Sierra Leone is starting to reap the benefits of its natural resources after the end of a brutal civil war but elections next year will be a key test of the country’s recovery, its vice president said.
The battle for control of rich diamond reserves fuelled more than a decade of conflict in the West African former British colony, a war which killed 50,000 people and became notorious for images of drugged-up child soldiers and mutilated civilians.
Four years after the guns fell silent, Freetown’s streets are still full of unemployed young men, many of them former fighters. But the economy, based on vast reserves of minerals including bauxite, rutile, diamonds and gold, is recovering.
“There is much more economic activity (this year), especially in the mining sector, as well as agricultural production,” Vice President Solomon Berewa — expected to be the ruling party’s candidate for presidential elections due next year — told Reuters in an interview conducted on Tuesday.
“Rutile is now on board fully, we’re starting exporting, bauxite is coming ... There is a lot of prospecting going on again for gold. These are areas which were dormant during the war and have just been reactivated.”
Diplomats say that while the security situation in Sierra Leone, which lies in the heart of a volatile region, has improved, more needs to be done to lure investors and tackle the economic malaise that was a root cause of the 1991-2002 war.
“The U.K. government and U.K. business sector believes that Sierra Leone is open for business,” said James Roscoe, second secretary at the British High Commission in Freetown.
“We think it is now a secure African state, but it still has a long way to go in terms of breaking down institutional barriers to investment and fighting corruption.”
Presidential elections due in the first quarter of 2007 will be a key test of the country’s recovery, politicians and diplomats say, particularly as they will be the first since the war to be held without a massive United Nations presence.
The conflict — during which fighters hacked the limbs off civilians — was declared over after the deployment of a U.N. peacekeeping force which numbered more than 17,500 soldiers at its peak and provided logistical support during polls in 2002.
“We are hoping these elections will help us to underscore further our democratic credentials,” said Berewa, who confirmed he would be running in next year’s leadership contest.
“It will also underscore the fact that peace and security have returned to the country and that we are back on the right track in terms of governance,” he said.
The International Monetary Fund expects Sierra Leone’s economy to grow by more than seven percent in 2006 after a similar performance last year, much of it on the back of resurgent extractive industries.
The Sierra Rutile Company expects to make its first shipment since the war next month from established reserves in the south. Meanwhile, a new, higher-grade deposit of the titanium ore — used as a paint pigment, among other things — has been found in the north of the country.
The government is also seeing ever greater revenues from diamond exports as it clamps down on smuggling.