Monday, September 10, 2007

Sierra Leone diamond diggers hope polls will bring change

KOIDU, Sierra Leone (Reuters) - When Alpha Sesay left his home in northern Sierra Leone two years ago, he hoped he would strike it lucky in the diamond-rich east.

But despite sifting through gravel in muddy waters since then, the 23-year old has not found a single gem.

Faced with few other options in a country destroyed by a 1991-2002 civil war, more than 200,000 artisan miners like Sesay try to eke out an existence hunting for diamonds.

Many hope a run-off presidential poll on Saturday -- the culmination of the first elections since U.N. peacekeepers left two years ago -- will bring about a change in their fortunes, ending rampant corruption and finding them jobs.

"The ruling party does not do anything for me," said Sesay, who has not seen his family since he left home and is paid 2,000 leones a day by his boss, enough for one meal.

"If (the opposition) win I will get more money and I will go to see my family."

The election pits opposition frontrunner Ernest Bai Koroma of the All People's Congress (APC) against the country's vice-president, Soloman Berewa, who is standing for the ruling Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP).

The vote is billed as a test of the former British colony's recovery from the war, one of modern Africa's most brutal, infamous for the mutilation of civilians and drugged child fighters.

But the country is still ranked the second least developed in the world by the United Nations and many are disillusioned with rampant graft under the SLPP, whose outgoing President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah is obliged by a two-term limit to step down.


The sale of illegal "blood diamonds" fuelled more than a decade of war in Sierra Leone, helping to pay for arms and sustaining a conflict which killed 50,000 people and was largely about winning control of the diamond fields.

A clampdown on smuggling has helped boost official diamond exports, on track this year to reach their highest level since the end of the war by topping $160 million.

But with widespread corruption and competition from small-scale foreign companies with expensive bulldozers and water pumps, impoverished locals see little of the benefits.

"You can dig for more than a year and you get nothing ... You can pour $20,000 into a plot and at the end of the day you will not be able to make $100," said Ezekiel Dyke, General Secretary of the United Mineworkers' Union.

"The workers are suffering and being mistreated ... Abuse, misuse, ill treatment -- these are some of the reasons that led to the war; that's why people decided to join the rebel leaders," he said.

Many simply want food and peace.

Bent double over a large circular sieve in a water-filled pit alongside a rutted Koidu road, Alusine Dumbuya shifts gravel while intently listening to radio broadcasts about the polls.

"I will vote for my rights," says the 27-year-old, who plans to vote APC. "They can do better things for us in this country. Sometimes we only get 1,500 leones a day for food. It is small, small."

Investing | Africa - Reuters.com