An Interview with Sierra Leonean Opposition Leader Ernest Koroma

Rebuilding Sierra Leone

Elijah Zarwan, World Press Review Web editor, Oct. 1, 2002

Ernest Koroma
Photo courtesy All People's Congress
Sierra Leone should be a rich country. It is endowed with ample agricultural land, rich diamond mines, and mineral wealth, including, potentially, considerable oil reserves. The country’s natural resources should be enough to sustain its 5.5 million people.

But 10 years of grisly civil war—fanned by Sierra Leone’s neighbors, who sought control of Sierra Leone’s diamonds—left the country in tatters. Today, thanks to the deployment of the largest peacekeeping force in the world, peaceful elections in May 2002 that returned President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and his Sierra Leone People’s Party to power, and hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid, the country seems to be emerging from its long nightmare.

During a recent trip to the United States, Ernest Bai Koroma, the leader of Sierra Leone’s largest opposition party, the All People’s Congress (APC), spoke to WPR’s Elijah Zarwan about the challenges facing Sierra Leone.

What brings you to the United States?

We had a number of purposes in coming here. Earlier today, we spoke with members of Congress… they wanted to know what was happening in Sierra Leone after the war, what was being done to build democratic institutions and shore up security. We wanted to become acquainted with the members of Congress—because you know, America is the forerunner in building up democracy—in order to harmonize our efforts with those of Congress.

We also wanted to strengthen the party here in the United States, to brief our offices here about what’s happening in Sierra Leone. Another purpose was to work to open new offices around the country. I’m traveling to New Jersey and Texas to open new offices there. We wanted to coordinate efforts to strengthen the party here, to bring people in from other parties, and to encourage support from the United States.

The APC did rather poorly in the last election, winning only 27 seats. Did the results lead you to take a second look at your strategy or your platform? What are your plans going forward?

Well, we have concerns about the process and the elections themselves. At the time, we raised serious concerns about the process…. The voters in many districts where we are strongest were not properly registered. The conduct of the Electoral Commission when we raised our concerns left much to be desired. They were not able to give satisfactory answers.

The results of the election were highly suspect. For example, in Kailahun [on the southwestern border] and Pujehun [on the southeastern border, abutting the Atlantic Ocean], the results were 103 percent and 104 percent in favor of the Sierra Leone People’s Party. How can you have a result of more than 100 percent? In other districts, there was participation of 94 or 96 percent. How is this possible? Even in peaceful places like Australia you don’t find this level of participation. Considering the level of education of most people in Sierra Leone and the trauma they’ve been through, this is very difficult to believe.

But we considered the election part of the peace process. If we had rejected the elections, it would have given people who have an interest in perpetuating the violence reason to continue fighting. So we accepted the elections—in the name of peace.

A recent BBC report referred to Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, as a boomtown. Would you say that’s accurate? How would you characterize the current economic state of Sierra Leone?

We shouldn’t get carried away. It’s true: Things are much better now, largely thanks to the efforts of international donors. But we still don’t own our mining, fishing, and agricultural, and cocoa industries. We’re not supporting ourselves. Remove the donors, and we’re helpless. We need to put efficient managerial machinery and effective governance in place in both the private and the public sector…. We need to construct the legal framework that will attract investment. I’m not talking about foreign aid. I’m talking about real investment.

You know, we have the NEPAD [the New Economic Partnership for African Development] in place now. We need to put the necessary structures in place to maximize the benefit from NEPAD so that our private sector takes off.

Interested companies must submit their final bids for offshore drilling rights in Sierra Leone to the government by March 30, 2003. How do you expect the discovery of oil to change Sierra Leone? Were you satisfied with the results of the Model Petroleum Agreement [The agreement, the full text of which is available through Barrows Company laid out the expected division of oil revenues between the oil companies and the government. Test wells drilled in the 1970s produced “shows” of oil, leading 28 petroleum companies to express interest in drilling thus far]?

The entire process—all the negotiations—the entire process has been shrouded in secrecy. This is a public concern. The only time we have heard anything about this is when there have been disagreements over who will control Sierra Leone’s petroleum wealth. This matter is too important to be decided in secret. This could affect everyone in Sierra Leone, so it should be a matter debated in Parliament.

If we manage the oil revenue properly, it could have a positive impact, improving the life of Sierra Leoneans, but only if the money goes to improving our social services: health, education, agriculture…. In order for this to happen, we need to know who is… involved so the money does not end up in the coffers of a few. We need full transparency in this process. Without adequate transparency, how are we to attract aid or investment?

Let’s talk about the issue of transparency for a moment. We’ve heard disturbing reports about corruption in Sierra Leone in the past. How serious an impact do you think corruption has on the economy? Is the government doing enough? What is the opposition doing?

Corruption must be addressed. We welcome the creation of the Anti-Corruption Commission. It must be strengthened and given independence. Its creation was a good start. But it needs the powers to investigate and prosecute.

In order to battle corruption, we must also address the issue of income…. We need to insure that people in Sierra Leone have enough income to provide for their families, to educate their children, to plan for their retirement. If we do not address these issues, the temptation to resort to corrupt practices will prove too strong for many in Sierra Leone to resist.

We must put in place the proper mechanisms for battling corruption. We need to make sure we have an adequate police force, that there are adequate checks and balances on power to prevent people from abusing their positions. For this we will also need an independent judiciary…. We are adopting what is basically the American system in Sierra Leone, with its checks and balances. For this to work we need a strong, independent judiciary and a vigorous, democratic parliament. Right now the judiciary is very slow, and the appointments are all political.

But yes, corruption is still a problem. It is more or less institutionalized in Sierra Leone. So long as this is true, foreign investors will stay away out of fear, especially considering the regional insecurity.

The Sierra Leonean press carried reports that the Sierra Leonean government demolished about 70 homes and buildings, including the offices of a non-governmental organization that provides assistance to war-affected children, on Sept. 21 [Sierra Leone’s High Court had earlier ruled that the buildings had been illegally erected on land belonging to the Sierra Leone Grammar School, a religious school founded in 1845]. What is the opposition’s stance on this policy?

Well, this is a policy that should be looked at carefully. If there is a court order, there is a court order, and that is it….

The issue is complicated. Most of these people, whose homes are now being demolished, were given permits to build their homes—they registered their homes. But from what I understand, often the “authorities” who gave these people permission to build homes were posing as government agents…. Still, if a court finds that they are occupying the land illegally, we must respect that.

Are these people who fled to Freetown from the countryside, fleeing the violence during the war?

Yes, if these people are refugees, that is, if they are certified as having refugee status, then the government and the appropriate aid agencies will look after them. Again, the issue is complicated. Basically, these people fall into three categories. There are the cases in which there has been a court decision. We will not query these decisions. Then there may be unauthorized demolitions. Somebody must be held responsible for these and all provisions must be made for the families’ well-being. Then there are those who obtained permits, and who are living on the land legally, or at least had every reason to believe they were living on the land legally. Even if it turns out they were not, everything should be done to make sure they have someplace to go.

You mentioned earlier that the conflict in the region is scaring investors away. Last month, the Liberian army made a number of incursions across the border into Sierra Leone, and there were reports that Sierra Leoneans had been abducted. In your view, what should the government do about this?

Well, as you know, the security of the country is still in the hands of UNAMSIL [The United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone]. And we had the British before.

These kinds of incidents are exactly why it is important that the international community remain involved in Sierra Leone. We should not just affect a withdrawal of the international peacekeepers. We should only affect a withdrawal after the resolution of the Liberian conflict. The entire war in Sierra Leone, and in Guinea, started with the Liberian civil war…. If there is going to be stability in the region, then the situation in Liberia must be resolved.

And if I may, I would like to take this opportunity to appeal to the international community, to the United Nations, and to the United States to resolve this situation. If it is not resolved, the danger will never cease. This will require a lot of resources and a serious commitment.

The instability is a great disincentive for investment. There can be no development in a war situation.

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