From 1991 to 2002, civil war devastated the Western African nation of Sierra Leone. The conflict pitted the government against the Liberian-aided Revolutionary United Front (RUF). The RUF established a base of economic power through control of the country’s vast diamond mines and reached its zenith with a successful coup in 1997. After significant British military involvement on the side of the civilian government, the RUF finally admitted defeat on January 18, 2002. Western politicians and journalists often characterize the resolution of the civil war as a successful example of Western liberal interventionism to safeguard lives and support democracy. However, Sierra Leone is still feeling the effects of a conflict that killed 100,000 citizens and displaced over 2 million people.
Recovery has been slow, and seven years later, the legacies of both the civil war and the preceding decades of poor governance continue to hamper Sierra Leone. But a variety of factors are finally combining to create a new sense of optimism about the country’s future. In a visit to Sierra Leone in April 2009, Tony Blair, British Prime Minister during the civil war, reported that the outlook for Sierra Leone was now the most positive that he had ever seen. The combination of a promising new administration and of economic possibilities offered by tourism has given the country a real chance at becoming an African success story.
President Ernest Bai Koroma of the All People’s Congress (APC), who took office on November 15, 2007, deserves much of the credit for the country’s progress. A former CEO, Koroma promised to run the government like a business, and he has followed through on that vow. In a major step, he has begun requiring performance contracts for cabinet ministers. These contracts aim to decrease corruption and levity in government by incentivizing efficiency and good performance. If this method works, Koroma can potentially revolutionize approaches to good governance across the continent.
In a similar vein, Koroma has launched a vigorous campaign against public corruption and has shown impressive skills dealing with social issues. While his counterparts in Nigeria have had well-publicized difficulties in dealing with issues of gender equality, Koroma has avoided such problems. In January 2008, he appointed a woman named Umu Hawa Tejan Jalloh to the hugely powerful role of Chief Justice, the head of Sierra Leone’s judiciary. Justice Tejan Jalloh is only the third woman in Africa to be appointed to run a judiciary. Her appointment indicates a society-wide commitment to equal female participation that places Sierra Leone at the vanguard of sub-Saharan African nations on issues of gender equality.
Most notable, however, is Koroma’s focus on the economy. He is committed to weaning Sierra Leone off of its dependence on foreign aid, especially British aid. While Britain is an important ally and the African nation’s government has maintained excellent relations with the former colonial power, Koroma realizes that subsisting on charity is not a long term solution for Sierra Leone. He inherited an economy with a 70 percent unemployment rate, and even today over 50 percent of people live on less than US$1 per day. Koromo’s government hopes to ensure economic self-sufficiency for the country. While this is a large task, the process has already begun with the creation of a nine person board to advise the government on foreign investment as well as the introduction of a 3G mobile phone network. In the longer term, Koromo has also spoken of potentially shifting his country’s relatively socialist economy to a more free-market system.
In order to revitalize the economy further, another major step forward for Sierra Leone will be the renewal of tourism. In the 1970s and 1980s, the nation was a major travel destination, but the civil war quickly destroyed its tourism industry. Today, the Gambia, Sierra Leone’s neighbor, welcomes over 100,000 visitors every year. Meanwhile, Sierra Leone currently attracts only 4,000 tourists per annum. But with an enthusiastic government and attractions that include unspoiled beaches, mountains, rich cultural history, and diverse flora and fauna, there is little doubt that Sierra Leone can once again become one of the world’s most sought-after travel spots. Lonely Planet magazine named it one of the world’s top 10 travel destinations for 2009, offering proof that the country’s efforts are producing dividends.
Sierra Leone still grapples with a variety of problems that Koromo’s government has yet to tackle successfully. For example, diamond miners in Sierra Leone are currently employing several thousand children at a mere US$0.15 per day, according to a human rights report from Harvard Law School. Over the past year, Koromo has set up a task force to investigate the problem and pushed for a new law restricting child mining. However, due to corruption and the lack of law enforcement, these measures have not begun to solve the problem, nor have they addressed the root of the issue. According to the Harvard Law School report, child mining arises due to a lack of adequate government-provided education and other social opportunities for children. But the education system faces its own difficulties. Koromo’s government has had to deal with large-scale frauds like “phony schools,” schools which the treasury funds but which do not actually exist.
Despite these concerns, Sierra Leone appears to have a brighter future thanks to the work of President Koromo. In the coming years, the government of Sierra Leone faces the delicate task of balancing the rebuilding of the country’s tourist industry with the care of its citizens’ essential rights and needs. On the whole, however, Koroma and his staff not only mean well but are placed to take their country toward a prosperous future.