who had been head of state of Sierra
Leone for 18 years, retired from that position in
November 1985, although he continued his role as chairman
of the ruling APC party. In August 1985, the APC named
military commander Joseph Saidu Momoh as party candidate
to succeed Stevens; he was Stevens' own choice. Momoh
was elected President in a one-party referendum on
October 1, 1985. A formal inauguration was held in
January 1986; new parliamentary elections were held in
In October 1990, President Momoh set up a constitutional
review commission to review the one-party 1978
constitution with a view to broadening the existing
political process, guaranteeing fundamental human rights
and the rule of law, and strengthening and consolidating
the democratic foundation and structure of the nation.
The commission, in its report presented January 1991,
recommended re-establishment of a multi-party system of
government. Based on that recommendation, a constitution
was approved by parliament in July 1991 and ratified in
September; it received presidential assent in September
and became effective on October 1, 1991. There was great
suspicion that Momoh was not serious, however, and APC
rule was increasingly marked by abuses of power. The
rebel war in the eastern part of the county posed an
increasing burden on the country, and on April 29, 1992,
a group of young RSLMF officers launched a military coup
which sent Momoh into exile in Guinea and established the
NPRC as the ruling authority in Sierra Leone.
GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS
The NPRC suspended the 1991 constitution and rules by
decree of the Supreme Council of State (SCS). In
November 1993, the NPRC announced a timetable which calls
for debate on and adoption of a new constitution, and
general elections in late-1995. Most civil rights are
respected. A critical press continues to operate, though
the government has intervened with individual editors in
response to alleged inaccuracies. Press guidelines
enacted early in 1994 impose heavy new financial burdens
on publishers, and may serve to reduce the number of
newspapers being published. Political parties remain
The judicial system continues to function for civil
cases. It is comprised of a supreme court, court of
appeal and a high court of justice with judges appointed
by the head of state. Local courts administer
traditional law, with lay judges; appeals move from these
courts to the superior courts.
The basic unit of local government generally is the
paramount chief and council elders. There is also an
elected council and mayor in Freetown, Bo, Kenema, and
Makeni. The three provinces each have a resident
Principal Government Officials
Head of State and Chairman of the National Provisional
Ruling Council--Captain Valentine E.M. Strasser
Deputy Chairman of the National Provisional Ruling
Council and Chief Secretary of State--Captain Julius
Secretary of State in the Chairman's Office--John
Foreign Minister--Dr. Abass Bundu
Ambassador to the U.S.--Dr. Thomas K. Kargbo
Ambassador to the UN--Paolo Bangura
Sierra Leone maintains an embassy in the United States at
1701 19th Street, NW, Washington, DC, 20009, tel. 202-
939-9261; and a permanent mission to the United Nations
in New York at 245 East 49th Street, New York, New York
10017, tel. (212) 688-1656.
Rich in minerals, Sierra Leone has relied on the mining
sector in general, and diamonds in particular, for its
economic base. In the 1970s and early 1980s, economic
growth rate slowed because of a decline in the mining
sector. Maintaining unrealistic exchange rates and
excessive government budget deficits led to sizable
balance-of-payments deficits and inflation.
Inappropriate policy responses to external factors and
inefficient implementation of aid projects and
maintenance have led to a general decline in economic
activity and a serious degradation of economic
infrastructures. Sierra Leone's short-term prospects
depend upon continued adherence to IMF programs and
continued external assistance.
Although 75% of the population engages in subsistence
agriculture, and despite the fact that most Sierra
Leoneans derive their livelihood from it, agriculture
accounts for only 30% of national income. The government
is trying to increase food and cash crop production and
upgrade small farmer skills. Also, the government works
with several foreign donors to operate integrated rural
development and agricultural projects.
Mineral exports remain Sierra Leone's principal foreign
exchange earner. Diamonds alone account for more than
half of export earnings. The loss in 1992 of the Kono
district diamond mining area to rebel forces has deprived
the country of this major source of foreign exchange.
Sierra Leone's second largest recorded export is bauxite,
mined in the Sherbro area by a Swiss firm. This
production reached 50,000 tons in 1990. Sierra Leone has
one of the world's largest deposits of rutile, a titanium
ore used as paint pigment and welding rod coatings.
Sierra Rutile Ltd., wholly owned by Nord Resources of the
United States, began commercial mining operations near
Bonthe in early 1979. Sierra Rutile is the largest non-
petroleum U.S. investment in West Africa. The export of
88,000 tons realized $75 million for the country in 1990.
The company and the Government of Sierra Leone concluded
a new agreement on the terms of the company's concession
in Sierra Leone in 1990.
Sierra Leone, since independence, has been traditionally
a pro-business nation. The government encourages foreign
investment, although the business climate has been
hampered by a shortage of foreign exchange and
uncertainty resulting from civil conflicts. Investors
are protected by an agreement that allows for arbitration
under the 1965 World Bank Convention. Legislation
provides for transfer of interest, dividends, and
Sierra Leone is a member of the Economic Community of
West African States (ECOWAS). With Liberia and Guinea,
it formed the Mano River Union (MRU) customs union,
primarily designed to implement development projects and
promote regional economic integration. The MRU has so
far been inactive, however, in part because of domestic
problems and the civil war in Liberia. The future of the
MRU depends on the ability of its members to deal with
the Liberian civil war.
Sierra Leone continues to rely on significant amounts of
foreign assistance, principally from multilateral donors.
After the United States, Italy is the largest bilateral
donor, concentrating on electricity development, and it
is followed by Germany, the United Kingdom and the
Sierra Leone has maintained cordial relations with the
West, in particular with the United Kingdom. It also
maintains diplomatic relations with the republics of the
former Soviet Union as well as with North Korea and Iran.
President Stevens' Government had sought closer relations
with neighboring Guinea and Liberia; the NPRC is
continuing this effort.
Sierra Leone is a member of the UN and its specialized
agencies, the Commonwealth, the Organization of African
Unity (OAU), the Economic Community of West African
States (ECOWAS), the African Development Bank (AFDB), the
Mano River Union (MRU), the Organization of the Islamic
Conference (OIC), and the Non-Aligned Movement.
U.S.-SIERRA LEONE RELATIONS
U.S. relations with Sierra Leone began with missionary
activities in the 19th century. In 1959, the U.S. opened
a consulate in Freetown and elevated it to embassy status
when Sierra Leone became independent in 1961.
U.S.-Sierra Leone relations today are cordial, with
ethnic ties between groups in the two countries receiving
increasing historical interest. Many thousand Sierra
Leoneans reside in the United States.
In FY 1992, total U.S. aid to Sierra Leone in all
categories was about $13.5 million, primarily through
commodity contributions through PL-480, Title II programs
with the World Food Program and Catholic Relief Services.
U.S. aid also stressed vocational education, agriculture,
rural development, and health and human resources
Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador--Lauralee M. Peters
Deputy Chief of Mission--Charles Ray
Public Affairs Officer--Kiki Munshi
Peace Corps Director--(vacant)
The U.S. embassy is located at the corner of Walpole and
Siaka Stevens Streets, Freetown, tel: 232 22 226 481
fax: 232 22 225 471.
Published by the United States Department of State --
Bureau of Public Affairs -- Office of Public
Communication -- Washington, DC June 1994 -- Managing
Editor: Peter A. Knecht -- Editor: Josephine C. Brooks
Department of State Publication 8069 -- Background Notes
Series. For sale by the Superintendent of Documents,
U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402.
Return to Africa Background Notes Archive
Return to Background Notes Archive Homepage
Return to Electronic Research Collection Homepage