Policy Recommendations: Sierra Leone

Introduction and Background

The development of democracy in Sierra Leone has progressed in a rather unique fashion when compared to other case studies. The nation was originally ruled by a democratic regime, prior to falling into authoritarian rule for years. During and following the Civil War, the country took significant measures towards democratizing its central government located in Freetown, ending a long period of oppressive misrule. Economic issues and political hurdles had arisen prior to – and in the midst of – these changes, but have largely been met with practical solutions.

Previous quarrels over allocation of wealth in association with diamonds, an incredibly lucrative principle resource, have been mitigated largely due to maturation of other industries and growing foreign direct investment.1 The resource curse attributed to reliance on diamond mining has been reduced over time. Accordingly, new investments in infrastructure improvements have led to greater resource access, aiding in economic advancements. Despite that fact that greater advancements can still be made, governance and the political process have evolved into much more palatable iterations.

Policy Recommendations Sierra Leone copy 2-min.jpg

Corruption levels have subsided, residents are becoming more civically engaged at the local level, and elections have become more free and fair. The emergence of a new multi-party state has allowed Sierra Leoneans to leave behind an autocratic system of governance, paving the way for effective representation. Ideological plurality has become commonplace. It is important to note that while these improvements have fostered the institution of democracy in Sierra Leone, there are still improvements that need to be made to support a maturing democratic regime.


By most measures, the shift to democracy in Sierra Leone has been successful. It has almost been completed; the transition has currently stalled in its progress due to the prevalence of lingering issues such as continuing corruption (despite reductions), degrees of economic stagnation, and situational human rights abuses that have had negative impacts on fundamental freedoms. The latter has been documented by Amnesty International, in conjunction with recent Ebola virus outbreaks, most notably regarding violations of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.

Furthermore, Freedom House’s most recent report classified Sierra Leone as 􏰀partly free,􏰁 with each metric denoting the country as moderately democratic. It is key, however, that the country has entered a state of peace, and this peace has become the new norm in recent years. This peace has been present throughout the electoral process, and during regime transfers from one party to another. This was apparent in 2007 during the first major election featuring regime change, as the Sierra Leone People’s Party ceded control of government to the All People’s Congress following elections. There was no hostility accompanying the voting process, nor was there violence; marginalization has decreased as local officials act as liaisons between citizens and central government officials and as political parties multiply. International intervention also played a crucial roles.

UN Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Centers were successfully in disarming Revolutionary United Front forces following conflict, promoting stability. In addition, aid funding and investment from China and other countries has helped to modernize Sierra Leone during its recovery process. The current state of affairs is improving, and may be completely democratic following new sets of reforms or another smaller wave of democratization.

Lessons Learned

1) International intervention (not reliance) has the power to make positive impacts.

This could be seen from both stability and economic standpoints. Involvement by the UN and its implementation of Disarmament, Demobilization, and Rehabilitation Centers were highly beneficial to promoting domestic stability. The program, which collected arms from RUF fighters in exchange for shelter, food and career training, gave former fighters the opportunity to reintegrate into greater society. Such inclusionary measures helped ensure that soldiers’ lives had purpose following conflict, affording them opportunities to earn a living and engage in meaningful activities. 

In addition, these practices aided in establishing peace during a fragile time. Substantial post-conflict investments from China ushered in transition and modernization at a rate otherwise unattainable. Funding which benefitted recovery and invigoration of infrastructure helped Sierra Leone progress economically; investment in agriculture and communications lessened reliance on diamond export revenue, undermining a resource curse that proved problematic. These new avenues of development inspired further economic discoveries, such as the uncovering of bauxite and iron ore stores within the nation’s borders. These new resources added to international total exports, brought increased profitability, and helped establish Sierra Leone as a viable international trade partner.

Foreign direct investment also helped modernize the country substantially. The development of new roadways and communication systems, as well as public transportation, ensured better access to valuable resources. The discovery of ores and other resources spurred development of industrial growth, leading to further economic benefits. When a country modernizes and develops economically, it leads to increases in trust and participation in politics and institutions.

As new government agencies develop to monitor progression of this change, bureaucracies and hierarchies must form in conjunction. These events lead Sierra Leone to form consolidated government structures, and undoubtedly played a role in democratization. The already existing tolerance towards democracy only aided this transition further.

2) Creating or empowering a culture receptive to democratic ideals is essential. 

Getting democracy to take hold in countries where citizens are averse to the ideology is incredibly difficult. In nations where people view democracy as a viable and positive alternative to authoritarianism, transitions have a much greater chance of succeeding; widespread participation and civic engagement are key to giving democratization legitimacy. The international community must recognize this reality in evaluating its own efforts.

This respect for democracy was established in Sierra Leone during the 1960s following independence from Britain. Prior to the period of autocratic rule that lead up to the war, Sierra Leoneans enjoyed a period of democratic rule. During conflict, past memories of this system served as a beacon of hope for reform and governmental change in the wake of atrocities suffered at the hands of RUF and government forces.

Victimization during the Civil War was a major driver for civic participation during the transition period. Those who fell victim to physical abuse, those who had friends or loved ones perish, and those who had their property destroyed during conflict were much more willing and eager to take part in the democratic process. This included voting in subsequent elections, becoming familiar with officials, and reaching out to these local government officials to voice policy concerns. This voluntary inclusion in the political process was indispensable in democracy’s permeation into the central political ideology.

Sierra Leone also had an advantage: there existed no major societal cleavages along religious or ethnic lines. Mobilization of civil society was not dependent on resolving intergroup domestic conflicts, and special interests in regards to cultural differences were not obstacles in the democratic process. Motivating civilian cooperation proved to be easier than in many other cases. This was demonstrated in voter turnout results in the 2002, 2007, and 2012 election cycles, in which voter turnout was 81.4%, 68.6%, and 91.1%, respectively. An important trend surfaced: voter participation rose along alongside higher voter registration.

Additionally, voting is not compulsory within Sierra Leone, meaning these citizens cast their votes voluntarily - without being coerced. This political participation, absent of intimidation practices or single-party influence, was key in transforming Sierra Leone into a more democratic state during transition. Society took an active role in furthering the process, and took pride in doing so.

This good governance in elections is essential, and provided legitimacy to elections that had become quite competitive post-conflict. The routinizing of this election process in association with decreased violations aided democratic growth and entrenchment in civil society. This effect trickled upward as free and fair voting promoted good governance. 

Electoral violence was avoided, which would have had major political ramifications in regards to voter participation and voting process legitimacy; the fact that elections in Sierra Leone did not devolve into the chaotic, intimidation-laden processes of the past showed great progress towards democratic maturation. It is no surprise that hostility during such important events otherwise would have had the power to undermine democratic principles. 

In societies at risk, where local populations and voting populations are being repressed, measures must be taken to protect voters and provide security at election sites. In some cases, intervention and support may be needed in transitioning states.

3) Leading active efforts to decrease marginalization and regionalism helps promote meaningful representation, with potential drawbacks.

One of the largest undertakings of Sierra Leone during its transition was ensuring that citizens in every corner of the country had equal political influence. Previously, those located in rural areas possessed little influence and political efficacy; the locus of power rested within urban areas, such as Freetown. A new implementation of local government structures brought participation to new heights, and made civil society more egalitarian.

Local officers dealt closely with their constituents, and opinions were exchanged more freely. The average citizen’s voice gained more authority, and political influence was more attainable than ever before. As a result of autocratic rule, Sierra Leone in the past had transformed into a society associated with high power distance.

There was an established hierarchy, and citizens accepted that power and influence were distributed in unequal fashion. This power was concentrated in the hands of political elites. With democratization came sweeping change in this ideology; Sierra Leone developed into a state characterized by decreased power distance relative to before. Access to the political system was heightened, the average citizen became more integral to the overall process, and power shifted downwards. Political influence evolved more along a grassroots framework than with previous regimes.

It is important to protect the freedom of expression of individuals under powerful regimes, and the international community has a right to step in when states cannot ensure proper representation for its citizens. Voting and influence in policy decisions should not be confined to populous areas, and those in rural regions should not be deprived of their say.

As stated within Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all humans have the right to engage with the political process within their respective country. Public offices must be equally accessible for all, and engagement with the government should be possible either directly or through elected officials. If this is the principle we wish to uphold, then it must be ensured that previously marginalized peoples have the ability to elect their respective officials.

Sierra Leone’s reforms made these ambitions possible, with one caveat: this local government system based its framework on the previous paramount chief system. Unfortunately, that left the door open for further political corruption moving forward, as this system was vulnerable to manipulation through bribery. This harmed the transition moving forward via potential corruption.

4) Despite the onset of democracy, longstanding traditions of corruption are difficult to eliminate.

The immense value found in Sierra Leone’s diamondsprior to economic expansion played a pivotal role in cementing their reputations of being excellent gifts. As economic resources have expanded, the emphasis on these diamonds – which are historically products of forced labor – has lessened to a degree.

However, it is important to note that corruption in public office remains an issue into the present day, and that many still covet these valuable minerals. Traditionally, countries defined by conflict have been perceived as the most corrupt in the world, and this corruption is seen as a major obstacle to peace building operations.

This lack of official integrity has the power to plunge regimes and nations back into violence, a concern in Sierra Leone. Corruption levels are not as immense in scale as they once were, but there has existed a culture that enables dishonest behavior from public offices. In democratic countries, countries of the people that focus on sound governance, corrupt practices undermine positive outcomes. In assessing solutions to combat corruption in Sierra Leone, it is necessary to develop new systems of accountability.

This can be done in two ways: creating new justice structures domestically, or by involving international courts to ensure officials take responsibility for illegal activities. For enduring change to take hold, it is essential for justice system reform in Sierra Leone, to create truly objective courts that judge leadership by a common legal yardstick. Once this is instituted in the country, there can be meaningful progress made towards improving on one of the most apparent shortcomings in the Sierra Leonean government hierarchy. Other states afflicted with the same issues can look to this solution as well.

5) Analyzing human development factors, while not all encompassing, can provide perspectives regarding areas needing improvement.

Many scholars believe that groups of individual metrics hold importance in evaluating acountry’s successful transition. Some crucial areas include literacy, education, gross domestic income per capita, life expectancy, and urban residence. These indicators are not fully representative of a nation’s progress, but can give analysts ideas as to what steps must be taken next.

Per the United NationsDevelopment Programme’s 􏰀Human Development Report 2015,􏰁 Sierra Leone is ranked 181st internationally in overall human development progress. Life expectancy is low at 50.9 years, and the average expected years of schooling rests at only 8.6. Furthermore, gender equality issues remain at the forefront of societal dissatisfaction. 

Looking at such critical factors, Sierra Leone is lagging behind the vast majority of the world in terms of progress. The government is not effectively providing proper healthcare and social services to its citizens, indicating bureaucracies are disorganized and lacking in outreach. Furthermore, GDP per capita rests at $1,494.60, well below the rank of $4,000 to $5,000 where we see democracies begin to really flourish.

Women are still not afforded the same opportunities as men in the government. The Gender Equality Bill, which requires Parliament to be composed of a minimum of 30% female representation, is not being enforced. Women are still fighting stigma and lack of access to services to cope with abuse. In these areas, progress must be made.


Efforts in Sierra Leone have largely been positive, as reflected in political and economic developments following the Civil War’s conclusion in 2002. It is important to look back on the lessons we have learned, and realize that these revelations can help us promote democratization more effectively in outside cases. One such case that the UN can observe using a Sierra Leonean lens is that of Cambodia.

In terms of disarmament, the UN can work in unison with the Cambodian government to implement its Disarmament, Demobilization and Rehabilitation Center platform within the country.

Introducing such measures, in the wake of continued action by the Khmer Rouge, can work to promote stability within. Taking weapons away but trading them in for essential goods and services would be a step in the right direction towards turning Cambodia away from military conflict. In addition, ensuring voters are secure and not subjected to intimidation at the hands of rebel groups or otherwise is essential in promoting free and fair elections. Some of the most notable injustices exist with the voting system, which has been plagued by corruption and ballot stuffing.

The UN can provide security forces to oversee the protection of active voters, while establishing DDR centers. It is not necessary or realistic to expect a long-term intervention, especially one lasting years, so this process should be rapid. Promoting civic engagement through ensuring electoral legitimacy will keep eligible voters coming out to the polls during each election cycle. Not only that, the probability that national representatives could be more aligned with the needs of their constituents will help build trust around an ailing system.