Ernest Bai Koroma became President of Sierra Leone 2007 in the country’s first peaceful transition of power since the conclusion of its civil war in 2002. Upon taking office, Sierra Leone was the lowest-ranked country on the United Nations Human Development Index.
Employing his private sector expertise, Koroma enacted a policy of economic openness by attracting foreign investment to spur job growth and to integrate Sierra Leone with the world economy in what was first known as the Agenda for Change.
Ten years on, President Koroma concludes his final year in office with a seven percent GDP growth outlook by the World Bank, an increasingly involved civil society, and a country which enjoys both freedom of the press and religious tolerance. In an exclusive interview, he discusses with The Worldfolio the challenges of his presidency and the way forward for his nation, which has been consolidating its state policy and democratic principles for development.
United World: September 2017 will be your final address before the United Nations General Assembly. Ten years ago, you came to office and Sierra Leone was at the bottom of the United Nations’ Human Development Index. Since then, you have been able to transform the nation into one of the fastest growing economies in the world, with impressive advances in infrastructure and human health. As you look back, what have been some of the ingredients that have enabled you to make this turnaround so significant for Sierra Leone?
Ernest Bai Koroma: Firstly, we owe it to our people, who are quite resilient. We have been through great difficulties in our history. For example, my administration came into office in 2007, just a few years after Sierra Leone was declared free from war. The eleven-year war had ended in 2002. Between 2007 and today, the resilience, commitment and determination of our people to put the past behind us moved us forward.
This is coupled with the fact that when we came into government we were quite clear on what we had to do. We knew that the country we imagined would require the attention from the government in every sector. We were quite grounded when we came into office, and we also knew that we had both limited time and resources.
We quickly worked out an agenda: within weeks, we prioritized our activities. This is how we came up with the Agenda for Change, which was our roadmap of governance within the first five years. We placed emphasis on the sectors which would trigger economic growth: infrastructure, energy, agriculture, social services and the generation of a private sector and business environment.
We sought support from the international community and development partners. We were quick to establish targets in terms of reaching milestones within the roadmap we set. This brought the confidence and support we enjoyed from the international community, which contributed to the turnaround that we experienced.
You worked hard to make sure the country was certified Ebola-free by the World Health Organization following the end of the epidemic. This was to give confidence to the world to come back and invest. How do you view the relationship now with international organizations?
No country can develop in isolation; there has to be a collaborative engagement between the country and international players to ensure that you build your country while strengthening international ties. The Ebola experience is an example of this point. We now live in a global village, and anything that happens here will have an effect in the rest of the world. It happened with Ebola, as people in the US, Europe and Africa were threatened by the disease. That is why there has to be more collaborative engagement.
As a country, we believe there was a somewhat sluggish response at first; but with time, we all got together and we had support from as far away as China, Russia, the US, and many other countries. In the process, the national engagement has taught us some lessons. We should not create carbon copies of initiatives implemented elsewhere; there has to be some amount of domesticating the issues. At the end of the day, if you do not try to make the issues relevant to the environment where you are implementing your actions, then there will be some level of sluggishness in accepting them; there might even be some resistance. This is why I think it is important that we collaborate internationally, but there is also the need for us to modify and re-engineer certain issues to meet domestic requirements.
In your speech last year at the United Nations General Assembly, you advocated for more African involvement, calling for the continent to have permanent seats on the UN Security Council. What will be your final message to the UNGA on Africa’s involvement as a continent and what role do you believe Sierra Leone should play?
Sierra Leone will continue to be the chair of the UN’s committee for the reform of the Security Council. We have come a long way in advocating the African position. Africa is simply requesting two permanent seats on the Security Council and two non-permanent seats.
Our arguments are simple. The UN is the most important global governance institution, and it addresses the issues of the world. These days, we talk about democracy, participatory government and inclusiveness.
Africa has a population of over one billion people; it is projected to be the fastest-growing continent in terms of population, and has mineral assets and resources that can feed the world and generate wealth. But most importantly, most of the issues that are discussed in the Security Council are issues about and for Africa. The least we can do is to participate, at the highest level of governance, in decisions that are affecting us. That is the simple demand Africa is making.
Africa has 54 members of the United Nations, more than any other regional group. When the UN talks about democracy, I do not see why Africa should be left out. When the UN talks about participatory governance and inclusiveness, Africa should be given priority to preside over issues that affect it.
We know that there has been some reluctance from not only the big players, but from smaller groups as well, in opening up a reform of the UN. Progress has been made, though, and at our last African Union meeting, we clearly agreed that we have to heighten the engagement at the level of the heads of state. For those of us that are members of the Committee of Ten, we will engage directly the members of the P5 on moving forward.
We hope that, with this direct engagement, we will be able to clearly identify what the various positions are. It is not good enough to express sympathy for the African position without taking a clearly defined position. That is going to be our next demand; this is the strong message that we are going to send. We cannot wait endlessly for this reform, which has been going on for ten years and has seen little progress made.
Of the 1.2 billion people within the continent of Africa, only 7 million of them live in Sierra Leone. Why has this small country taken on such a large. far-reaching cause?
It is not about Sierra Leone; it is about representing the African position. We are working in the Committee of Ten with 10 member states—two from each region in Africa. Sierra Leone was asked to take up the responsibility, which I believe is because we have shown an example of democratizing ourselves and of having good relationships with all the players of the world. We are not considered an extremist country; we are considered as a country that can reach out to every other nation. Because of this position, we can walk into the capitals of any country without any hindrance.
We not only have this kind of democratic credential, but we are also a country that is considered as a leader in terms of religious tolerance. We are accepted and can be listened to.
When we look at investment opportunities in Africa, every country has many of them. However, what set Sierra Leone apart are its peaceful transitions of power and ten years of stable democratic governance. Do you feel that Sierra Leone can use this as an element, not only for greater diplomatic interaction worldwide, but to build its economic influence as well?
Before the outbreak of Ebola, we had a projected growth rate of 13.2 percent, and we were considered one of the most transformed countries in terms of governance. We have conducted free and fair elections, we have strengthened our institutions, we are fighting against corruption, we are a religion-friendly country, and we have been reported to be the most peaceful country in West Africa. These are all credentials that give us the necessary attraction.
This is coupled with the fact that we have natural resources—we particularly have potential in agriculture and mining. We are also strengthening our governance institutions. These are all ingredients that come together to make us competitive. This is why, before Ebola, we had been attracting unprecedented levels of foreign direct investment. The inflow of tourism has started picking up and it is now projected that we are one of the fastest-growing tourist destinations. This is all as a result of the policies we have implemented, the kind of people we are, our openness and the democratic culture that we are inculcating in the country.
We are using this to build the economy, which is why we are being recognized by being asked to serve in the roles we are serving—such as the C10. Moving forward, I think we can only continue to build upon these great achievements. My time is limited, but I am sure that the succeeding government will continue along this path of transforming the country.
Much of US policy toward Africa has not yet been set. Before the Trump Administration discusses its policy goals for the continent, what would you like to add to the conversation, and what would you like the bilateral relationship to entail?
We have had an excellent relationship with the United States which has spanned decades. This means it will always be there, regardless of the government that comes in. Over the years, we have received plenty of support—the Peace Corps Program has been a remarkable intervention of the United States and we have also enjoyed their support during the fight against Ebola.
We also believe that in building up our democratic institutions they have been part of the process. This clearly states that we are already engaged. Despite us yet having to see the direction that the new government will adopt, I can only see us improving upon the excellent relationship that we already have. As the issues of the world become more global, the focus is for all of us to address them with a common approach. There may be differences here and there on issues such as climate change, security, terrorism and others, but overall, we have come to realize from experience that nobody is isolated. For example, there is the issue of refugees—people affected by these issues and who flee to countries that are peaceful. This gives you the indication that we have to work together. We have to collaborate, and bring all of our energy and expertise for the common good of mankind.
Sierra Leone, like many African countries, has an increasing relationship with China. In the last year, 35 percent of the country’s exports went to China, and Chinese investment is very significant. Looking forward, how will Sierra Leone ensure that it diversifies its investment and trade flows?
The bottom line is that we are an open economy. We have American companies here, as well as European, African and Chinese ones. It all depends on what is the attraction of the moment in terms of exports. Numbers might be high, but when you drill down to the issues, they might paint a different picture. We are open, and we do not give priority to any country at the expense of another.
In fact, we have American and European companies that have been here for a longer period of time than the Chinese companies. The Chinese companies’ approach is slightly different; they have been helping in certain infrastructural and agricultural programs.
It is not a question of one against the other; we do not have priorities and we believe that we have to have a win-win relationship with the partners in play. We have open laws and a liberal economy. With time, we will be able to make sure that everyone benefits. At the end of the day, it is about the people of the country and the partners that are involved in a specific engagement.
In one of the first interviews you gave as President, you mentioned your fight against corruption. How would you evaluate how far you have come and what do you need to take this to the next level?
We have come a long way. We campaigned on a platform of increasing the fight against corruption, and enhancing transparency and accountability. That is why, as soon as we came into government, our first major action was the reform of the anti-corruption legislation. We had the 2002 legislation, which did not give that much independence to the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC). This is why we replaced the previous act with the 2008 ACC Act.
The major signicance of this act was the independence that was given to the ACC. It now has the power not only to investigate but to prosecute as well. This was implemented during our period of government. This is one major change: we have created an institution to fight corruption and strengthen transparency.
The other aspect of our activity was to make the Auditor General’s office professional. There was a time when the public accounts were not made public. I was in parliament from 2002 to 2007, and by the time I left parliament we still had over three years’ backlog on the government accounts. This was not helpful; nobody could discuss them openly. We insisted on opening the office, improving it by making it more professional and making sure that public accounts were openly discussed. They are now uploaded to the web, and Parliament can discuss national accounts and invite people to make recommendations. We have not succeeded in doing all that has been recommended, but the fact that they are now being discussed and published on time, that people are invited to the Public Accounts Committee is great progress. It shows a high level of transparency and accountability.
The other major action that we have taken is to improve the profile of the judiciary. We now have an increased number of judges to address matters in courts, and there are now magistrates in every district of the country. This is all moving towards stronger institutions that will address issues which will enhance transparency and accountability. We have, for example, commercial courts that tackle issues of commercial nature.
These are all institutions that we have committed to establish because we believe that will help in our fight against corruption, and to improve transparency and accountability. We have to continue with this process; we still need more courts and to work on quickly addressing the recommendation made by the audit surveys. The Anti-Corruption Commission is making progress. The reports we are receiving are encouraging. We are not yet ‘there’, but we have made progress and we are proud of the record that we have achieved so far.
In addition to transparency, the key for long-term investment are the state policies which transcend one presidency to another. Being this your last year in office, of the policies that you have put in at such critical times for your country, which are the ones that you would most like to be sustained by your successor?
I would still zoom in on the major infrastructural programs that we started during my first term. We have to continue to improve on our infrastructure. Our roads and communications network has to further improve. We also have to continue to increase our generation and distribution, because energy is key to the development of any nation. It is a supporting service to the other social service delivery. You cannot be efficient in health and education if there is no energy and if the road infrastructure is not efficient.
When it comes to agriculture, we are now increasing production, we are trying to commercialize and to make our farmers run agriculture as a business, because it is where we have a good number of people involved and it has the potential to create not only jobs but also foreign exchange and greater opportunities.
These are the major sectors that I would encourage the coming president to continue with. Of course, we also have the big social issues of education and health, which require huge funding. You cannot obtain it if all the other infrastructural programs are not on. The focus should continue to be on these five sectors.
The advantage is that we are a small country. With another couple of kilometers of roads built, we will connect the rest of the country. We are now working on the national grid for the distribution of electricity. We have the major layout and the off-grid electricity generation through the solar panels we are installing in institutions, health centers and schools. If we continue in this direction, we could even obtain middle-income status sooner than we had projected.
We have discussed the Agenda for Change and the Agenda for Prosperity. What would their successor be? As you look for the longer-term policy, what is still needed for the next initiative to truly obtain the middle-income status? What are the sectors of the economy that you are targeting for the next phase of growth?
The focus should be on infrastructure, ICTs and education. We have to make sure that we create a situation in which most of our people will become employed. The right education will qualify them for the jobs that will be required in the market.
You cannot single out one thing; all of them are parts of a whole. Education, ICT, infrastructure, agriculture, should all be put together to ensure that we get to the next level, which is middle-income status. We do hope that with improvement in agriculture and with continued efforts in oil and gas exploration, it will fast track the process. But even without those, we will still get there.
I wish the President coming after me good luck. I am sure he will not be going through the initial difficulties that we went through, because we have already set solid foundations for the future development of the country