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Monday, 20 May, 2002, 21:24 GMT 22:24 UK
Sierra Leone's next steps
Ishmael Daramy stands in front of his new home, built by an NGO
Many victims of the conflict hope to rebuild their lives

One of the things that strikes first-time visitors here is the deep, grinding poverty.

I have been here so often that it no longer punches me in the eye.

A street of the capital of Sierra Leone
With the election, Freetown seems to be booming
But it is indeed everywhere you look - children scavenging in rubbish heaps; women queuing for water at the only working tap in the neighbourhood; old men with dignity but little else, dressed in ragged clothes.

And yet everywhere you look there is wealth as well.

Freetown must have the highest concentration of flashy four-wheel drives in the world.

It is not just the ubiquitous white United Nations Landcruisers or the Jeeps driven by aid workers, but the cars driven by middle-class Sierra Leonians.

Corruption

With tinted windows and air conditioning (I am guilty of liking that as well), the rich speed past the poor in comfort.

There is plenty of flashy housing going up too, especially in the hillside outer suburbs of the city.

The manager of the local cement company will tell you that demand has shot up since the war ended - everyone with money, it seems, wants their little palace with high walls and a satellite dish.

How to explain these two phenomena - private wealth and public poverty?

There is one word - corruption.

Newly-elected President Kabbah spoke about corruption in his acceptance speech, and it is true that he has established an anti-corruption commission.

The international community has insisted on it, and the ordinary people would like to see it work.

Fertile ground

But the question most people are asking is this: when the UN and the British (who lead most key development projects) start scaling down their commitment here, will the anti-corruption drive continue?

The precedents are bad but the potential is there.

Corruption was the fundamental cause of the war.

During the 1970s and 1980s the old-guard politicians systematically looted the country's resources - in partnership with Lebanese, British and other foreign businessmen.

President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah
President Kabbah has pledged to fight corruption

This provided a fertile recruiting ground for the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels who, with crude socialist rhetoric, could easily point to the fat cats in Freetown to justify their "revolution".

The RUF ideology went sour, of course, when the rebels started committing atrocities against civilians.

But the message was clear: corruption had eaten away at the state, and the people were getting nothing from the diamond wealth.

Now the RUF can claim - with some justification - that their struggle forced the government to start delivering some services to the people.

But in fact the government is delivering very little; it is, for the most part, foreign aid agencies who are delivering the services that the mass of the poor and war-displaced need.

Aid junkie?

This is another major challenge facing the new Kabbah government - avoiding dependency.

Sierra Leone has survived for so long on foreign handouts that it is in danger of becoming an aid junkie.

And yet the flashy houses going up on the hillsides and the flashy cars make it clear that Sierra Leone is probably not, as the UN statistics say, the poorest country in the world - it is just that a large proportion of the money, especially the diamond money, is never counted in the national statistics.

Can corruption and dependency be overcome?

Everyone here knows that if they are not, this country could easily slip back into war once the UN and the British have long forgotten a place called Sierra Leone.

The key to overcoming the twin evils of corruption and dependency is accountability.

By holding peaceful and democratic elections, Sierra Leone has shown it is quite capable of the most important manifestation of accountability, which is democracy.

The first step has been taken; there are many more to go.


Campaign diary

Peaceful poll

Background

FORUM
See also:

11 May 02 | Africa
28 Mar 02 | Africa
13 Mar 02 | Africa
12 May 00 | Africa
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