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, the economic growth rate slowed because of a decline in the mining sector and increasing corruption among government officials. By the 1990s economic activity was declining and economic infrastructure had become seriously degraded. Chronic electricity shortages have hampered Sierra Leone’s development and recovery from the country’s civil war. The coming on line of the Bumbuna Dam hydroelectric project in 2009 is alleviating the power shortage.
Much of Sierra Leone’s formal economy was destroyed in the civil war. Since the cessation of hostilities in January 2002, massive infusions of outside assistance have helped Sierra Leone begin to recover. Full recovery to pre-war economic levels will require hundreds of millions of additional dollars and many more years of serious effort by the Government of Sierra Leone and donor governments. Much of Sierra Leone’s recovery will depend on the success of the Government of Sierra Leone’s efforts to limit official corruption, which many feel was the chief culprit for the country’s descent into civil war. A key indicator of success will be the effectiveness of government management of its natural resources. Besides mineral deposits, Sierra Leone has sizeable marine and timber resources. Both sectors are threatened by limited management and overexploitation.
About two-thirds of the population engages in subsistence agriculture, which accounts for 49% 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, including the United States, to operate integrated rural development and agricultural projects. In November 2009, the Government of Sierra Leone launched the “Agenda for Change,” the government’s new strategic development plan, at a meeting of the Consultative Group of Sierra Leone’s donors. The Agenda for Change will among other things focus on improving agriculture, which employs over half of the workforce, and addressing corruption.
Mineral exports remain Sierra Leone's principal foreign exchange earner. Sierra Leone is a major producer of gem-quality diamonds. Though rich in this resource, the country has historically struggled to manage its exploitation and export. Annual production estimates range between $250-$300 million, not all of which passes through formal export channels, although formal exports have dramatically improved since the days of civil war. The balance is smuggled, where it possibly is used for money laundering or financing illicit activities. Efforts to improve the management of the export trade have met with some success. In October 2000, a UN-approved export certification system for exporting diamonds from Sierra Leone was put into place that led to a dramatic increase in legal exports. In 2001, the Government of Sierra Leone created a mining community development fund, which returns a portion of diamond export taxes to diamond mining communities. The fund was created to raise local communities' stake in the legal diamond trade.
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 Limited, owned by a consortium of U.S. and European investors, began commercial mining operations near Bonthe in early 1979. Sierra Rutile was then the largest nonpetroleum U.S. investment in West Africa. The export of 88,000 tons realized $75 million in export earnings 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. Rutile and bauxite mining operations were suspended when rebels invaded the mining sites in 1995, but exports resumed in 2005.
In September 2009, Anadarko, a U.S. oil company, and its partners Woodside of Australia, Repsol of Spain, and Tullow Oil of the U.K., announced that they had made an oil find off the coast of Sierra Leone. This oil deposit, the Venus field, may be similar to the 2 billion barrel Jubilee deposit that Anadarko discovered off of Ghana in 2007. The Venus well was drilled to a depth of about 18,500 feet in about 5,900 feet of water. Only further testing will ascertain whether the area includes commercially exploitable oil and/or gas deposits, and production will be at least several years off.
Since independence, the Government of Sierra Leone has encouraged foreign investment, although the business climate has been hampered by corruption, 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 capital. The government passed the Investment Promotion Act in August 2004 to attract foreign investors and has been working with international financial institutions to lower its administrative barriers to trade. In 2007, the Sierra Leone Investment and Export Promotion Agency was created to assist investors by creating a "one stop shop" for starting a business. In 2008, the International Finance Corporation's "Doing Business" guide ranked Sierra Leone 7th out of 15 West African countries in terms of ease of doing business. Sierra Leone has been top-ranked in West Africa in terms of starting a business, but with licensing, contract enforcement, and high tax rate problems still impeding investment. In an encouraging development, President Koroma’s October 2010 dedication of a Special Economic Zone in Freetown, operated by U.S. company “First Step,” led to the completion in April 2011 of a plant to process fruit for export.
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. Cote d'Ivoire joined in May 2008. The MRU has been largely inactive because of domestic problems and internal and cross-border conflicts in all three countries. The future of the MRU depends on the ability of its members to deal with the fallout from these internal and regional problems, as well as adequately fund the union to carry out sub-regional activities. In June 2010, the Monetary Fund (IMF) approved a 3-year successor arrangement under the Extended Credit Facility (ECF) for Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone’s economic policy has generally shifted from post-conflict stabilization to poverty-reduction efforts, including good governance and fighting corruption; job creation; and food security.
Sierra Leone continues to rely on significant amounts of foreign assistance, principally from multilateral donors. The largest bilateral donors are the United Kingdom and the European Union; others include the United States, Italy, and Germany.
GDP (2009): $2.0 billion.
Real GDP growth rate (2009): 4%.
Inflation rate (2009, CPI): 9.3%.
Exchange rate: U.S. $1 = 400 SLL (Leones).
Natural resources: Diamonds, titanium ore (rutile), bauxite, gold, iron ore, ilmenorutile, platinum, chromite, manganese, cassiterite, molybdenite, as well as forests, abundant fresh water, and rich offshore fishing grounds.
Agriculture: Products--coffee, cocoa, ginger, palm kernels, palm oil, cassava, bananas, citrus, peanuts, cashews, plantains, rice, sweet potatoes, vegetables, cattle, pigs, poultry, sheep, fish. Land--30% potentially arable, 9% cultivated.
Industry: Types--diamond mining; small-scale manufacturing (beverages, textiles, cigarettes, footwear); bauxite and rutile mining; forestry; fishing; flour; cement and other construction goods; petroleum refining; plastics; small commercial ship repair; tourism.
Trade (2009, Economist Intelligence Unit - EIU): Exports--$205.9 million f.o.b.: diamonds, rutile, bauxite, coffee, cocoa, fish. Major destinations of exports (2009, EIU)--Belgium 28.4%, U.S. 12.7%, Netherlands 8.5%, U.K. 7.9%, India 7.2%. Imports--$372.4 million f.o.b.: fuel and lubricants, rice and other foodstuffs, machinery and equipment, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, building materials, light consumer goods, used clothing, textiles. Main origins of imports--South Africa 23.2%, China 12.1%, U.S. 9.3%, Cote d’Ivoire 9%, India 8.3%.
Sierra Leone is a republic with an executive president and a multi-party system of government with a 124-seat parliament (112 elected members and 12 paramount chiefs). On August 11, 2007, Sierra Leone held nationwide presidential and parliamentary elections for the first time since the departure of UN peacekeepers. In the parliamentary elections, the National Election Commission reported the All People's Congress (APC) won a parliamentary majority taking 59 of 112 seats, while the ruling Sierra Leone's People's Party (SLPP) took 43 seats. The People's Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC) won 10 seats in parliament. In addition to their peaceful administration, the 2007 parliamentary elections were notable for the return to a constituency-based system, as called for in the 1991 constitution. In preparation for the elections, Sierra Leone redrew parliament’s constituency boundaries for the first time since 1985. APC presidential candidate Ernest Koroma won 44.3% of the total 1,839,208 votes cast, while former Vice President and SLPP presidential candidate Solomon Berewa finished with 38.9%. PMDC presidential candidate Charles Margai placed third, receiving 13.9% of the vote. Because none of the candidates got the 55% of the vote needed to win in the first round, a run-off election was held on September 8, 2007. The two leading candidates, former Vice President Solomon Berewa of the SLPP and Ernest Bai Koroma of the APC, contested the second round. On September 17, 2007, Sierra Leone’s National Election Commission declared Ernest Bai Koroma the winner with 54.6% of the vote. President Koroma was sworn in later that day at the Sierra Leone Statehouse.
Sierra Leone’s judicial system consists of the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, High Court of Justice, and magistrate courts. The president appoints and parliament approves justices for the three courts. Local chieftaincy courts administer customary law with lay judges; appeals from these lower courts are heard by the superior courts. Judicial presence outside the capital district remains limited, which contributes to excessive delays in the justice system. Although magistrate courts function in all 12 judicial districts, magistrates appointed to those courts but not residing there permanently have complained of insufficient resources to do their job. Justices of the peace or customary law partially fill the gap. Civil rights and religious freedoms are respected. A critical press continues to operate, although journalists and editors are occasionally arrested for publishing articles the government considers inflammatory.
In 2000 the Government of Sierra Leone promulgated the Anti-Corruption Act to combat endemic corruption, and a revised version of the law was passed on September 1, 2008. The amendment added new crimes for indictments, stiffer penalties, and gave the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) greater independence to investigate cases at every level. The ACC is working to secure convictions of high-level government officials, as well as raising national awareness of the problem and build in safeguards in “corruption hotspot” ministries through anonymous whistle-blowing programs and training on proper procurement procedures. The amended act requires that all government officials, regardless of rank or position, must declare their assets. President Koroma was the first to declare his assets in 2008, and all other government officials have since followed suit. ACC investigations since late 2008 have led to the removal of dozens of officials, including several ministers, the vice president’s chief of staff, a former member of parliament, and a judge. A number of these investigations have resulted in convictions and a few prison sentences. The ACC has recovered almost $3 million for the government. More cases are pending.
The basic unit of local government outside the Western Area has generally been the chiefdom, headed by a paramount chief, who is elected for a life term. In 2004, however, the first local government elections in 32 years were held in 311 wards nationwide. Four years later, local elections were held again in July 2008. There are now 12 district councils and 5 town councils outside the Western Area. The Western Area has a rural area council and a city council for Freetown, the nation’s capital. The local councils are gradually assuming responsibility for functions previously carried out by the central government. As devolution progresses, chiefdom and council authorities are starting to work together to collect taxes. While district and town councils are responsible for service delivery, chiefdom authorities maintain their own infrastructure of police and courts, which are also funded by local taxes.
Principal Government Officials
President--Ernest Bai Koroma
Vice President--Samuel Sam-Sumana
Ambassador to the U.S.--Bockari K. Stevens
Sierra Leone maintains an embassy in the United States at 1701 19th Street, NW, Washington, DC, 20009, tel. 202-939-9261, embassyofsierraleone.net; 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.
Type: Republic with a democratically elected president and unicameral parliament.
Independence: From Britain, April 27, 1961.
Constitution: October 1, 1991.
Political parties: The Political Parties Registration Commission was formed in late 2005 to review registered parties to see whether they still met registration requirements. Most of the parties are inactive. Major parties--Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), All People's Congress (APC), and People’s Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC).
Back to Top