As Sierra Leone celebrates 50 years of independence on 27 April, an upbeat President Ernest Bai Koroma says the country should not be defined by its past. “We have worked very hard to put our past behind us. We are now a country that is moving upward with a development direction, it is democratic, and it is one of the most secure countries you can find in the world.”
Q: What confronted you when you came into power, what did you inherit and what areas did you prioritise?
A: Well, I came into power in 2007, after the elections that were acclaimed to be free and fair, accepted both locally and internationally. In taking over governance, of course, during the election campaign I knew what was wrong and what I could do to improve it. But the reality was that I inherited an economy that was in a shambles, donor support had dwindled, in fact the donors, including the IMF, had withdrawn their programmes.
That was what it was overall, in terms of the mainframe of the economy. At the time, Freetown was referred to as the darkest capital city in West Africa.
Only about five to seven megawatts of electricity was generated, and that was irregular.
The construction of the Bunbuna Hydro Project was still not completed. There was no clear direction in terms of energy. The agricultural sector was also not up to scratch; no structure was in place and we were not adhering to what was internationally accepted as “the roadmap”. Infrastructure was broken, road projects were at a standstill, and the contractors had abandoned the major Freetown-Conakry highway. The only project that was ongoing had been left in the hands of a second-rate contractor.
So this was what we inherited. Of course, the business of governance, the functioning of government, the attitude of the civil servants, everything about this was not good and productivity was minimal.
Q: From any perspective, it seemed like you were faced with immense challenges. How did you manage to put your campaign rhetoric into policy and action so quickly?
A: I had campaigned on certain promises and we were quick to appreciate the aspirations of the people. My campaign promises and the aspirations of the people we blended together, and we agreed on an agenda to guide the business of governance in the country. That was how I came out with my Agenda for Change, in which we tried to prioritise sectors of development. Everything needed some attention then. But my focus was on doing the things that would create the greatest impact on the lives of the people and kick-start the sustainable development process of the economy and country. We identified five key priority sectors in the agenda: Energy was number 1, infrastructure number 2, agriculture 3, health 4, and education 5.
Energy was number one because Freetown was in darkness; there was no form of energy. It was also because we realised that it was only when a country had adequate provision of energy or some amount of energy that development or growth was possible.
Even in the other sectors, we could not improve our health delivery services without energy. Same with education. So energy was prioritised. We gave ourselves a target of 100 days to provide a certain amount of regular electricity supply to Freetown.
We were able to bring on board the international community, particularly the World Bank. They came in heavily. We provided a thermal generation plant for Freetown. It was not easy in those days, but we were able to bring in an at least 15 megawatt thermal generation capacity within 100 days for Freetown as promised. That was not enough for Freetown and it is still not enough. But since that project came on stream, we have had a sustained and regular supply of electricity in Freetown. That was a great departure from the past and it gave our people a lot of confidence and hope that this time around it was not about talking and making empty promises, but this was a government and a president that made promises and delivered on them! That was a good start. Since that time, we have been continuously improving our energy infrastructure, generation and supply.
Q:After the early successes, where would you say the investment opportunities in Sierra Leone are at this time?
A: The investment opportunities in this country include tourism, agriculture, mining, and manufacturing. In tourism, we have unique opportunities. We have some of the best beaches in the whole of Africa. I believe, with the appropriate tourism infrastructure put in place, we will have the best tourism destination on the continent. In agriculture, we have an abundance of land to grow anything. The climate favours the growth of rice, tree crops, cocoa, and coffee.
We also have opportunities in animal husbandry and inland fishing projects. A lot of interest is now being developed in bio fuels. There are companies coming in to develop largescale sugar cane and other plantations.
Because of our climatic conditions and the abundance of water, we also have a huge potential in exporting rice.
In the mining sector, we have gold, rutile, bauxite and most recently iron ore. We have now discovered about 10 million tons of iron ore deposits in just one area in Tonkolili. There are deposits in other areas too. So there is an abundance of opportunities in all of these sectors.
To make our country even more attractive, we have tried to improve the investment environment. We have revised our laws and modernised them, we now have a commercial court, and we have cut down on the processes involved in establishing a business – we are now the country that protects the interests of investors more than any other. These things are all manifested in the indicators published by the World Bank and other organisations, which reflect the improvement made in Sierra Leone. In the eyes of the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business Index”, we are developing, and we expect to be in the first one hundred nations in the next few years. I am sure that with the overall improvement of the infrastructure and energy sector, the cost of doing business will be drastically reduced to make us a highly competitive country.
Q:Talking about investment, it is well-known that large-scale investment is key to stimulating growth, however, small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) are the engine that consolidates growth. What are you doing to make sure that indigenous Sierra Leoneans participate in the SME sector, and not as mere spectators, while development envelops the country?
A: We are focusing on improving the local content of our activities. In agriculture where about 60% of our people earn their living, we believe that it has the potential of creating employment opportunities for even more people. That is why we have embarked on the processes involved in transforming agriculture. Last year, we launched a programme to commercialise agriculture called the Smallholder Commercialisation programme, to run from 2010 to 2014.
We have since been giving seedlings and other inputs to farmers; we are trying to make their agricultural areas accessible by improving on feeder roads. We are making credit accessible to them by establishing community and microfinance banks. We are establishing agro-businesses that will add value to their produce. By doing so, we hope to not only open up the agricultural sector and commercialise it but also create opportunities that will allow the growth of SM Es.
We also believe that the Sierra Leone Chamber of Commerce and indigenous business people should be encouraged to improve on their ways of doing business. We are doing this via what we call the Business Bomba competition. It is focused on improving the management skills of local business people and their access to funding
We are also going to look at the mining sector. Even in the tourism sector, we are going to ensure that we improve on local participation, to create space for Sierra Leoneans to start developing their businesses. It is not going to happen overnight but we will ensure that it is sustained and closely monitored. I am sure we will succeed in the end.
Q:Let’s talk about your 50th independence anniversary. What are some of the memorable landmarks of the last 50 years?
A: The major landmark is that at 50, we are a peaceful country. Considering our recent past, I think it is a great achievement. We are not only peaceful, we have succeeded in adopting democratic values that are very unique.
Countries that have not had our experience are not able to really conduct themselves democratically; for example, conducting two to three free and fair elections at both local and central level, and effecting a change from a sitting government to the opposition. This is a unique thing that is not easy to come by in Africa. Today, our laws are changing. The fight against corruption is still on.
Freedom of the press is guaranteed, and the level at which we encourage people to participate in governance is phenomenal. These are all remarkable achievements to be proud of because of our chequered past.
The way forward is for us not to look back any more. We have to focus on developing and improving the democratic process. We have to focus on developing the country because we have now laid the base for it. We have to focus on infrastructural development all over the country, not just in sections of the country. We have to improve the lives of our people. We have to provide for the poor as we have done in the health sector. We have to ensure that access to education is across the board and improve on the quality of education. We have to focus on opening up the economy and ensuring that the people benefit from their natural resources. That is why we are reviewing the mining contracts. We have put in a new mining law and we will promulgate a petroleum law that will ensure that Sierra Leoneans and their interests are protected and guaranteed. I am sure with that focus and the inclusiveness we are now demonstrating, this country will become more united, more focused, and have a common sense of purpose.
Q:You recently instituted a national attitude reform initiative called “Attitudinal Change”, a policy to get Sierra Leoneans to change their attitude to issues. How effective has this been?
A: Well, during my period of growing up and our recent past and my days in opposition, I saw that there was a vacuum and until we had an attitudinal change, or became more Sierra Leonean in our thinking, in the way we related to each other, the way we dealt with even foreigners, and even the way we dealt with our country and its assets, we would find it difficult to move forward.
There is a lot that we can benefit from, with changing our attitude to life. There is a lot we have lost in the past because of bad attitude. People have not worked hard because they believe that there are corners to cut. People have not treated national issues with patriotism because they were just interested in what was there for them as individuals.
With a change of attitude, we will have new values that will build our confidence as Sierra Leoneans. Let the Sierra Leonean in us come out and say it’s me that should do it and it can be done. This is where we should go.
Q: Within the region, Sierra Leone has got a lot to offer: mining, agriculture and potentially oil. Compared to its neighbours, what are Sierra Leone’s strategic advantages?
A: Sierra Leone has unique opportunities as a country. There are unique opportunities in the people themselves. But our recent past has taught us that we cannot go it alone, we cannot operate as an island within the sub-region; and that anything happening in other countries will have an immediate and direct impact on what is happening in Sierra Leone.
That is why I believe we should use our uniqueness, whatever growth possibilities we have, to develop the country and also share our experiences with other countries and support each other within the region with the aim of ensuring stability within West Africa. That is very important.
There is a lot more to benefit from by working together, cooperation, facilitating regional growth, and developing a regional market. The world is moving towards regional entities. So developing the natural resources of the region together will strengthen regional collaboration. It will also ensure that through inter-dependence, we will become each other’s keeper, which will foster more growth and security in the region. So that is the role Sierra Leone is playing and will continue to play in the region, having an effective and important role in regional organisations. We are a very active member of the Mano River Union. We are also active in Ecowas and even in the African Union.
Q:What are your final thoughts as you prepare to celebrate 50 years of independence?
A: We are building a new Sierra Leone. We should not be defined by our past. We have worked very hard to put our past behind us. We are now a country that is moving upward with a development direction, our country is democratic, and it is one of the most secure countries you can find in the world. Sierra Leone is open for business, with very unique and special business opportunities; it is an ideal investment destination, the place to come. For tourists looking for a haven, Sierra Leone is the place to be. We are very friendly people, and we continue to extend the hand of friendship to all our brothers, within the region and beyond.