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Last Updated: Sunday, 18 November 2007, 13:14 GMT
Probation time for S Leone's new leaders
By Mark Doyle
BBC World Affairs Correspondent, Freetown

Parts of this spectacularly sited coastal capital, set along the edges of a mountainous peninsula, have been transformed in the six years since the end of the civil war in 2001.

Children play in a stream used as a toilet in the Freetown slum of Kroo Bay
Sierra Leone is one of the world's poorest countries

The buildings and factories that have gone up since hostilities ended show the potential for Sierra Leone.

But all the expectation will come to nothing if President Ernest Bai Koroma fails to address the rampant corruption and mismanagement.

President Koroma told me his policy on corruption was clear.

"I have sent out clear warnings to everybody, including members of my government, and I believe that in the next 36 months Sierra Leoneans will start seeing the turnaround."

Gates go up

In the neighbourhood of Godrich, on the outskirts of Freetown, teeming building sites are emerging from the swamps and mountainsides.

During the decade-long civil war this area was reduced to little more than a slum.

Now, an international company has built a modern brick factory in Godrich to cope with booming demand for building materials.

The same company is near to completing a gated estate of beachside luxury houses.

The "peace dividend" of development is there for all to see.

The new buildings show there are people with money to spend in Sierra Leone and the confidence they are making a safe investment.

But those outside the gated estate, or in other parts of Freetown, could be living in another country: day-labourers breaking rocks by hand and children in rags, darting in and out of open sewers next to their tin-shack homes.

Road signs

Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world. The rich and the poor live side by side.

Sierra Leonean President Ernest Bai Koroma
President Koroma won a tightly fought election

Godrich is still a rough and ready place with a potholed earth track running through it.

There are rumours that the road could soon be tarmacked - not least because President Koroma has his private residence in Godrich.

If the road is completed soon it could mean either that infrastructure work is advancing smoothly - which would of course be a good thing - or that Mr Koroma has used his presidential clout to improve a road near his own personal house.

That could be a signal to some Sierra Leoneans that despite all his talk of transparency and incorruptibility, he is not much different from the rest of the political class here.

Most Sierra Leoneans distrust politicians so much because of their track record as a group, that it is quite possible this latter interpretation will prevail even if the rebuilding of the Godrich road was scheduled before Mr Koroma came to power.

At his inauguration last week in the national sports stadium, President Koroma did several laps of honour in an open-topped car.

He was grinning broadly and waving his trademark white handkerchief - a handkerchief that he sorely needed to wipe away perspiration in the boiling heat of the packed stadium.

Massive corruption

In his inaugural speech President Koroma said: "I exercise zero tolerance towards corruption."

He spoke of changing "attitudes" - in other words the mentality and culture of corruption that are so deeply ingrained in Sierra Leonean society.

It is a massive job.

Corruption in Sierra Leone extends all the way from top officials taking kickbacks on government contracts to teachers telling children they have to pay if they want to go to class.

Rules and regulations may change. President Koroma told me, for example, that he would be making the anti-corruption commission completely independent of government.

But changing a whole culture is a challenge of a far greater order.

Everything may depend on the lead given by President Koroma and his team.

There are some signs in the top appointments he has made.

Respected team

The new head of the anti-corruption commission, Abdul Tejan Cole, is a lawyer who has a reputation for strict probity.

Crowds at the presidential inauguration in the national sports stadium
Sierra Leone's people are more used to corrupt government

"He's just incorruptible," says a close observer.

It is said that when Mr Cole was a lecturer in law at Freetown's Fourah Bay College, he was confronted with the task of marking an exam paper written by a younger member of his own family.

He is reported to have said he could not mark the paper because it might compromise his position.

The new Foreign Minister, Zainab Bangura, also has a track record of campaigning against corruption.

Before she entered politics, she was the head of the respected Sierra Leonean pressure group, The Campaign for Good Governance.

Mrs Bangura held a senior position in the United Nations peacekeeping operation in neighbouring Liberia before President Koroma asked her to be Sierra Leone's foreign minister - to her complete surprise.

On probation

A senior adviser to President Koroma, speaking on condition of anonymity, says: "The new team will be on probation to see how they perform."

In fact, it may be the other way around.

Some of the new ministers could, if they wanted, have careers and prospects outside Sierra Leone.

The new finance minister is a successful economist and the new defence minister spent a long time working in Britain.

It may be that the new top team in Freetown has put President Koroma on probation - to see how he performs and whether it is worth them sticking around in the sometimes murky world of Sierra Leonean politics.

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