Saturday, June 02, 2007

Untamed corruption tarnishes Sierra Leone recovery

FREETOWN, June 1 (Reuters) - Sierra Leone is making little progress in tackling corruption and is squandering foreign aid, leaving its most vulnerable citizens as destitute as they were before its civil war ended five years ago, experts say.

Since the guns fell silent after more than a decade of conflict, the former British colony -- a country of just 5 million people, rich in diamonds, iron ore and gold -- remains one of the poorest nations on earth.

Britain's military intervention in May 2000 stopped an advance on the capital Freetown by rebels renowned for hacking the limbs off their victims, and is often cited as an example of how to save a failing state.

"Five years ago this country was being taken over by gangsters who were killing innocent people, raping women, despoiling the country," outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair said during a trip to Sierra Leone this week.

"Today we have a situation in which in a few months time there will be an election, where you've got a doubling of the number of children in primary education, where you've got economic growth. ... I don't say that's perfection, but I say it is a darned sight better than what was here before."

While most analysts agree Britain's swift military action, with minimal cost to British lives, was positive, its assistance outside the security sector wins less whole-hearted praise.

Britain alone has spent 91 million pounds ($180 million) on non-military aid over the past three years and will provide a further 40 million this year. But endemic corruption has gone largely unchecked, analysts say.

"Things are as bad, if not worse, than they were when the war started in 1991. And Tony Blair's government bears a lot of responsibility for facilitating this state of affairs, precisely because they did not hold the government to account," said Mike McGovern, former West Africa director for the International Crisis Group think-tank.

"Whatever British diplomats and development specialists in Freetown might have wanted to do, their hands were tied because Sierra Leone had already been declared a success in London, almost from the beginning," he told Reuters.

"(Sierra Leone's) government ... was able to read these signs just as clearly as if they had been delivered from 10 Downing Street by registered mail: there would be no accountability, no scrutiny, everything was permitted."


A report for the British government's development arm, DFID, gave a scathing review in April of the progress made by Sierra Leone's Anti-Corruption Commission, a British-funded body set up to prosecute high-profile offenders.

Last year the commission made 12 convictions. They included the caterer at a mental hospital, the headmaster of a primary school and the accounts officer of a library, all accused of embezzling small amounts of state money.

There were no lasting high-profile convictions. Former Transport Minister Momoh Pujeh was sent to jail in 2003 for the illegal possession of diamonds but later won an appeal against his conviction in the high court.

Given such a poor track record, the DFID review recommended funding of the commission be stopped.

But Sierra Leone's government said it had made progress.

"This is a country where you never had an anti-corruption commission before and now we have one," Information Minister Septimus Kaikai told Reuters. He added the government was considering toughening anti-corruption legislation.

Mains electricity and piped water are rare even in the sprawling shanty towns that make up the capital Freetown. There are few paved roads in the rest of the country, and 70 percent of the population survive on less than $1 a day.

"Before the war we were living fine, but every day prices keep going up," said Isatu Kamara, a 50-year-old grandmother who sells cigarettes and biscuits at a busy Freetown junction.

High-level corruption and a widening gap between rich and poor threatens to erase the hard-won gains that came with Britain's military intervention.

"Endemic corruption was a central factor that produced the dire conditions that made civil war inevitable," the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission said in its final report after the end of the fighting.

"Sierra Leone remains in the grip of pervasive corruption, which, if not arrested, will sap the country of its life force and lay the ground for further conflict," it said.

Link to Reuters AlertNet - FEATURE-Untamed corruption tarnishes Sierra Leone recovery