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Last updated 20 February 2013
Sierra Leone is a post-conflict country that continues to recover from a civil war fought between 1991 and 2001, which killed 75,000 people and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes. Since the civil war, civil society has flourished in the country, with the formation of organizations providing a wide range of services to assist in reconstruction and development, including health, mental rights, human rights, and democratic development, just to name a few. As a result, civil society organizations (CSOs) have gained “performance legitimacy” in the socio-political arena of the country. Civil society organizations may assume a variety of different forms in Sierra Leone, including community-based organizations, religious bodies, trade unions, student organizations and non-governmental organizations.
The legal framework in Sierra Leone is rooted in customary law, statutory law, and the common law. A former British colony, Sierra Leone gained its independence in 1961. Under Article 170(2) of the Constitution, the law of Sierra Leone is deemed to include the rules of law generally known as the common law, the doctrine of equity, and the rules of customary law, including those determined by the Superior Court of Judicature. “Customary law” refers to the rules of law which by custom are applicable to particular communities in Sierra Leone. (Article 170(3)).
In recent years, however, civil society has come under renewed threats from Government through the enactment of restrictive laws governing the sector. The Government of Sierra Leone enacted the Revised NGO Policy Regulations in 2009; the National Revenue Authority Act; and the Anti-Corruption Act, which subjects civil society organizations to increased interference from Government and other state agencies.
|Organizational Forms||Non-Governmental Organization (NGO)||Not-for-Profit Company (NPC)||Community-Based Organization (CBO)|
|Registration Body||Ministry of Finance and Economic Development||Registry's Department||Ministry of Social Welfare or local governments|
|Barriers to Entry||NGOs are confronted by a number of barriers including:
(1) Establishment criteria include at least 5 staff persons, office space, sign board, etc;
(2) Registration procedures require NGOs to sign an agreement with the Government and potentially subject NGOs to field verification visits and in-person interviews;
(3) Re-registration is required every two years.
|Barriers to Activities||NGOs are subject to a number of barriers, including:
(1) NGOs must conclude an agreement with the Government before commencing operations;
(2) Stringent and detailed reporting requirements apply to NGOs;
(3) Membership in SLANGO, an umbrella organization, is essentially mandated by law.
|Barriers to Speech and/or Advocacy||The law prohibits and criminalizes the reporting of false news and places the burden of proof on the accused.|
|Barriers to International Contact||No legal barriers|
|Barriers to Resources||Umbrella group and the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development|
|Type of Government||Constitutional Democracy|
|Life Expectancy at Birth||Male: 38.92 years
Female: 43.64 years
|Literacy Rate||Male: 46.9%
|Religious Groups||Muslims: 60%; Christian: 10%; indigenous beliefs: 30%|
|Ethnic Groups||20 African ethnic groups: 90% (Temne: 30%, Mende: 30%, other: 30%); Creole: 10% (descendants of freed slaves who were settled in the Freetown area in the late 18th century); refugees from Liberia's recent civil war; small number of Europeans, Lebanese, Pakistanis, and Indians|
|GDP per capita||$900|
Source: The World Factbook. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2009.
|Ranking Body||Rank||Ranking Scale
(best – worst possible)
|UN Human Development Index||180||1 – 182|
|World Bank Rule of Law Index||14.8||100 – 0|
|World Bank Voice & Accountability Index||38.5||100 – 0|
|Transparency International||146||1 – 180|
|Freedom House: Freedom in the World||Status: Partly Free
Political Rights: 3
Civil Liberties: 3
|Free/Partly Free/Not Free
1 – 7
1 – 7
|Foreign Policy: Failed States Index
||32||177 – 1|
International and Regional Human Rights Agreements
|Key International Agreements||Ratification*||Year|
|International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)||Yes||1996|
|Optional Protocol to ICCPR (ICCPR-OP1)||Yes||1996|
|International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)||Yes||1996|
|Optional Protocol to ICESCR (OP-ICESCR)||No||--|
|International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD)||Yes||1967|
|Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)||Yes||1988|
|Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women||No||--|
|Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)||Yes||1990|
|International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (ICRMW)||No||--|
|Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)||No||--|
|African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights||Yes||1983|
|African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child||Yes||2002|
|Treaty Establishing the African Economic Community||Yes||2001|
|Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights on Women in Africa||No||--|
|Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Establishment of an African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights||No||--|
* Category includes ratification, accession, or succession to the treaty
The current Constitution of Sierra Leone was approved by Parliament in 1991 and is significant in that it re-established a multi-party system.
Relevant constitutional provisions include the following:
Article 25 Protection of freedom of expression and the press:
Except with his own consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of expression, and for the purpose of this section the said freedom includes the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference, freedom from interference with his correspondence, freedom to own, establish and operate any medium for the dissemination of information, ideas and opinions, and academic freedom in institutions of learning:
Provided that no person other than the Government or any person or body authorised by the President shall own, establish or operate a television or wireless broadcasting station for any purpose whatsoever.
Nothing contained in or done under the authority of any law shall be held to be inconsistent with or in the contravention of this section to the extent that the law in question makes provision—
a. which is reasonably required—
i. in the interests of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health; or
ii. for the purpose of protecting the reputations, rights and freedoms of other persons, preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, maintaining the authority and independence of the courts, or regulating the telephony, telegraphy, telecommunications, posts, wireless broadcasting, television, public exhibitions or public entertainment; or
b. which imposes restrictions on public officers or members of a defence force;
and except in so far as that provision or, as the case may be, the thing done under the authority thereof, is shown not to be reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.
Article 26 Protection of freedom of assembly and association:
Except with his own consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of assembly and association, that is to say, his right to assemble freely and associate with other persons and in particular to form or belong to any political party, trade unions or other economic, social or professional associations, national or international, for the protection of his interests.
Nothing contained in or done under the authority of any law shall be held to be inconsistent with or in contravention of this section to the extent that the law in question makes provision—
a. which is reasonably required—
i. in the interests of defence, public safety, public order, public morality, public health, or provision for the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community; or
ii. for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedoms of other persons; or
b. which imposes restrictions upon public officers and upon members of a defence force; or
c. which imposes restrictions on the establishment of political parties, or regulates the organisation, registration, and functioning of political parties and the conduct of its members;
and except in so far as that provision, or as the case may be, the thing done under the authority thereof is shown not to be reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.
National Laws and Regulations Affecting Sector
Relevant national-level laws and regulations affecting civil society include:
- The Constitution of Sierra Leone 1991;
- Revised Non-Governmental Organizations Policy Regulations 2009;
- Local Government Acts 2004;
- The National Revenue Authority Act 2002;
- Registration of Business Act 2007.
Pending NGO Legislative / Regulatory Initiatives
On June 16, 2010, the Cabinet of Sierra Leone approved the Freedom of Information Bill. The Bill remains pending before Parliament.
Civil society organizations seeking legal entity status may assume one of the following organizational forms in Sierra Leone:
1. A non-governmental organization (NGO) is defined by the Revised NGO Policy Regulations to mean “any independent, not-for-profit making, non-political and charitable organisation, with the primary objective of enhancing the social, environmental, cultural and economic well being of communities.” (Article 2.1.1) According to the NGO Policy, NGOs are required to register with the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development, after first registering with the Sierra Leone Association of Non-governmental Organizations (SLANGO).
2. A not-for-profit company (NPC) is regulated under the Registration of Business Acts 2007 and registers with the Registry’s Department, which is an independent body for the registration of legal instruments in the country. NPCs can be formed for various purposes, including member or community benefits. They are allowed to engage in business activity, provided the profit is used to further the not-for-profit purposes of the organization.
3. A community-based organization (CBO) is “a group of community members working together as an independent non-profit making charitable organization,” according to the NGO Policy 2009. Apart from this definition, there is no law, policy or regulation that specifically governs community-based organizations; indeed, the NGO Policy 2009 excludes CBOs from the scope of the Policy by stating that a CBO cannot register as an NGO. In practice, a CBO can either register with local governments or with the Ministry of Social Welfare.
Public Benefit Status
There is no public benefit or tax exempt status that is generally available for all CSOs in Sierra Leone. Instead, certain organizational forms are conceived of as specialized forms, which are subject to limited permissible purposes and supported by specific fiscal incentives. For example:
- NGOs are accorded public benefit status and therefore qualify for tax exemptions under the National Revenue Authority Act and the NGO Policy. NGOs are eligible for a waiver from import duties as well.
- Not-for-profit companies are exempt from certain taxes and granted a duty-free waiver under the Registration of Business Act 2007. Not-for-profit companies can also engage in economic activities, provided that the profit is used to further the not-for-profit purposes of the organization.
Community-based organizations and other civil society organizations are not granted “public benefit” or tax-exempt status.
Barriers to Entry
Many CSOs are unregistered and operate freely, provided that they carry out their activities within the confines of the law. There is no penalty for operating unregistered groups in Sierra Leone.
The law is permissive with respect to potential founders of CSOs. Anyone may form a not-for-profit company or a community-based organization, including both foreigners and Sierra Leoneans. The same is generally true for NGOs as well; the only limitation is that founders/members of an NGO should not consist of people from one family.
Establishment requirements vary depending on the organizational form. To set up a community-based organization requires initial founding members of at least five people living in the community. To form a not-for-profit company, the law requires a board and partnership members. To establish an NGO, the law requires at least five full/part time staff (excluding messengers and drivers, but including secretaries). In addition, NGOs are required to have office space, a sign board visibly displayed, accessible postal address, and an organizational bank account.
In order to be registered as an NGO, applicants must submit a completed application to the NGO Unit within the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development (MoFED). There are a number of registration requirements and rules that raise potential concerns, depending on the implementation. They include the following:
- The NGO Unit may conduct “field or office verification of the application”;
- NGO applicants may be required to attend an interview with the NGO Unit;
- Successful NGO applicants must sign an “Agreement with GOSL”;
- Registration fees are determined periodically by the NGO Supervisory Committee;
- NGO applicants are permitted to re-submit an application, following an initial denial of registration, but have no right to appeal the denial to an independent arbiter.
In practice, some NGOs are subject to excessive delays; the Society for Democratic Initiatives, for example, has been forced to wait nearly 2 years since it filed for registration, and has still not received a response to its application from the MoFED.
NGO registration is valid only for two years, and therefore must be renewed on a regular basis. Renewal of registration is dependent on the submission of documentation and an “independent assessment of the performance of NGOs” by MoFED. In order to satisfy MoFED, NGOs must submit any or all of the following:
- A summary of final donor project narrative and financial reports;
- Audit reports on projects or the organization itself; and/or
- Proof of registration with the Sierra Leone Association of Non-Government Organizations (SLANGO).
A certification of incorporation can be issued for not-for-profit companies based on the submission of a detailed Memorandum of Association, which includes information on the partners, board and name and place of business. The law allows for no appeal from a denial of registration; instead, the applicant has the right to re-apply.
Community-based organizations are required to submit a constitution, list of members in the community, and a report on past activities; and to pay a fee to the Ministry of Social Welfare and Children’s Affairs or Local Councils. Here again the Government can deny registration, but this seldom happens.
Foreign NGOs need accreditation from their government or embassy, proving their legal status and credibility before they can operate in Sierra Leone.
Barriers to Operational Activity
Of all organizational forms, it is NGOs that are subject to a number of legal barriers affecting their operational activity.
First, NGOs must sign an “Agreement” with the Government of Sierra Leone before they can commence operations. This is interpreted to mean that every project implemented in Sierra Leone by NGOs must be approved by the sectoral ministry concerned and by the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development. No project shall be implemented by an NGO in the country without prior approval.
Second, NGOs are subject to stringent reporting and supervisory requirements. NGOs must submit annual reports for all projects implemented. NGOs must submit details of “all funds committed by donors for project implementation,” including the amount committed, sources of funding, details of donors and any details of installment arrangements or other donor requirements. And NGOs are subject to site visits without prior notice.
Third, the NGO Policy states that all assets purchased or acquired with donor funds should be the property of the people of Sierra Leone who are the beneficiaries – rather than of the NGO itself.
Fourth, NGOs are subject to sanctions (which could include cancellation of duty-free concessions and/or suspension or cancellation of certificate of registration) for failing to comply with the provisions of the NGO Policy, for acting in contravention of its stated objectives, and where the “NGO shows by its nature, composition and operations over the years that it is not developing/promoting the capacity of Sierra Leoneans in the management of its operations.”
In addition, a major concern for the sector relates to the role of the Sierra Leone Association of Non-governmental Organizations (SLANGO). Membership in SLANGO has essentially become a requirement for NGOs, as it is a key factor in the Government’s decision on annual re-registration. In effect, therefore, SLANGO is arguably becoming an instrumentality of Government, rather than a truly independent umbrella group and voice for the NGO sector. Recently, an NGO Timap for Justice was denied registration of its vehicles, because it is not a member of SLANGO.
Finally, CSO activists have on several occasions been victims of death threats and attacks on property. No official statements from Government condemning the threats and attacks have been issued. The State has a role in providing a secure environment for all of its citizens, civil society activists included.
Barriers to Speech / Advocacy
Sierra Leone still maintains Part V of the Public Order Act (POA) 1965, which criminalizes libel and sedition. Specifically, the POA prohibits and criminalizes the reporting of false news and places the burden of proof on the accused. Advocacy-based CSOs that criticize government policy or monitor government performance may be constrained by the POA. Though the law has been used sparingly, recent developments have witnessed the National Elections Watch (a local CSO) being charged in court by a Member of Parliament, thus demonstrating that the law can be used to muzzle civil society in the country.
While the NGO Policy excludes NGOs from engaging in human rights issues and political advocacy, other organizational forms, including not-for-profit companies and community-based organizations, are free to engage in such issues, including criticism of government.
Barriers to International Contact
There are no longer barriers in Sierra Leone restricting international contact or communication.
Barriers to Resources
There are no legal barriers to funding sources for civil society in Sierra Leone.
NGOs are expected, however, to disclose all funding sources to the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development. This includes “sources of funding”, “details of donors and any details of installment arrangement or other donor requirements.” 
More disturbingly, assets transferred to build the capacity of local NGOs should be routed through the Sierra Leone Association of Non-governmental Organizations (SLANGO) and the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development (MoFED). It is unclear how this will be implemented in practice.
 Article 2.7 of the NGO Policy 2009
|UN Universal Periodic Review Reports||Sierra Leone will be reviewed in 2011|
|Reports of UN Special Rapporteurs||Sierra Leone|
|USIG (United States International Grantmaking) Country Notes||
|U.S. State Department||2008 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Sierra Leone
2009 Advancing Freedom and Democracy Reports: Sierra Leone
|Failed States Index Reports||Foreign Policy: Failed States Index 2012|
|IMF Country Reports||Sierra Leone and the IMF|
|International Commission of Jurists||Not Available|
|International Center for Not-for-Profit Law Online Library||Not Available|
While we aim to maintain information that is as current as possible, we realize that situations can rapidly change. If you are aware of any additional information or inaccuracies on this page, please keep us informed; write to ICNL at email@example.com.
Protestors killed at mine in Kono (December 2012)
Reports from Kono, Eastern province of Sierra Leone, state that four mine workers of OCTEA mining company, formerly Koidu Holdings, were allegedly killed by officers of the Sierra Leone Police (OSD personnel), following a protest for payment of bonuses and better conditions of service . Witnesses say it started on Saturday, 15 December, 2012 when hundreds of youths barricaded the entrance to the company and demanded that their concerns be addressed by the company. It is reported that these aggrieved workers gathered at the Tankoro Chiefdom, where the kimberlite mining company does its operations, and started pelting stones at the vehicles belonging to the company. Sources revealed that the incident became worse, which forced the Police to quell down the situation.
Carter Center statement on Sierra Leone elections (October 2012)
Sierra Leone’s upcoming presidential, parliamentary, and local council elections represent a critical test for the country’s emerging democratic institutions 10 years after the end of the civil war. Carter Center observers report that the campaign period has been generally peaceful, allowing political parties to assemble freely and to convey their message to potential voters. The Carter Center calls on political parties to redouble their efforts to promote women candidacies and leadership roles within their ranks, and encourages the All Political Parties Women Association, the Campaign for Good Governance, and other civil society organizations to pursue their advocacy work on behalf of aspiring women candidates and office holders.
Freedom of Information Bill willfully ignored (October 2012)
Outgoing members of parliament came under serious criticism from civil society for "willfully failing to pass into law the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill", which has been in parliament for a very long time. In an interview at his office in Freetown, chairman of the Coalition of Civil Society and Human Rights Activists in Sierra Leone, Charles Mambu, expressed his coalition's disappointment at MPs "for deliberately failing to make the FOI Bill become a law." He stated that MPs were busy passing other bills and agreements, some of which they have no understanding about, but refused to ratify a bill he said is very essential to good governance and democracy.
Civil Society monitoring groups trained (July 2012)
A training was held in Sierra Leone to provide monitors with the necessary skills in assessing the level of compliance in the implementation of the National Anti-Corruption Strategy (2011-2013). The Head of Public Education Unit Ms. Koloneh Sankoh stated that the need for the monitors to live by the codes of conduct and ethics of the job is paramount. She advised the civil society monitors to do their job with integrity and confidentiality and to try to avoid the tendency of conflict of interest in the dispensation of their duties. The monitoring exercise is expected to start in August this year.
New legal aid law in Sierra Leone embraces the role of paralegals (May 2012)
Sierra Leone’s parliament has enacted one of the most progressive legal aid laws in Africa—with an innovative approach to providing access to justice for all that will reinforce the rule of law in a society still scarred by the brutal civil war that ended in 2002.[...]The bill provides for a mixed model of criminal and civil legal aid, from provision of legal information and mediation services through to representation in court, and supplied through a public/private partnership of government, private sector and civil society.
Prosecutor Hollis applauds the people of Sierra Leone following Charles Taylor’s conviction (May 2012)
On a tour of five provinces throughout Sierra Leone, Prosecutor Brenda J. Hollis hailed the resilience and determination of all Sierra Leoneans in demanding justice and accountability for the crimes committed against them during the 11-year armed conflict. Village elders, youth leaders, women’s civil society representatives, officers from the military, the police and the prison service, villagers and townspeople, gathered with the Prosecutor to express relief and satisfaction with the conviction handed down by the judges.
Continued delay in Parliament vote on Freedom of Information bill (April 2012)
The legislation would allow members of the public to obtain access to information held by public bodies, including information that was previously inaccessible, or that was considered sensitive such as government contracts with multinational companies. The bill was introduced in the House of Parliament in September 2010, and by October 2011 had gone through the first, second, third and committee stages, but a final vote is yet to take place. The bill will provide a means by which people can know about their rights and entitlements, identify when their rights are being violated and hold the government to account for its constitutional and international human rights obligations.
In Sierra Leone, civil society frowns at procurement procedures (December 2010)
Sierra Leone woman barred from becoming chief (December 2009)
The foregoing information was collected by the ICNL NGO Law Monitor partner in Sierra Leone: Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai, Society for Democratic Initiatives, Sierra Leone.