18 April 2007

Sierra Leone

I have just returned from 2 weeks in Sierra Leone. I had intended to visit the Administrator and Registrar-General's Department which appears to be the local intellectual property authority but the main town, Freetown, is not the easiest city to get around and I was supposed to be on holiday. Instead, I did the next best thing which was to talk to local practising and academic lawyers about intellectual property protection in their country.

On paper Sierra Leone ticks most of the right boxes. It has been a member of the World Trade Organization since 23 July 1995 which is almost as long as us. Consequently, it must have been one of the first countries in the world to ratify TRIPs. It is party to the Paris Convention, the PCT, the Madrid Agreement and Protocol and the WIPO Convention but not, apparently, Berne or the UCC. According to the WIPO, the country's domestic intellectual property legislation is archaic: - patents are granted under the Patents Act of 1924,
- trade marks under our Merchandising Marks Act of 1889 and
- while WIPO has no information on copyright or related rights, the 1911 Copyright Act (which must have applied to Sierra Leone before independence) does not appear ever to have been repealed.

Having said that, Sierra Leone is a member of ARIPO (African Regional Intellectual Property Organization). ARIPO grants patents, utility models, trade marks and registered designs for designated contracting states much in the way that the European Patent Office grants European patents for designated contracting parties under the European Patent Convention. However, not much use appears to have been made of that machinery. Only one patent application was filed through ARIPO by a Sierra Leone national in 2001 (the latest year for which WIPO has statistics) compared to 51 applications by non-nationals and 88,991 by foreigners through the PCT. There were no trade mark applications through ARIPO though there were 787 applications (all made by foreigners) through Madrid.


There appears to be no database of Sierra Leone case law but some recent statutes can be found at http://www.sierra-leone.org/laws.html.

I was told by the recently retired head of the Sierra Leone Law School that some thought has been given to teaching intellectual property law at Fourah Bay College and the Law School but no appointment has yet been made. He jokingly suggested that I should put my name forward. I have to say that there is not much prospect of that and in any case there are far better qualified people than me. One such is Lois Cole-Wilson of these chambers who has been called to the local bar.


I would find life very difficult in Freetown. It is a very crowded, very noisy, very poor, very polluted yet quite expensive city. Some people find charm there but I am afraid that I didn't. A Jamaican friend said she felt "good vibes". All that resonated with me was street noise of which there was more than sufficiency. There are frequent power cuts so everyone has to run a generator. Credit cards are almost unheard of so folk carry wads of filthy, torn bank notes, the highest denomination of which is worth about £1.80 (US$3.62). It takes the better part of a day to reach the only international airport by a very slow, very infrequent and very crowded ferry. The alternative is a trip in a Soviet era helicopter. The beaches, which must once have been very pretty, are being disfigured by tatty looking eateries and discos. Rhyl looks very upmarket compared to Lumley. Ex-pats lord it over local motorists in their 4WDs. They are the only ones who can reach the relatively unspoiled parts of the coast easily because the roads are so bad. British style chips with everything are served everywhere displacing the wonderful couscous, yams and brown rice dishes that my partner cooks at home. Western embassies and missions have consumed hectares of rain forest - especially the US one which is the size of a small town and which has ruined some beautiful hill country.


Against that, it must be stressed that the country has some wonders: Tacugama chimp sanctuary for one - Tiwai island wildlife reserve for another. Freetown does have at least one fine building - namely, the magnificent art deco law courts - as well as several interesting ones including:
- the Anglican cathedral,
- the Annie Walsh Memorial School shown below where several of my in laws and friends taught or studied














- the ruins of the original Fourah Bay College (see below) which was established in 1827 as a college of the University of Durham.












Most impressive of all are the cheerfulness, resourcefulness and the friendliness of the people who somehow seem to cope with all the miseries I mentioned above with enormous stoicism. Two deserve to be singled out.

One of the best drivers I have ever met anywhere is Abu Gomura who took us everywhere and looked after us well beyond the call of duty. He haggled with the money changers, counted the tattered bank notes, shooed off the chancers but not genuine folk in real need of a few bob like the many mutilated war victims, and fought like a Trojan with the buses, lorries, 4WDs and remonstrated with seemingly incompetent loading crew and the police to get us on to the airport ferry. If you ever want a reliable taxi in Sierra Leone his mobile is +232 (0)33 822 149.

The other name worth mentioning is Simeon who skippers the "Pride of Kent"(shown below). He and his crew transported us across to Banana Island in his long prow fishing boat for less than half the fare of the service recommended by the tourist board. If you get the chance to see this gem of an island from where you can admire the southern Freetown Peninsula coast that combines Wester Ross with Cornwall, ask for Simeon at Kent beach or the local copper shop.

I take my hat off to them and all the other wonderful bods I met over the last 2 weeks.

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