MOVING ON FROM CHARLES TAYLOR: HOW SIERRA LEONE AIMS TO REBRAND ITS BLOOD DIAMOND IMAGE

It was a day nearly twenty years in the making. On 30 May 2012, the people of Sierra Leone gathered by the thousands in the capital, Freetown, to hear the verdict: Guilty. Ex-Liberian president Charles Taylor would now serve fifty years for his involvement in aiding and abetting the Revolutionary United Front’s effort to unseat former Sierra Leonean President Joseph Momoh. Although nothing can take away the pain and suffering of a merciless Taylor-backed civil war that left 50,000 dead, and thousands of others dismembered, the moment the International Criminal Court (ICC)’s Presiding Judge Richard Lussick read Taylor’s punishment must have provoked at least some catharsis for the citizens of Sierra Leone. Taylor, meanwhile, sat expressionless as the court found him guilty of eleven counts of rape, forced conscription of child soldiers, murder, and sexual slavery, which took place during the war between 1991 – 2001. Although careful to underscore that the “magnitude of the sentence is not commensurate with the atrocities committed”, Sierra Leone’s Deputy Information Minister Sheku Tarawali welcomed the outcome, calling the news a “step forward as justice has been done”. The announcement was only the latest hurdle in Sierra Leone’s relentless drive to shake off its image as a conflict-ridden nation awash in “blood diamonds” and ruthless armed rebels bent on dismantling any sense of stability. Now, more than a decade after the end of the country’s civil war turmoil, Sierra Leone appears ready to emerge more confident, prosperous and united.

Rebranding Sierra Leone

Although Taylor’s conviction may have provided the people of Sierra Leone with the confidence they needed to start life anew, the truth is that their country has already begun the long road towards normalcy. Following the UN’s decision to remove the last of Sierra Leone’s harsh sanctions in 2010, slowly, but surely, the path to economic recovery took shape. Aided by substantial international support, Sierra Leone rebuilt key infrastructure, including roads and schools, and increased security across the country. Additionally, in the wake of the civil war disaster, the country experienced something of a boom. Marketplaces blossomed where starvation and bloodshed once stood. New homes emerged in once barren lands. There was even talk among Sierra Leonean officials of turning the country’s pristine beaches into the region’s next tourism hotspot. By 2010 the growth rate stood at 5%, before increasingly steadily to 5.6% in 2011. Financial analysts, meanwhile, predict Sierra Leone’s growth rate will hit 6% in 2012. Most of this growth can attributed to the discovery of new iron ore mines, rapid infrastructure development and, more controversially, its reignited diamond mining industry. Although corruption in the diamond-mining sector still remains a problem, observers were quick to praise the country for its implementation of the National Anti-Corruption Strategy (NACS), which among other things, helped improve Sierra Leone’s system of governance.

This “economic boom” has been met with optimism from foreign investors. On 02 June 2012, Sierra Leone officials met with their Chinese counterparts to discuss additional investment opportunities for the East Asian powerhouse. Beijing is already actively engaged with leaders from Freetown, including President Ernest Bai Koroma, having reached a deal that would see Chinese state-controlled companies transform Sierra Leone’s dirt paths into modern roads. The Chinese Government also announced in 2011 that it would assist the country in its development of hydroelectric power for the once forgotten villages of Bathurst, Charlotte, Grafton and Regent, in a project expected to be finished by 2014.

Along with investment from China in the hydroelectric sector, mining has also predictably become an attractive industry for foreign investors. Since the end of the civil war in 2002, Sierra Leone has embarked on a public relations campaign to rid itself of its “blood diamond” past. To begin with, in 2003 the West African country joined the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, a highly criticised procedure which seeks to prevent conflict diamonds from being exported outside of the country. Although the certification scheme has been branded by many as simply a cosmetic answer to a deeper, harrowing problem, for many international investors Sierra Leone’s willingness to sign the measure indicated that it was serious to revamp its image as a country whose rebels paid convicted war criminal Taylor in “blood diamonds”. Following this, in 2003, the Israeli-owned Koidu Holdings S.A. became the first diamond-mining firm to invest in Sierra Leone’s mineral resource sector. In 2012, the firm completed a stone-crushing plant in the diamond-rich town of Koidu. The plant, and Kodu Holdings itself, has its detractors of course. For one, the factory, which runs twenty-four hours a day, only employs a “small percentage” of locals in the area. Additionally, locals are concerned about the environmental havoc that companies such as Koidu Holdings are reaping in the area. To quell any potential resentment, Koidu Holdings began building schools in the area, having recently constructed new classrooms for the United Methodist Junior Secondary School at Kimbadu Town. The construction of stone-crushing plants, meanwhile, may be a start for a town where most of its residents still hand-sift for diamonds just to make ends meet.

A Promising Future

Sierra Leone has, without question, come a long way in ridding itself of its brutal past. Whilst the horrors of the Taylor-backed bloody rebellion will always haunt the citizens of Sierra Leone, there is hope for a vibrant, more economically prosperous future. Nevertheless, the West African country still has an array of social ills to confront before all can enjoy its prosperity. Youth unemployment, like most of Africa, remains a huge challenge. At a shocking 60% of the population, failure to tackle youth joblessness may pose a significant risk for a country, which in the past, would see its young people join the ranks of some brutal militias. Furthermore, whilst blood diamonds appear to be a thing of the past, and the sector has risen to new heights (rising from US$10 million in 2000 to roughly US$130 million in 2004) according to the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), “more than 50% of diamond mining still remains unlicensed” whilst “considerable illegal smuggling of diamonds continues”. These stark figures should remind foreign investors, then, that although Sierra Leone may have finally rid itself of the brutal monster next door, a sense of caution must always be present when scoping out the country’s immense economic opportunities.

(Image: freetown-sierraleone.com)

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