Sierra Leone - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion

Read about Sierra Leone: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...


Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone (country), independent nation in western Africa, bounded on the north and east by Guinea, on the southeast by Liberia, and on the southwest and west by the Atlantic Ocean. The total area of the country is 71,740 sq km (27,699 sq mi). Freetown is the capital and largest city.


A low-lying coastal plain in Sierra Leone extends inland from the Atlantic Ocean for about 80 km (about 50 mi). The area closest to the ocean is a largely swampy region; however, the Sierra Leone Peninsula, where Freetown is situated, is dominated by hills. To the east the land rises from the coastal plain to a plateau in the north and to hilly terrain in the south. Several small mountain ranges are located near the northern and eastern borders and reach a maximum elevation of 1,945 m (6,381 ft) in Bintumani (Loma Mansa) in the Loma Mountains. Of the numerous short rivers that drain the country the most important are the Kolenté (Great Scarcies) and the Kaba (Little Scarcies), and the Rokel, Jong, Sewa, and Moa. Most are navigable only in the rainy season.

Climate in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone has a tropical climate; the mean temperature in Freetown is about 27°C (about 80°F) in January and 26°C (78°F) in July. Annual rainfall averages more than 3,800 mm (150 in) along the coast, diminishing to about 2,000 mm (about 80 in) in the northern interior. Most rain falls from May to October.

Plant and Animal Life in Sierra Leone

Mangroves and coconut palms grow on the coastal fringe. Oil palms, shea, and large baobab trees rise above the grassy savanna plains of northern Sierra Leone. In the south there are wooded areas with large forest trees of silk cotton, kola nut, rosewood, ebony, teak, and odum. The animal life includes elephants, hippopotamuses, crocodiles, leopards, antelope, bush pigs, and monkeys. Snakes, scorpions, and lizards are common, in addition to a vast number of insects, from the malarial mosquito to the large and beautiful butterflies and dragonflies of the swamps. Barracuda and shark are fished in the estuary and coastal waters.

Mineral Resources in Sierra Leone

Much of Sierra Leone’s wealth is derived from rich mineral resources, including diamonds, chromite, bauxite, iron ore, rutile, and gold.

Environmental Issues in Sierra Leone

Increasing demand by Sierra Leone’s growing population for farmland and fuelwood, along with pressure from the timber industry, has resulted in a high, 0.6 percent (1990–2005) annual rate of deforestation. In 2005, 38.4 percent of the country’s land was protected. Wildlife populations are declining, and some species are threatened with local extinction. Overgrazing of livestock, slash-and-burn agriculture, and soil erosion caused by deforestation have also led to soil degradation.


The population is composed predominantly of black Africans belonging to a number of ethnic groups. The largest groups are the Mende in the south and the Temne in the north. Creoles (also known in Sierra Leone as Krios) are descendants of freed slaves returned from the Americas. They form an important minority in the Freetown area, where small numbers of Lebanese, Indians, and Europeans also reside. Some 62 percent of the population lives in rural areas, many of them in isolated, temporary homesteads.

Population Characteristics of Sierra Leone

The estimated population of Sierra Leone in 2009 was 6,440,053, yielding an overall population density of 90 persons per sq km (233 per sq mi). Sierra Leone has a high annual population growth rate of 2.3 percent (2009). Freetown, the capital, is the largest city. Other major towns include Kenema and Bo, both in the southern interior.

Religion and Languages spoken in Sierra Leone

Of Sierra Leone’s people reporting a religion, 46 percent adhere to Islam, 40 percent follow traditional beliefs, and 10 percent adhere to Christianity. Islam is strongest among the Temne in the north, and Christianity among Creoles and others in urban areas. English is the official language. Of about 20 African languages spoken, Mende and Temne are most widely used. Another common language is Krio, a Creole language derived from English and various African languages.

Education in Sierra Leone

In 1999–2000, 65 percent of primary school-aged children were enrolled in school, while only 26 percent of secondary school-aged children were attending. Only 38 percent of the adult population is literate. The University of Sierra Leone (1967), which includes Fourah Bay College (1827) and Njala University College (1964), is the country’s main institute of higher learning.


The economy of Sierra Leone is based on agriculture and mining. Some 67 percent of the population is engaged in farming, fishing, or forestry. Much of the farming is of a subsistence nature. Plantation agriculture is significant only in the coastal region. Minerals are the country’s principal export. In 2004 the national budget showed revenues of $255 million and expenditures of $132 million.

Agriculture of Sierra Leone

The staple food crop of Sierra Leone is rice; during the 1970s efforts were made to achieve self-sufficiency in rice production, but imports are still needed. Some 650,000 metric tons were produced in 2007. Other crops grown for domestic consumption include cassava, millet, sorghum, peanuts, and sugar. Agricultural commodities such as palm oil, palm kernels, coffee, cacao, ginger, kola nuts, and piassava (palm fibers) are grown for export. Cattle, goats, and sheep are raised, and the fishing industry is of increasing importance.

Mining in Sierra Leone

Gem and industrial diamonds are the leading mineral products of Sierra Leone. In 2004, 309,390 carats of gem-quality diamonds were produced. Rutile, a titanium ore of which Sierra Leone has one of the world’s largest deposits, and bauxite are also mined in large quantities.

Manufacturing in Sierra Leone

Manufacturing in Sierra Leone is limited largely to the processing of primary products such as palm kernels and rice. Light industries, including furniture, textile, cigarette, and cement manufacturing, have been developed. Sierra Leone has a refinery for imported petroleum.

Currency and Foreign Trade in Sierra Leone

The unit of currency is the leone (2,985 leones equal U.S.$1; 2007 average), issued by the Bank of Sierra Leone, which was founded in 1964. In 2007 exports were valued at $271 million, and imports totaled $446 million. Minerals, particularly diamonds, provided much of the country’s export earnings. The remainder was provided by agricultural commodities such as coffee and cocoa. The major imports were mineral fuels, machinery, vehicles, and foodstuffs. Chief trading partners for exports are Belgium, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan; leading sources for imports are the United Kingdom, Netherlands, the United States, Germany, and Côte d’Ivoire.

Transportation and Communications in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone’s rail system has been almost entirely closed down in favor of an expanded network of 11,300 km (7,021 mi) of roads. Only about 8 percent (2002) of this total is paved. Inland waterways, most of them navigable for three months of the year, total 800 km (500 mi). Freetown, Pepel, and Bonthe are the chief ports. The country has a well-developed internal air transport network; international service is provided by several foreign lines. Lungi, near Freetown, is the site of an international airport. The government-operated radio broadcasting system, based in Freetown, broadcasts in English, Krio, Mende, Limba, and Temne. A government-owned television station was established in Freetown in 1963. The country’s principal newspaper is the Daily Mail, published in Freetown.


Sierra Leone is governed under a 1991 constitution that provides for a multiparty democratic system and human rights guarantees. A president is both head of state and head of government. The president is popularly elected to a five-year term and may serve no more than two consecutive terms. Legislative authority rests with the single-chamber Parliament, which has 112 members elected by popular vote and 12 paramount chiefs chosen by district tribal councils. Members of Parliament serve five-year terms. The constitution was suspended from 1992 to 1996 and from mid-1997 to early 1998 following military coups.

Judiciary in Sierra Leone

The judicial system includes the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal, the High Court, magistrates’ courts, and local courts. Magistrates’ courts have jurisdiction in civil cases, and local courts decide cases involving traditional law and customs. Appeals are made to the court of appeal and ultimately to the Supreme Court.

Local Government of Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone is divided into four regions: the Northern, Eastern, and Southern provinces and the Western Area. These are divided into districts, each having a resident minister. The districts are subdivided into chiefdoms, each controlled by a paramount chief and a council of elders, who are responsible for maintaining law and order and administering justice.

Health and Welfare in Sierra Leone

In 2009 the estimated life expectancy at birth was only 44 years for women and 39 years for men. The infant mortality rate was among the highest in Africa—154 infant deaths per 1,000 live births.

Defense of Sierra Leone

Military service in Sierra Leone is voluntary. In 2006, the country’s army had 10,500 personnel. Sierra Leone also has a small naval force.


The country was named Sierra Leone (Lion Mountains) by Portuguese explorer Pedro da Cintra, who visited the coast in 1460.

Colonial Rule

The British established a colony at Freetown in 1787 for slaves repatriated from Britain and the United States and for slaves rescued from shipwrecks. The land of the original settlement, where the city later developed, was purchased from local chiefs.

The Sierra Leone Company, formed in 1791, administered the settlement until 1808, when it became a crown colony. Britain set up a protectorate over the hinterland of Freetown in 1896. The first elections for the legislative council were held under the constitution of 1924. The ministerial system was introduced in 1953, and Sir Milton Margai, a former physician and leader of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), was appointed chief minister in 1954 and prime minister in 1960.


Sierra Leone became an independent nation on April 27, 1961. The constitution of 1961 extended the right to vote to women. Following the elections of 1962, Margai remained prime minister. Margai died in 1964 and was succeeded by his half-brother, Albert Margai. In 1967, as a result of disputed elections, in which Siaka Stevens, leader of the All People’s Congress (APC), was elected prime minister, the army staged a coup and organized a National Reformation Council. After a second army revolt in 1968, civilian government was restored, and Stevens was returned to power. Sierra Leone was declared a republic on April 19, 1971, and Stevens was sworn in as executive president. Opposition to the government was gradually eliminated; in elections held in May 1973, the APC was unopposed. In 1975 Sierra Leone signed a trade and aid agreement with the European Community (now the European Union) and helped form the Economic Community of West African States. The next year Stevens was reelected president.

In 1978 a new constitution made the country a one-party state, and Stevens was sworn in for a new seven-year term in office. The APC was thereafter the only legal party. In the early 1980s Sierra Leone suffered an economic slowdown, as sagging export revenues left the government unable to pay for essential imports. In November 1985 Stevens retired, and Major General Joseph Saidu Momoh was sworn in as president the following January. A coup attempt was suppressed in March 1987, and in November the president declared a state of economic emergency.

Civil War

Early in 1991 guerrillas spilling over from the Liberian civil war captured several Sierra Leone towns near the Liberian border; Guinea and Nigeria supplied military aid to the Sierra Leone government to contain the threat. As government forces fought back the Liberian guerrillas, a Sierra Leonean rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), sprang up to take territory of its own, and a brutal civil war ensued. A new constitution providing for a multiparty system was adopted in September. In April 1992, however, Momoh was ousted in a military coup and replaced by Captain Valentine Strasser. Strasser’s government reduced street crime and lowered inflation, but was also accused of restricting free press practices, having political enemies executed, and continuing the civil war. In 1994 Strasser endorsed a two-year transition to multiparty democracy, with elections scheduled for 1996.

Six weeks before the scheduled elections in late February, Strasser was removed from power in a bloodless coup by his defense minister, Brigadier Julius Maada Bio. Bio pledged to hold free elections as planned, but he insisted that an end to Sierra Leone’s devastating five-year-long civil war was necessary for a successful transfer to civilian rule. In a runoff vote, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah of the SLPP was elected president. In March, Bio announced a two-month cease-fire pact with RUF leaders and peacefully stepped down.

In May 1997 Kabbah was ousted in a military coup. The military junta, a coalition of disaffected junior army officers, escaped prisoners, and members of the RUF, faced immediate international condemnation and economic sanctions. In February 1998 Nigerian troops taking part in a peacekeeping force in neighboring Liberia mounted an offensive against the rebel forces and took control of Freetown. In March, Kabbah returned to office from exile in Guinea, but his government’s authority was largely limited to the capital of Freetown.

In 1998 and 1999 rebel soldiers terrorized Sierra Leone’s countryside. Abducting children and forcing them into combat, they conducted a calculated campaign of atrocities. Rebels raped and mutilated thousands of civilians, often hacking off innocent people’s limbs, to send a message of intimidation to Kabbah’s government. The United Nations (UN) and other international organizations condemned the human rights abuses.

In July 1999 Kabbah and RUF leader Foday Sankoh signed a peace agreement outlining a transitional government that included several RUF members. Later that year the UN established a peacekeeping mission to help monitor the peace process and oversee the disarmament and demobilization of RUF forces. RUF rebels clashed with UN forces in the spring of 2000 and Sankoh was imprisoned after attempting to flee Freetown. After months of resumed fighting, the government and the RUF signed a cease-fire in November 2000. The cease-fire held throughout 2001, allowing UN peacekeepers to disarm tens of thousands of RUF fighters. The disarmament program was declared a success in January 2002.

Recent Developments

In peaceful elections held in May 2002 Kabbah won a second term as president, and his party, the SLPP, won a majority of seats in the legislature. The Kabbah government also secured the UN’s help in establishing a war crimes tribunal—similar to those for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia (see War Crimes Trials)—to try Sankoh and other rebels for alleged human rights abuses. Sankoh died in July 2003 in UN custody. In December 2005 the last UN peacekeepers left Sierra Leone, bringing the UN’s mission to a close.

The presidential election of 2007 was seen as the first real test of Sierra Leone’s commitment to democracy since the end of the civil war. Kabbah had served his two-term limit, and his vice president, Solomon Ekuma Berewa, became the SLPP candidate. Berewa lost to the opposition candidate, Ernest Bai Koroma of the APC, in a close runoff election held in September 2007. Koroma’s victory was largely attributed to voter dissatisfaction with the slow pace of development and widespread corruption in the country under the SLPP. A successful businessman who pledged to fight corruption at all costs, Koroma had reinvigorated the image of the APC, which had been the ruling party prior to the civil war.

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