April 5, 2016
Sierra Leone's Population Increases by 42% in 11 Years

Provisional census results released by Statistics Sierra Leone on March 31 reveal that Sierra Leone’s population increased by 42% in the 11-year period from the previous census, conducted in 2004, to the most recent one, enumerated in December 2015. Total population increased from 4,976,871 to 7,075,641. If Sierra Leone’s population continues to increase at the same rate, it will double in 22 years. Thus, from a base population of just under 5 million at the previous census in 2004, the population at the next census, scheduled for 2025 will be around 10 million if the population continues to increase at the same rate. Apparently small differences in population growth rates can, if maintained over time, lead to large differences in population growth
The results indicate a sharp increase in the Sierra Leonean population growth rate in recent years. At Independence the population was estimated at just over 2 million.  If the population had been increasing at the current rate in the decades since Independence, then it would have doubled to 4 million 22 years after Independence in 1983. Twenty-two years after this, in 2005, it would again have doubled, to 8 million. Finally, in the 11 years since 2005, still assuming the current rate of increase, it would have increased by 42%, to 11.36 million. The fact that the population is, by all estimates, well below this figure, indicates that growth has not been taking place at this high rate in most of the period since Independence.

What might have caused this sudden spurt in population growth is unclear. UN and government figures for life expectancy and infant and child mortality have not previously revealed any dramatic improvement in these indicators in recent years. Government figures for total births and deaths nationally are unreliable, as many of these go unreported. One might even have expected that the recent Ebola outbreak might depress population growth, although the number of recorded fatalities (ca. 3000) is small when compared to the absolute population increase of over 2 million in the 11-year period.

The 42% increase in 11 years translates to an average annual growth rate of 3.2%. Historically for Sierra Leone this is a high growth rate. Various World Bank, CIA and UNDP estimates for the period between 1985 and 2010 put Sierra Leone's growth rate around 2.5%, except for the war period when there was fluctuation above and below this.  UNDP population growth rate data indicate that many African countries, including Sierra Leone, have normal growth rates around the 2.5% mark. Estimates for the growth rates of the 20 highest-growth countries in the world during the 2014 calendar year range from 9.37% (Lebanon) to 2.72% (Yemen). The UN had projected Sierra Leone's population at July 1, 2016 to be 6,592,000.

Very high positive (greater than 4%)  or negative growth rates can often be

associated with traumatic events within a country's borders, leading to massive migration. If for instance widespread famine occurs within a nation, a large segment of the population might move to neighbouring countries, leading to a negative growth rate for that time period. As conditions within the country improve over time, a large number of those refugees might return, leading to a high positive growth rate for that time period.Thus for instance, UNDP figures record Liberia with a -0.9% population growth rate in the period leading up to 1990 when its civil war was intense and with a growth rate of 6.6% in the period leading up to 2000, when its civil war had ended.

Meanwhile some observers have cast doubt not only on the figures for the total Sierra Leone population but also on the figures given for the different regions of the country. Supporters of the two main political parties, the Northern-based APC and the South-East-based SLPP, traditionally regard census results warily, as they potentially could influence victory or defeat at national elections. In the Western Area including the capital Freetown, apparently inundated with new arrivals from the provinces, long-time residents are surprised that the relative share of the region’s total has changed little since 2004. Then, the Western Area’s percent of the total was 19.3%; now it has been measured at 21.3%.