Overall Crime and Safety Situation
U.S. Embassy Freetown does not assume responsibility for the professional ability or integrity of the persons or firms appearing in this report. The ACS Unit cannot recommend a particular individual or location and assumes no responsibility for the quality of service provided.
THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE HAS ASSESSED FREETOWN AS BEING A CRITICAL-THREAT LOCATION FOR CRIME DIRECTED AT OR AFFECTING OFFICIAL U.S. GOVERNMENT INTERESTS.
Please review OSAC’s Sierra Leone-specific webpage for proprietary analytic reports, Consular Messages, and contact information.
Rising consumer price inflation, high unemployment rates (near 70% for youth), and low incomes associated with work in the informal sector create conditions of gross economic hardship and a rise in criminality.
Crimes occur in Freetown daily, but they are rarely reported to the police for fear of reprisal and lack of arrest/prosecution. Intimidation through fear by many criminals remains high, and people continue to be victimized. The U.S. Mission has noted an increase in deportations from the U.S. of Sierra Leone nationals convicted of crimes. Police sources suspect that the return of deportees will add to the rising crime rate. Expatriates are the primary targets of crime due to their perceived wealth.
- In 2016, the American Citizen Services (ACS) section of the Consular Office received seven crime-related incidents involving Americans. These crimes included, but were not limited to, pickpocketing and thefts from hotel rooms. The residence of a U.S. Embassy employee was also burglarized.
The areas frequented by tourists are havens for incidents involving theft, prostitution, drug sales, and disorderly conduct. The Lumley Beach area is one such location in Freetown. Walking in this area at night is strongly discouraged; the area is poorly illuminated and is often frequented at night by intoxicated persons.
Even with the employment of security personnel, many instances of crime still occur; these usually involve some type of insider threat. These incidents are typically non-violent, but criminals are usually armed with local tools of convenience (machetes).
There has been a steady increase in the number of gangs and cliques in Freetown over the past five years. They pose a potential threat to public order with increased criminality and anti-social behavior. Most often, these groups are comprised of unemployed youth who align according to geographic or ethnic/tribal affiliation or according to pop music preferences (rival local hip-hop artists). Most gang activity is confined to eastern Freetown and does not involve visitors or foreigners.
The number of violent crimes remains consistent with other West African countries.
All security plans should include multiple layers of protection to ensure the safety of occupants and security of property.
Freetown experiences seasonal rises crime; the Christmas and Easter holidays routinely see an increase in crime.
The poor condition of roadway infrastructure causes motorists to drive slower, in turn creating traffic congestion and providing opportunities for robbers. Incidents include the theft of cellular phones from vehicle occupants by motorcycle riders. These riders observe vehicle occupants on their cell phones with their windows rolled down. At the first opportunity, the motorcyclist snatches the phone and makes his escape using the traffic congestion as cover. The U.S. Embassy’s standard guidance reminds drivers and passengers to ensure that their windows are not lowered to more than half the window length and to keep their vehicle doors locked.
Many Americans and foreigners are victims of schemes involving the purchase of gold dust and diamonds by locals who claim to work for various gold vendors, the Government Gold and Diamond Office, government ministries, customs, and the police. The U.S. Embassy cautions all investors and buyers to perform due diligence before entering into any financial agreement. Regulation of the gold and diamond industry remains under the control of the Sierra Leonean government. Purchases of gold or diamonds should only be made through licensed brokers.
Land-fraud schemes also remain high among foreign investors who fall victim to individuals claiming to be employed by the National Power Authority (NPA) who have provided false documents of land ownership to would-be investors. Any transactions involving investment or land purchases should be conducted directly with the NPA.
Email scams are prevalent. Caution should be used when receiving any type of non-solicited email in which an advance fee is requested. Some victims report losses of thousands of dollars. Upon believing the legitimacy of the email, users are asked to provide bank accounts and/or credit cards to find later that large amounts have been removed from their accounts or charged to their cards. All unsolicited business propositions should be properly investigated before any monies or personally identifiable information is provided.
Travelers are advised to use credit cards cautiously; there is a serious risk that the card numbers may be stolen for use in fraudulent transactions.
Road Safety and Road Conditions
Driving conditions in Sierra Leone remain a serious problem for motorists. The poorly maintained roadways, in addition to the lack of lighting and shoulders, contribute to the hazards of driving. Roadways lack signage, sidewalks, and guardrails. Local motorists do not adhere to any of the roadway laws or safety rules (signaling while turning, maintaining travel lanes). For more information on self-driving, please review OSAC’s Report “Driving Overseas: Best Practices.”
Motorcycle taxis, called okadas, are notorious for passing between vehicles or driving on roadsides, sometimes in the opposite direction. These motorcyclists may carry up to three passengers at one time.
The lack of a systematic, rigorously enforced vehicle registration and inspection system contributes to hazardous road conditions. Statistics on proper vehicle registration and inspection are unavailable due to the inability of the Sierra Leonean government to maintain accurate registration records. Some vehicles lack head/brake lights.
Outside of Freetown, accidents occur frequently due to poorly maintained and dimly illuminated roadways, increased speed, livestock, large long-haul truck, and bus traffic. The U.S. Embassy strongly discourages its personnel from driving at night outside of Freetown. Driving under the influence of alcohol is strictly prohibited; however, this prohibition is not routinely enforced by local law enforcement.
During the rainy season (May-November), roadway hazards greatly increase. Roadway flooding and near zero-visibility present hazards to motorists; therefore, motorists should plan for delays while traveling.
Police and immigration 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 or passports/visas can be confirmed. They are staffed with SLP officers in uniform and normally feature a official sign or SLP logo.
Children and road repair crews often establish impromptu roadblocks using string, rocks, or branches to extort money from passing motorists. These roadblocks are illegal, and drivers should not feel compelled to stop.
Public Transportation Conditions
U.S. Embassy personnel are prohibited from using okadas and mini-vans (poda-podas). There is a very limited bus system intra-country. Hiring a dedicated car and driver from a trusted and reliable source is recommended.
The Freetown airport is located in Lungi across the Sierra Leone river and is accessible by a water taxi or public ferry. Travel to the airport is available by roadway, but the road is dangerous in several places, and travel time can take three or more hours depending on the road conditions. The Embassy recommends only using licensed taxis and ferries.
Helicopter service from Lungi was discontinued after an accident in which some passengers were seriously injured/killed.
THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE HAS ASSESSED FREETOWN AS BEING A LOW-THREAT LOCATION FOR TERRORIST ACTIVITY DIRECTED AT OR AFFECTING OFFICIAL U.S. GOVERNMENT INTERESTS.
Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns
The government of Sierra Leone remains sensitive to the threat of terrorism and remains engaged with its international partners to detect and combat it. There are no known organizations targeting American citizens or affiliate interests in Sierra Leone.
Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence
THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE HAS ASSESSED FREETOWN AS BEING A MEDIUM-THREAT LOCATION FOR POLITICAL VIOLENCE DIRECTED AT OR AFFECTING OFFICIAL U.S. GOVERNMENT INTERESTS.
Political violence is sporadic and normally increases during election periods. In the months and weeks preceding elections, there have been instances of politically-motivated violence in certain areas of the country. Political demonstrations and rallies are generally peaceful, but sporadic clashes instigated by individuals within the crowds do occur. Participants at political rallies are easily incited and may use weapons of opportunity (sticks, rocks).
The SLP deploys crowd control techniques including the firing of warning shots and use of tear gas. Strong rivalries exist in Sierra Leone; demonstrators can quickly become aggressive toward one another and the police.
Freetown lacks the drainage infrastructure to accommodate storm water runoff, and as a result, low-lying areas of the city and major vehicle thoroughfares flood during the rainy season (April-September).
Torrential rains challenge Freetown’s often poorly constructed hillside structures. Mudslides and building collapses cause deaths every rainy season. Visitors should familiarize themselves with flood-prone areas and consider traveling in a high-clearance, 4x4 vehicle.
Americans have reported the theft of money and property from locked hotel rooms. No hotel is immune. Do not leave anything of value unsecured in an unoccupied hotel room. Small safes provided by the hotel are vulnerable and should not be trusted.
Sierra Leone is generally a cash economy. U.S. dollars dated 2006 and earlier are not accepted. An anti-money laundering law passed in 2005 prohibits importing more than $10,000 in cash except through a financial institution. Some ATMs accept international Visa cards. Point-of-sale credit card terminals exist in some major shops, hotels, and restaurants. There are no functioning MasterCard cash points. Travelers' checks are not usually accepted as payment. Currency exchanges should be handled through a bank or established foreign exchange bureau. Exchanging money with street vendors is ill-advised since criminals may mark individuals for future attack, and there is a risk of receiving counterfeit currency or being short-changed.
Many residences and businesses do not have working landline telephones.
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—with corrupt official complicity—has had a destabilizing impact on the country. Drugs (cocaine, methamphetamines, marijuana) are easily found on the local market. The poorly maintained border controls greatly contribute to this rising market.
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 though it is the official language of Sierra Leone. Many nationals speak Krio, the lingua franca.
Police response is often slow and unreliable. The police frequently lack transportation to respond to an incident. While vehicles may be available, fuel may not be. Many officers rely heavily on local transportation to travel to/from assignments within the country. It is not uncommon for victims of crime to pay for the travel of police officers to accompany them to the local station to file a report. Travelers may have to go to the nearest police station and pick up the police to respond to an incident. Some American citizens who have gone to a police station to report a crime/accident have reported that police officers requested money to purchase paper and pens before the officer takes a statement or writes a report. There is a fee to make a police report; for foreigners it is 300,000 Leones (about U.S.$70) and 50,000 Leones for citizens. Payment is made at the bank, not at the police station.
Visitors should not photograph government buildings, embassies, military installations, airports, harbors, or other locations or items of a possible security or intelligence interest. Cameras can be confiscated. For more information, please review OSAC’s Report “Picture This: Dos and Don’ts for Photography.”
How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment
The payment of bribes, gifts, or on-the-spot fines is not recommended. Instead, obtain the officer’s name, badge number, and politely ask to speak with a supervisor and/or request to go to police headquarters for further processing.
By international convention, the Sierra Leonean government is required to notify the U.S. Embassy when an American citizen has been arrested; however, it consistently fails to do so. If arrested, be certain to assert this right and demand to speak with a representative from the U.S. Embassy by calling (099) 105-000 or if after normal business hours (099) 105-160.
When searching for legal representation, clients should utilize extreme diligence as some local attorneys are often at the center of criminal activities.
Crime Victim Assistance
As recently as January 2017, the SLP had a functioning emergency number (+232 76 771 721), but it is unknown how long this number may be available for use by the public.
Africell, one of the three local cellular carriers, established a system where callers on their network can call the police by dialing 300 and the fire department by dialing 400. Although active, the U.S. Embassy cannot confirm to whom the calls are directed or where they are received within the country.
Many citizens call their local police stations directly when in need of assistance.
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
The Sierra Leonean Police (SLP) is a national police force administered from Freetown. It continues to suffer from limited resources and training. Of the approximately 12,000 members of the SLP, there are about 3,000-armed officers assigned to the Operational Support Division (ODS). OSD officers are armed with shoulder weapons and usually staff roadside checkpoints. They also serve on emergency response patrol teams and are assigned to protect foreign missions. There are also traffic police, a Criminal Investigation Division, and regular police.
The employment of private security by diplomatic missions, foreign businesses, expatriates, and wealthy host country nationals is a common practice. Members of the OSD are employed at many prominent residences as a means to deter criminals.
Medical facilities fall critically short of U.S. and European standards. Trauma care is extremely limited, and local hospitals should only be used in the event of an extreme medical emergency. Blood transfusions can be life threatening due to inadequate donor screening. Many primary health care workers, especially in rural areas, lack adequate professional training. Medicines are in short supply and because of inadequate diagnostic equipment, lack of medical resources, and limited medical specialty personnel, complex diagnosis and treatment is unavailable. Visitors should bring their own supply of medications, as the availability and quality is inconsistent; counterfeit drugs also remain a problem. For more information, please refer to OSAC’s Report, “Traveling with Medications.”
Contact Information for Available Medical Services
Choithram Memorial Hospital: (076) 623-483
Emergency Hospital Goderich: (076) 611-386
Davidson Nicol Medical Centre: (076) 977-028
The Consular Section keeps an updated list of medical contacts.
Patients are required to pay money up front, before being admitted to a hospital or provided treatment. All travelers 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.
Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance
All visitors should have current vaccinations prior to arrival. Expatriates have died from cerebral malaria in 2016. Lassa fever is endemic in Eastern province, and yearly cholera outbreaks are common.
During the Ebola outbreak, traditional funeral practices were outlawed; however, some of these practices have reemerged. The response infrastructure through coordination with host nation health officials, CDC personnel, and other NGOs has dramatically improved, and facilities and systems remain in place to ensure isolation and treatment throughout Sierra Leone. No U.S Embassy personnel were infected with Ebola.
The CDC offers additional information on vaccines and health guidance for Sierra Leone.
OSAC Country Council Information
There is no active OSAC Country Council in Freetown. The RSO provides country briefings for representatives of American businesses, non-governmental organizations, academia, and faith-based organizations upon request. Constituents interested in being put in touch with the RSO should contact OSAC’s Africa team.
U.S. Embassy Location and Contact Information
Embassy Address and Hours of Operation
The U.S. Mission is located at Leicester Square, off Regent Road, in the hills above the city.
Hours of Operation: Mon-Thurs, 0800-1715; Fri, 0800-1300
Embassy Contact Numbers
All Embassy sections can be reached through the switchboard at: +232 99 105-000 from overseas or 099-105-000 if dialing locally.
Travelers may reach the Consular Section in non-emergency situations via email.
After hours: (099) 105-160
After hours: Embassy Duty Officer: (099) 905-007
RSO email: RSOFreetown@state.gov
U.S. citizens wishing to conduct business in Sierra Leone are advised to consult the Embassy’s Economic Section website.
U.S. citizens traveling in Sierra Leone are encouraged to register in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). STEP is a free service that helps the U.S. Embassy disseminate information about safety conditions and contact travelers in an emergency.
Sierra Leone Country Information Sheet