Overall Crime and Safety
Sierra Leone presents an exceptionally challenging operating environment as it continues to struggle with deep corruption, rebuilding from the decade-long civil war (1992-2002), and the consolidation of political power. The nation ranks near the bottom of the U.N. Human Development Index and poverty is endemic. Hyperinflation, high unemployment rates (near 70 percent), and low incomes associated with work in the informal sector create conditions of gross economic hardship and criminality. The U.S. Department of State classifies Sierra Leone as “critical” for crime on a scale ranging: low-medium-high-critical. Theft permeates every sector of society and business owners and employers should be prepared for pilferage and internal losses. Many individuals between the ages of 20-40 lack the skills necessary to compete in a competitive labor market as a result of the absence of education, trades, and apprenticeships during the war. The lack of skilled and semi-skilled workers makes finding competent and qualified employees difficult. Drug and alcohol use within the 20-40 year-old age cohort is high, and possibly increasing. The Sierra Leone Police (SLP) collaborates with a small contingent of police advisors from the UN Integrated Peace building Office in Sierra Leone (UNIPSIL), and together they work on police-preparedness and crime prevention strategies. These strategies have produced some positive results, but overall, the SLP continues to have only moderate success in containing the criminal element in the country.
Freetown is a dilapidated city with virtually no functional infrastructure. The complete absence of power and water in most areas of the city, heavy wear and tear on vehicles contending with unpaved roads, long logistical lead times, and licensing restrictions can be burdensome and costly for all businesses. Nighttime robberies, assaults, petty street crime, and home invasions are common and have increased sharply in the last few months. In response, the SLP has increased the frequency of emergency response patrols and implemented night checkpoints on the edges of high crime neighborhoods. In an effort to curb the mobility of criminal elements, the SLP has proposed a midnight to dawn curfew on Freetown’s motorcycle transports. Most diplomats, expatriates, foreign businesses, and wealthy Sierra Leoneans rely on 24-hour private security guards or armed SLP Operational Support Division officers to protect residences and other property. Most residential break-ins are perpetrated by small groups of armed bandits. The preferred method of entry is using stealth techniques (during a rainstorm to mask their movements, or sneaking past a sleeping guard). The number of violent crimes in Sierra Leone is comparable to most other West African countries. The chances of being victimized by crime in Sierra Leone are approximately the same as in most major U.S. cities. In Sierra Leone, the assailants often use forceful tactics, operate in organized groups, and carry weapons to facilitate their activities—increasing the possibility of physical harm. As is common in most developing countries, expatriates are frequent targets due to their perceived wealth. Therefore, it is essential that visitors to Sierra Leone maintain heightened awareness and take the necessary security precautions.
The majority of crimes against Americans are non-violent confrontations characterized as crimes of opportunity (i.e., pick pocketing, theft of unattended possessions in public places or hotel rooms, bag snatching, and financial confidence scams).
Narco-trafficking in Sierra Leone is an ongoing problem, much like elsewhere in West Africa. Porous borders, coupled with endemic poverty and its relative geographic proximity to South American and European markets makes Sierra Leone vulnerable to organized criminal elements. Narco-trafficking represents a growing threat to stability and security in Sierra Leone and the region. Illicit drugs are readily available in Freetown and are often offered for sale in bars and nightclubs.
Driving in Sierra Leone is a serious challenge and dangerous activity. Freetown’s streets are narrow, crowded, and in a state of constant disrepair. The lack of street lights, stop lights/signs, sidewalks, and guardrails, combined with steep hillside drop-offs, potholes, and unpaved road surfaces increase risk of injury or death for drivers and pedestrians. Local drivers are impatient and exhibit little consideration for pedestrians, other motorist’s right-of-way, and general safe driving practices. Pedestrians tend to walk and wander on or near roads often only inches from passing vehicles and frequently oblivious to motorists and mindless of their own personal safety. The fact that many of these pedestrians wear dark clothing combined with the local driver tendency to use their high beams at night, creates an extremely hazardous situation for oncoming drivers. Motorbikes, many of which are driven by ex-combatants, usually carry multiple passengers, weave in and out of traffic, drive on any available surfaces or nearby sections of the road, and adhere to no rules. Several major arterials such as Wilkinson Road and Spur Road corridors are undergoing road-widening. The long term construction results in significant delays, congestion, and an “anything goes” driving style (i.e., using the opposite lane for forward movement, disregard for the proper flow of traffic in roundabouts, etc). Roads outside of Freetown are unpaved, unlit, poorly maintained, and can be hazardous to drive. The risk to drivers outside Freetown is heightened due to locals who are familiar with the road conditions driving at high speeds, and the presence of numerous disabled vehicles which are often parked in the middle of the road. For these reasons, U.S. Embassy personnel are prohibited from driving outside of Freetown during the hours of darkness. Drinking and driving is also a major concern and poses a significant risk particularly after dark.
Taxi cabs, motorbikes (Okadas), and the ubiquitous mini-van transports (Poda-Poda) present a hazard due to the fact they are poorly maintained, crowded, and drive erratically. These conveyances should be avoided when possible and are off limits to U.S. Embassy personnel and Peace Corps volunteers. Other forms of public transportation (i.e., bus, train) do not exist.
During the rainy season, mud, deep puddles, flooding, glare from oncoming high-beam headlights, and near zero visibility present an even greater challenge for travelers. Depending upon the destination, several hours of travel time may be added to a trip. During the dry season, dusty conditions can also impair visibility. Fuel stations and police assistance are a rare commodity, so, motorists should plan accordingly.
The threat of political violence against American interests in Sierra Leone is rated as “medium.” There were no instances of political violence or terrorism directed against Americans in 2011. Political violence is sporadic and tends to increase during election periods. Although political demonstrations and rallies are normally peaceful, spontaneous rioting and attacks often occur. In the past six months, there have been violent confrontations in Freetown and Bo. These clashes have been politically motivated and were in direct response to election campaign rhetoric. Participants often bring weapons to these rallies including machetes, sticks, and rocks. In some instances, the SLP Crowd Control Units were mobilized and tear gas was deployed to control the situation. During a recent melee, police fired live ammunition as “warning shots” and at least one person was injured. As a result of these events, the President of Sierra Leone imposed a three month moratorium on political demonstrations. Crowds of students have been known to become destructive and resort to hooliganism after local soccer matches between rival schools. Following rival sporting events in the past, large groups of students have vandalized buildings and vehicles on the streets of Freetown. As mentioned above, political demonstrations can also become dangerous, with rival factions becoming aggressive toward one another and the police. Police often respond in kind, exacerbating already tense situations.
The Government of Sierra Leone is sensitive to the threat of terrorism and is engaged with international partners to combat this scourge. Although there may be some members of the large, local Lebanese community who are quietly sympathetic to Hizballah’s terrorism agenda and may provide financial and moral support to this legitimate political organization, Hizballah is not active in Sierra Leone. At present, there is no known organization targeting American citizens or affiliated interests in Sierra Leone. Anti-American sentiment is rare, however, visitors are cautioned to avoid any large crowds, public gatherings (i.e., concerts, sport matches), or demonstrations. These scenarios have the potential of becoming unruly, which can result in physical injury and possibly death.
Post Specific Concerns
Sierra Leone is scheduled to hold general elections in November 2012. Based upon the recent experiences of several other West African nations, this date may slip into 2013. Although the country has experienced several free, fair, and peaceful national elections since the war concluded, there is always the potential for violence given the politically charged environment, depressed economy, candidate personalities, and gravity of the issues. Considering the porosity of Sierra Leone’s borders and the numerous familial relationships that span those borders, unrest in Sierra Leone could have a spillover effect in Guinea and Liberia and may lead to general instability in the region. The SLP and the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF) have contingency and public order management plans in place, however, both are poorly disciplined and may be ill-equipped to handle the full impact of such a crisis.
Members of the greater Sierra Leone diaspora normally return to Freetown to visit family/friends during the Christmas and New Year holidays. As a result, travelers are advised that hotel rooms and international flights may be in short supply from November until February.
The increase in narcotics trafficking through Sierra Leone, with links to international organized crime syndicates, is a disturbing trend. The considerable wealth associated with the drug trade, channeled through corruption and involvement of government officials, could have a destabilizing impact on the country. Transiting drugs are commonly found on the local market, adding cocaine to the more traditional drug of choice, marijuana.
Freetown lacks the drainage infrastructure to accommodate storm water runoff. As a result, low lying parts of the city and major vehicle thoroughfares flash flood during the rainy season (June-September). Visitors should familiarize themselves with these areas and travel in a high-clearance 4×4 vehicle.
The greatest threats in Sierra Leone are posed by malaria and motor vehicles. Visitors are advised to take properly prescribed anti-malarial medication and exercise extreme caution when near any road or motor vehicle traffic.
There have been no incidents of forcible kidnapping or carjacking of American citizens in Sierra Leone. Occasionally, the nightclubs along Aberdeen Road and Lumley Beach Road are the scene of incidents including theft, prostitution, drug sales, and bar fights. It is unsafe to walk on Lumley Beach during hours of darkness.
In the past year, several American citizens have been victimized by confidence scams involving the purchase of gold dust and diamonds. These individuals have been defrauded of tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars each by local nationals claiming to be affiliated with various gold dealerships, government ministries, Government Gold and Diamond Office (GGDO), customs, and police. American citizens considering purchasing gold or diamonds in Sierra Leone should contact either the U.S. Embassy or the GGDO for guidance prior to making any payments. Offers to sell diamonds and other gems should be ignored. These items are highly regulated and must be purchased through licensed brokers. Any offer made on the street is illegal and illegitimate and most likely involves fake gems. Foreign businesses are often the target of other scams; among them are claiming false ownership of land and charges for electrical use by entities presenting themselves as the National Power Authority. Businesses should similarly be cautious in choosing legal representation in that local attorneys have often been at the center of criminal scams. The U.S. Embassy Consular Section can provide a list of local attorneys who have proved to be trustworthy in the past. Prospective American business owners should be aware that the vetting process of employee candidates is extremely challenging and unreliable due to the fact that the police do not have an electronic computer database and the destruction of most hard copy criminal records during the war.
Currently, Sierra Leone does not have any problems with piracy within its territorial waters or banditry along its highways. Police checkpoints can be found throughout Sierra Leone. These checkpoints are official and require all vehicles to stop so that passengers and materials can be searched. They are staffed with SLP officers in uniform and normally feature a “Police” sign or SLP logo. Children and road repair crews often establish impromptu roadblocks using string, rocks, or branches in order to exact money from passing motorists. These roadblocks are illegal and drivers should not feel compelled to stop.
The Sierra Leone Police (SLP) Force suffers from limited resources and training as well as deep corruption. Police are under-funded, under-staffed, and poorly equipped. However, many officers are sufficiently motivated and perform their duties in a professional manner. Of the approximately 9,000 members of the Sierra Leonean Police force, there are about 2,200 armed officers assigned to the Operational Security Division (OSD). OSD officers are armed with shoulder weapons and usually staff roadside checkpoints, serve on emergency response patrol teams, and are assigned to protect foreign missions. In preparation for the national elections, the SLP are currently training/arming 2,000 additional police officers. That said, police response is often slow and unreliable, and the quality of service declines as one moves farther from Freetown. Receiving police assistance can be especially difficult for the Americans because:
- Most local police stations do not have working landline telephones. Most police officers rely on private cell phones for communication and these numbers are not publicized.
- Officers answering the telephone often do not understand English. English is the official language, but is not widely spoken.
- The police frequently lack transportation to respond to the scene of the incident.
- When transportation is available, fuel often is not.
The most visible police in Sierra Leone are the unarmed officers who direct traffic and patrol on foot or motorcycle. Most SLP officers lack conventional police equipment (two-way radios, restraints, defensive weapons, flashlights, etc.) required to be effective in their jobs. Some American citizens who have gone to the police to report crime claim that police officers requested money in order to purchase paper/pens before the officer could take a statement or write a report. While the abilities of the SLP are on par with some other West African nations, they do not compare to a U.S. police force in terms of capability, responsiveness, or professionalism. Corruption is a problem throughout the ranks of the SLP. Low-pay and morale create an environment in which even bribes of a few dollars can make allegations disappear. Tolerance of corruption breeds a complacent attitude toward dealing with it in the SLP. All persons should attempt to cooperate and follow the instructions of police at checkpoints to avoid problems. It is not recommended to pay bribes, comply with requests for a “gift,” or pay on-the-spot fines. Instead, obtain the officer’s name and badge number and politely ask to speak with a supervisor and/or request to be taken to police headquarters for further processing.
American companies operating in Sierra Leone are increasingly finding themselves the target of coordinated harassment by the SLP’s Criminal Investigation Unit (CID) and government regulatory bodies. CID officers have directed company executives to report to CID Headquarters for questioning sessions. The sessions are normally conducted on off-hours or weekends, last several hours, and include the threat of being detained. The subject of the questioning is not within CID’s purview, but rather relates to regulatory issues. In recent cases, the questioning attempted to intimidate executives to pay a bribe rather than continue to participate in a regulatory procedure and intimidate with the hope the executive would drop a court case and settle outside of court. It is likely that such questioning is being done by junior CID officers, outside of normal business, but at the behest of their superiors. If you or any members of your organization are requested to report to the SLP for questioning or are intimidated into paying a “fine,” immediately contact the Economic Officer at the American Embassy for advice.
Travelers requiring police assistance are advised to contact them through the Joint Communications Center (076) 319-978 or Control Room (076) 771-721, which are the best equipped offices to assist international travelers in need of assistance. The U.S. Embassy’s Regional Security Officer (RSO) is also available to render assistance to American citizens requiring local police services. The RSO can be reached at (076) 515-140.
Other Police Contacts
- Central Police Station: (076) 607-742
- Eastern Police Station: (078) 319-984
- Lumley Police Station: (076) 561-065
- Congo Cross Police Station: (078) 137-348
- Goderich Police Station: (088) 208-910
- Malima Police Station: (076) 921-765
Security procedures and passenger screening precautions at the Freetown International Airport are poor to non-existent. Baggage regularly disappears or is pilfered and unauthorized individuals have been witnessed on the tarmac and in “secure” areas of the terminal. The chaos related to the construction of a new terminal has exacerbated matters. Additionally, there are large crowds and confusion surrounding the transportation options from Lungi to Freetown. Travelers should be mindful of their baggage during this commotion and never let them out of sight.
Medical facilities in Sierra Leone fall critically short of U.S. standards. People with serious medical conditions that require medications or frequent treatment are discouraged from traveling to Sierra Leone. Most medications are in short supply, of inferior quality, or are fraudulent. The cleanliness of medical facilities and quality of treatment is dismal. Misdiagnosis, unavailable treatment, and improper use of drugs are commonly reported.
All travelers to Sierra Leone are advised to purchase insurance to cover medical evacuation in case of a serious accident, injury, or illness. Medical evacuation can cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the severity of the situation, so all travelers should ensure their policies provide sufficient coverage. Travelers are advised to see a physician prior to travelling to ensure that appropriate immunizations and precautions are taken, including medications for malaria prophylaxis and yellow fever vaccination (which is required for entry into the country). Please refer to the Center for Disease Control’s website (www.cdc.gov) for recommendations specific to Sierra Leone.
- Choithram Memorial Hospital: 076-623-483
- Emergency Hospital Goderich: 076-611-386
- Davidson Nicol Medical Centre: 076-977-028
The Consular Section maintains a more complete list of medical contacts at http://freetown.usembassy.gov/list_of_local_doctors_and_hospitals6.html
Tips on How to Avoid Becoming a Victim
All American citizen visitors and those planning to reside in Sierra Leone are advised to follow common-sense guidelines to avoid becoming victims of crime. Visitors are also encouraged to register with the United States Embassy Consular Section online or in person.
- Do not leave valuable items unsecured in your residence/quarters.
- Do not carry valuables in excess of immediate needs, and keep what you need in a secure place on your person. Pick-pocketing is common in Sierra Leone.
- Do not walk on the beach at night.
- Do not invite strangers into your quarters.
- Always keep the doors and windows to your residence or hotel room secured.
- Do not keep excessive currency or other valuable items at your residence. It may attract the attention of criminals.
- Credit cards are beginning to be accepted, but as of this report, only Visa can be used locally. When your card is swiped, do not let it out of your line of sight. Credit card machines operate over the cell phone system, so the machine should be brought to you. Credit cards are generally not accepted at most stores, restaurants, and hotels, so you must pay in cash.
- Use of public transportation, including buses, taxis, and mopeds, is highly discouraged. Hiring a dedicated car and driver from a trusted and reliable source is recommended.
- Carefully protect all financial and personal information as incidents of financial fraud and identity theft crimes are increasing in Sierra Leone.
- Practice good operational security if you are transporting valuable items into and around Sierra Leone. Some reported robberies committed against expatriates appear to have been carried out by persons with inside information regarding the victims.
- Avoid wearing flashy jewelry, clothing or carrying expensive cameras in public.
- Women should avoid carrying purses or bags, as they are enticing targets for criminals.
- Be alert and aware of your surroundings at all times.
- Do not discuss travel plans or other business in a venue where others can hear you.
- Always ask permission before taking a photograph. Local citizens may request a small fee for taking a picture (snap) of them or their surroundings. Do not photograph government buildings, embassies, military installations, airports, harbors or other locations or items of a possible security or intelligence interest. Cameras and film can be confiscated.
- Do not respond to any unsolicited opportunities to make money, including business opportunities that seem too good to be true.
- Beware of offers to sell you gold, diamonds, etc. These types of activities could result in substantial loss of money or violation of local laws. The Embassy receives dozens of reports every year from Americans who attempted to invest in extractive industries and were defrauded.
- Do not purchase diamonds, gold, or other gems/minerals from an unlicensed source. Many diamond distributors in Sierra Leone are unlicensed and produce fraudulent gem certificates.
- Exercise caution when traveling through or conducting business on the East Side (Kissy) of Freetown. This is a high crime, densely populated area and should be avoided at night.
- In the event an armed criminal confronts you, do not hesitate to hand over the desired property.
- Be alert to any unusual surveillance or activity near the places you frequently visit. Vary your routes and times so that other cannot predict your schedule. When on foot, walk with a companion. Appear to walk with a purpose; do not give the impression that you are lost or wandering. There is evidence that criminals observe these vulnerabilities and target the individuals that display them. When traveling in a vehicle, keep your doors locked and windows secured. Keep valuable items out of sight. Always keep adequate space between yourself and the vehicle in front of you to ensure you can maneuver in the event of a situation requiring escape from the area. Be aware of what is taking place outside of the vehicle. Always park in secure, well-lit locations. Do not hitchhike or pick up hitchhikers. If you are involved in a vehicular accident, it is important to be aware that a large crowd may gather and could become hostile and aggressive. This may happen even if you are not at fault. If you feel threatened or fear for your safety, leave the scene and go to the nearest police station.Maintain control of your personal items when in public areas and move away from anyone who you believe is acting suspiciously. Thieves often attempt to distract a victim by asking questions, begging for money, bumping or jostling the individual, or offering to sell items. While the victim is distracted, an accomplice may take a piece of luggage or pick the victim’s pocket or purse. Violent crime and the use of weapons in the commission of crime is commonplace. Never carry anything that you are not willing to relinquish in a confrontation with a thief.
All American Citizens traveling to Sierra Leone are advised to refer to the U.S. Department of State Country Specific Information http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_1016.html for additional useful information. This resource provides information on a variety of issues intended to ensure your trip to Sierra Leone is safe and trouble-free.
All Americans should register with the Consular Section’s American Citizen Services when traveling to Sierra Leone. They should do so on-line at https://travelregistration.state.gov prior to travelling, but can also register online or at the Consular Section upon arrival. The U.S. Embassy maintains a liaison with local law enforcement officials and is available to assist American citizens during their stay in Sierra Leone. The Consular and Political sections can be reached through the Embassy switchboard at: (232-76) 515-000 from overseas or (076) 515-000 if dialing locally. However, travelers may reach the Consular Section in non-emergency situations via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Embassy Operator: (076) 515-337
Post One: (076) 515-160 or (076) 515-161
Consul: (076) 515-070
Regional Security Officer: (076) 515-140
OSAC Country Council
Due to the limited number of American owned or operated business interests in Sierra Leone, Embassy Freetown does not have a formal OSAC Council. The nearest OSAC Country Council is in Dakar, Senegal. In the past year, Embassy Freetown has established an American Chamber of Commerce. This AmCham features a security sub-committee whose objective is to periodically brief the members, pass relevant information, and address constituent concerns. The RSO continues to provide country briefings for representatives of American businesses, NGO’s, academia, and faith-based organizations as requested.
Editor’s Note: The US Embassy report is being published unedited