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Rebuilding Lives and Regenerating War Torn Communities: Sierra Leone’s Finance Minister Welcomes the Return of Direct British Intervention in Governance

Abdul R Thomas

Editor – The Sierra Leone Telegraph

14 June 2010

When the Finance and Economic Development Minister of a nation goes live on the BBC television to tell the world that his country welcomes the return of colonial rule, you know that the country is in deep trouble and that the government has run out of ideas as to how to alleviate the impoverishment of its people. Is this the new governance model being mapped out for Sierra Leone’s future?

Ten years ago, the BBC’s Alan Little reported on Sierra Leone’s civil war and Britain’s military intervention that helped in bringing that war to an end. In his latest televised documentary – ‘Returning to Sierra Leone’ shown yesterday on the BBC News 24, Alan was surprised to find that ten years of peace have brought very little change in the lives of the people.

But more of a surprise awaited the BBC reporter as he discovered the level, depth and pervasiveness of British post-war intervention in the running of the affairs of state in Sierra Leone, with each government ministry being supervised and controlled by a British civil servant.

As Alan reports “Britain’s military intervention has had a legacy that continues till this day, for political intervention followed in its wake. Britain the old colonial power is forging a new kind of partnership with the colony it once ruled.”

Although critics would regard this level of direct hands-on intervention as neo-colonialism, there are many in Sierra Leone including senior government ministers who welcome the return of British government control. They regard it as playing a vital role in stabilising and providing a system of checks and balances, against government corruption, profligacy and poor governance.

In the last ten years, since the end of Sierra Leone’s civil war, Britain has contributed over £500 Million in humanitarian and development aid, through DFID - its international development department. But Sierra Leone continues to languish at the bottom of the Global Human Development Index, with widespread poverty, unemployment, high adult and child mortality.

During his visit to the northern province of the country, Alan Little observed that “ten years of peace haven’t done much to shift the stubborn, entrenched poverty of this place. There is a solemness that won’t lift. Freetown is only a few hours drive from here but in a sense it might as well be a million miles away, because although it’s true that there has been peace for ten years, it is also true there has been no discernable economic development up here.”

“Generations after generations of kids are coming out of school or college with no prospect of a job, and so you can sense that the anger, the frustrations and the despair that fuelled so much of the conflict during the war, are all still in place,” says the BBC reporter.

“A decade ago British intervention lifted them out of war. Now they want continued British intervention to lift them out of poverty. The ties that bind the two countries they say here - are like the bonds within a family.”

Sulaiman Kamara – the son of a Paramount Chief in the northern province of Sierra Leone told Alan Little, “well I believe the British are our colonial masters, we have been together, are almost infused into each other now, so we don’t want that to break up.”

Although many in Sierra Leone would not disagree with Sulaiman Kamara, however, most would want to tread cautiously towards any strategy that would see the wholesale transfer of power back to London’s Whitehall, with the President of Sierra Leone playing a ceremonial role. Such a policy would be disastrous for both the UK and Sierra Leone.

As Alan Little remarked “there is something unsettling; something counterintuitive in this enthusiasm for foreign interference. In my own life time, Africa freed itself from the shackles of colonial domination.”

“It is fifty years since the British left” the reporter observed. “Older people here still talk with sadness of the bright promise of that time – the rush of optimism, before the long relentless decline.”

Professor Eldred Jones – former Lecturer at the University of Sierra Leone, told the BBC reporter “the fact that the British had to come back does mean that we had not been able to organise ourselves as an independent nation, to the extent that we had to rely on the British to return.”

“But I think that without making too many excuses there are explanations for that. We were plunged into one man – one vote practically overnight, and we are still learning what all this is about” says Professor Jones.

But many young Sierra Leoneans would disagree with the Professor. They would argue that Sierra Leone’s poverty and degradation are self-inflicted. They’ll point at poor governance, the lack of political will, corruption and over-reliance on the mining industry for the nation’s survival as the root causes of the country’s poor state of affairs.

Tony Blair’s Africa Governance Initiative team working alongside the government of Sierra Leone is responsible for some of the key decisions of state policy of President Koroma’s government.

As the BBC report confirms “Britain has taken its former colony by the hand. British aid comes with strings attached. British government officials sit in the main offices of state here, monitoring what the ministers do; supervising, scrutinising, guiding the country toward European style good governance.
Some say Britain is now in effect reshaping this country for future generations.”

For Valnora Jones – Head of the country’s Campaign for Good Governance, it is obviously clear that the British government, through DFID is to some extent running Sierra Leone. She observes some sense of neo-colonialism creep in the country.

But what does the government of Sierra Leone makes of it all?

One should really expect President Koroma’s government to proudly present its ‘Agenda for Change’ and all the economic achievements its propaganda media are peddling about development in the country since coming to power.

This is what Alan Little put to the Minister of Finance and Economic Development – Dr. Samura Kamara:

“It is quite odd isn’t it, that the old colonial master should be playing such a leading role in the country?”

“Yes, I want them to play more. They should take leadership” says Sierra Leone’s Finance Minister Samura – cheerfully.

“So Britain is playing a big role in shaping the character and nature of this country and you want them to take the lead?” asked Alan Little!!

“Yes, I want them to play a much bigger role” answered Minister Samura. But the minister would not accept the charge that this new British role that he is advocating could be construed by many as ‘neo-colonialism’. He said that it is a kind of partnership, which is based on the recognition that the global architecture for development has changed.

This new partnership with the British would be different from the old colonial master - servant relationship, said Minister Samura. But what most Sierra Leoneans would find rather unsettling is the idea of a partnership not led by the elected government of Sierra Leone, but by the former colonial power. This change in power relationship therefore lend itself open to be interpreted by many as neo-colonialism.

There is little doubt most Sierra Leoneans would prefer to see Britain’s role in Sierra Leone’s development as that of an enabler, or better still catalytic, as the country maps out a new development strategy for the future. But, the importance of Sierra Leoneans regarding themselves as masters of their own destiny is crucial in this process.

As Alan Little concludes, “when the Victorians came here, they believed they were civilising Africa. Theirs’ was the civilising mission. Freedom, the civilising mission – root and branch. It contains within it the idea, that if you planted the seeds of the eighteenth century enlightenment in the soil of West Africa, somehow European institutions and values would take root here and flourish.”

“The idea that Europe could, and therefore should remake Africa in the image of Europe; the idea that Europe could and therefore should somehow save Africa from itself. Can you draw a direct line from those early pioneers of empire to Britain’s intervention today?” asked the BBC reporter.

There is no doubt that there are Europeans today who are longing for the re-colonisation of the African continent, with the support and blessing of a few Africans. But the question that many Sierra Leoneans and indeed Africans would ask is whether the bitter lessons that came with two hundred years of subjugation have been learned?

As Michael Barratt Brown - the British Economist, mentioned in ‘Africa’s Choices’:

“While Africa leaders, many propped up by the West, are often corrupt or incompetent, an impressive range of regional initiatives and small-scale co-operatives, fledgling industrial projects, women’s organisations and peasant associations all represent major signs of hope. These countless initiatives, now springing from the grassroots of African life, embody the realities of an African road to development. They speak for good sense and great courage against the failed miseries of today; they challenge our failure to open up our markets to African exports and our minds to African expertise.”

Africa does not want to be transformed in the image of Europe. What Africa needs is a partnership with those that respect its right to self-determination, and those who can provide the capital investment needed for Africans to exploit their own resources, and to be paid fair prices by the international markets for its goods.

In his first address at the State Opening of Parliament, President Koroma told the nation that the dramatic change occasioned by winning the 2007 Presidential and Parliamentary elections, through the will of the people, clearly illustrated the advantages and pitfalls of democracy.

This change, he maintained, is a reminder that when a government fails in its principal duties of good governance, reneges on it promise to effectively serve the people, and fails in meeting the basic needs of the country, that government is destined to be rejected by the people.

President Koroma therefore stressed his determination and that of his government to avoid this ominous prospect by working hard to fulfil his campaign promises to develop Sierra Leone through his ‘Agenda for Change’.

According to the President, good governance will require public accountability in every sector. But the idea of sub-contracting the running of the machinery of state to the former colonial power was never one of his manifesto promises to the people of Sierra Leone.

While the people of Sierra Leone are indebted to the international community for the immense contribution they are leveraging to the country, especially the British government, the timing is now right for a new development model and international donor aid co-ordination strategy.

This new strategy should be based on Sierra Leone’s decentralisation and local economic development ambition. It should focus on the development of Local Economic Development Partnerships, bringing together the private sector, local communities, the voluntary sector and Local Councils.

These new Local Partnerships should be empowered to take responsibility for delivering development programmes across the country that are designed to address local development issues, through direct funding contracts with international donors. THIS MUST BE THE NEW AND REAL AGENDA FOR CHANGE.

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