Saturday, August 25, 2007

Returning diaspora help rebuild battered Sierra Leone

Kofie Macauley knew it wouldn't be easy when he gave up a successful property career in Britain to join a trickle of Sierra Leonean businessmen returning to rebuild their war-scarred homeland.
On the dilapidated streets of the hilly, coastal capital Freetown, crowded with hawkers and unemployed young men, the returnees stand out.
Their smart clothes and foreign accents give them away, and wily locals take advantage of the ignorance of the "JCs" -- local Krio dialect for "Just Comes".
"It is not a positive thing to be considered a JC ... Everybody tries to rip you off because they think you've got a lot of money," said Macauley, who employs more than 20 workers in his transport company three years after returning.
"I've encouraged a lot of people to come back but it's very, very hard. ... You have to have a passion for the country and want to see a difference," said Macauley, who named his firm CamServ Salone, which means "come serve Sierra Leone" in Krio.
More than half a million Sierra Leoneans are estimated to live in the United States and Britain alone -- a tenth of the 5 million living at home.
That represents a considerable braindrain for a country struggling to recover from a 1991-2002 civil war: just over 40 percent of those who get a university qualification emigrate.
Many support friends and family back home, sending an estimated $25 million through official channels alone in 2004. But the impact of the war, which killed 50,000 people and devastated infrastructure and the economy, has dissuaded many from returning permanently.
Macauley, who fled Sierra Leone in 1993 to study overseas, remains part of a small group of pioneers. He hopes peaceful presidential and parliamentary elections this month -- the first since U.N. peacekeepers left in 2005 -- can show the poor West African country has turned the page.
"The reason I have come back is to show others that it is possible," said Macauley, who hopes his transport firm will one day be the country's biggest. "Sierra Leone is definitely a place where you can make a lot of money. Government needs to encourage people like us to come back and settle."
Five years after the end of the diamond-fuelled civil war, prosperity has lagged behind peace. Until now, many foreign companies have been reluctant to invest in a country which became a byword for brutality after images of drugged child soldiers mutilating civilians shocked the world.
Most foreign investment has been in the mining sector, for diamonds and rutile, or in the fast-growing mobile telecoms market. With road, water and electricity infrastructure in tatters and some tourist resorts standing in ruins, there is no shortage of areas to invest in.
Keith Aki-Sawyerr, who lives in London, is one of five Sierra Leoneans planning a $500 million luxury golf resort along the pristine coast near Freetown which they hope will transform the country's investment prospects.
"Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora are eager and willing to return and help to rebuild their country," he said. "Most of us grew up in post-independence Sierra Leone, or just before independence. We saw the country's potential and cannot believe how it has failed to develop."
But both the ruling Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) and the All People's Congress (APC), which will face off in a second-round presidential vote next month, have promised to increase investment in agriculture and tourism. The APC has vowed privatisations to attract capital to public services.
Several networks of Sierra Leoneans based abroad hold regular forums to encourage investment and an eventual return home. Among their greatest achievements is lobbying for the right to a Sierra Leonean passport.
For more than 30 years, Sierra Leone did not permit its citizens to hold dual citizenship, meaning many in the diaspora gave up their national citizenship in favour of passports for the country in which they settled.
A law this year repealed the rule, likely to encourage many more people to return to the former British colony.
Following the legal breakthrough, outgoing President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah moved swiftly to appeal to those living abroad to come back, saying in April: "We desperately need more of what could be described as 'Sierra Leone Diaspora Investment'."
Kabbah, who is standing down under the constitution having served two terms, has struggled to create jobs: five years after the end of the war, two-thirds of the population is unemployed.
More than 70 percent live below the poverty line in a country ranked by the United Nations as the second least developed in the world.
"People have very little to look forward to -- not enough jobs, industries or future opportunities," said Aki-Sawyerr. "Our experiences tell us that if we can kick-start business and bring investment into the country then people would be able to work and live proudly."

FEATURE-Returning diaspora help rebuild battered Sierra Leone | Reuters