- For almost nine out of 10 respondents (88%), their identity as Sierra Leoneans is at least as strong as their ethnic identity; very few say they feel exclusively (7%) or predominantly (5%) attached to their ethnic identity.
- About one-third (35%) of citizens say the government treats members of their ethnic group unfairly, at least occasionally – a 22-percentage-point increase compared to 2020 (13%).
- While almost nine in 10 respondents (86%) say they trust their relatives “somewhat” or “a lot,” far fewer express trust in people of other religions (65%), their neighbours (60%), other citizens (55%), and people from other ethnic groups (53%).
- Majorities of Sierra Leoneans express tolerance for social differences except for differences in sexual orientation.
On August 10, 2022, violent anti-government protests broke out in parts of Sierra Leone, resulting in the deaths of 27 civilians and seven police officers (Sierra Network, 2022). For some international watchers, the riots came as a shock (Fofana & Inveen, 2022), particularly as Sierra Leone has been lauded as the poster child for successful post-conflict reconstruction following its 11-year civil war.
The country has had four largely free and fair elections since 2002, including two that led to peaceful transfers of power to opposition parties. Among 30 African countries surveyed regularly by Afrobarometer since 2011, Sierra Leone is the only country where support for democratic elections increased significantly (by 11 percentage points) over the past decade. In 2020, nearly nine in 10 Sierra Leoneans endorsed elections as the best way to select leaders, among the highest levels of support among surveyed countries (M’Cormack- Hale & Zupork-Dome, 2022). And while the ratings have slipped marginally since 2016, Sierra Leone is consistently ranked high by the Global Peace Index, coming in as the fifth-most peaceful country in Africa in 2022 (Kargbo, 2022). The country has similarly been praised for its high level of religious tolerance. Inter-marriage is common, and Muslims and Christians frequently fellowship at each other’s places of worship (USAID, 2021).
For many keen Sierra Leone observers, however, the violence on August 10 was less surprising, taking place as it did in opposition strongholds. Notwithstanding Sierra Leoneans’ strong support for democracy – 84% say they prefer democracy to any other form of government – there are sharp political divisions.
Sierra Leone has a long history of politicisation of ethnic identities (Kandeh, 1993), with electoral results often divided along ethno-regional lines and marked by low-level violence (UNECA, 2011). The ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) counts the South and East as its strongholds, while the opposition All People’s Congress (APC) draws support mainly from the North, North-West, and parts of the West. Facing limited job opportunities, citizens from primarily opposition areas often believe that the party in power does not favour them. This sentiment appears to be stoked by political parties, which often appeal to their bases both financially and substantively between elections, using this to shore up support.
Some believe that political elites have exacerbated these divisions by exploiting the economic hardship generated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war (Center for Accountability and Rule of Law, 2020).
Just six weeks into the pandemic, in April-May 2020, anti-government violence occurred in largely the same regions as in August 2022 (in Freetown and in Makeni and Lunsar in the North) (Center for Accountability and Rule of Law, 2020). Opposition members said these protests were motivated by economic hardship and extreme COVID-19 mitigation measures. Yet living conditions and food insecurity have deteriorated throughout the entire country (FAO, 2021). Matters are not helped when the ruling government refers to protesters as terrorists (BBC, 2022).
In many respects, results from the most recent Afrobarometer survey in Sierra Leone suggest that despite the actions of elites, there is much more that unites Sierra Leoneans than divides them. Strong majorities say that their Sierra Leonean identity is as strong as their ethnic identity, that the government does not treat their ethnic group unfairly, and that they trust others. However, these numbers have worsened over time, and it would appear that rising levels of polarisation are fuelling mass protests in some parts of the country and not in others.
Ahead of a crucial election in June 2023, fewer Sierra Leoneans identify more strongly with their country than their ethnic group, while a growing number — especially in the North and North-West – say the government discriminates against members of their ethnic group. And although Sierra Leoneans still express high levels of tolerance toward people of different religious, ethnic, and political affiliations, both tolerance and trust have declined significantly over the past two years.
Observers often point to two potential explanations for a sharp decline in trust. First, with the change of government in 2018 came media reports of sackings of perceived opposition supporters from formal-sector jobs as well as a court ruling replacing 10 opposition members of Parliament (MPs) with ruling-party members (Bah & Anderson, 2020). The dismissals heightened the perception in opposition-controlled areas of a skewed distribution of jobs and opportunities in favour of SLPP-controlled regions. President Julius Maada Bio was also accused of retaliating for perceived discrimination against his support base under his predecessor, Ernest Bai Koroma (Bah & Anderson, 2020).
Second, opposition leaders’ use of ethno-regional rhetoric to mobilise voters has reinforced intolerance and exacerbated divisions. For instance, in July 2022, a recording made the rounds on social media of APC presidential hopeful Samura Kamara telling supporters in his home district that only ruling-party supporters are able to access jobs (Abdul, 2022).
Sentiments of “us vs. them” have been embraced by supporters on both of sides of the political divide, especially by Sierra Leoneans living abroad, and echo on many social media platforms. Data from the most recent Afrobarometer survey suggest that this is reflected in a decrease in trust and social harmony, which may contribute to a tense atmosphere ahead of the general elections in June 2023.