When Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma won office last September, his election underscored his nation's slow return to democracy—and was a heartening sign on a continent battling chronic conflicts in countries like Sudan and Congo as well as fresh violence in Kenya and Chad. But Koroma faces many challenges in a country he calls a "paradox." While rich in diamonds and other mineral resources, Sierra Leone is one of the poorest places on earth. After an 11-year civil war, the West African nation is at the bottom of the UNDP's Human Development Index. Koroma spoke to NEWSWEEK's Christopher Werth during a diplomatic visit to London about blood diamonds, violence in Kenya and Sierra Leone's agenda for change. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: You have a tremendous challenge ahead of you. The civil war devastated the country, and unemployment is at 65 percent. How do you plan to improve standards of living?
Koroma: We are coming out of an election that has been claimed as free and fair, and the responsibility of that is to the high expectations of the electorate, for their lives to be better. We have quickly prioritized the issues that will get us on our feet again. One is the provision of electricity. We believe that it is key, and fundamental to all other development. And we have continued to make our country investment-friendly. We are reducing the time it takes to establish a business, reducing the cost of production, trying to do away with the administrative barriers to business.
What can be done to counter the number of educated people leaving the country for better opportunities?
We are aware that there's been a substantial brain drain over the years because of the war. We have quickly launched an appeal to Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora to come home and contribute to national development, and that has received positive reactions.
You ran your campaign on the urgent need to tackle corruption.
We are trying to review [the law] to ensure that we give the anticorruption commission complete autonomy. That will give them the authority to investigate and prosecute. The issue here is not only to prosecute but also to prevent corruption, which involves improving on our systems, ensuring that at the end of the day the consciousness that Sierra Leoneans have, that corruption should be the order of the day, will be taken away.
You've just instituted a temporary ban on logging, specifically citing environmental degradation and climate change as reasons for doing so. Is this part of your hope to establish an eco-tourism industry?
When we took over office there were all sorts of people and companies logging all over the country, and we know the implications of that to the environment. I believe that if this is allowed to go on, it will affect our country. We have a lot of natural habitat and vegetation that we hope to transform into national parks. This will not only improve on the environment, but it is also a tourist attraction for us. And we should not let them just disappear.
Do portrayals of Sierra Leone in movies like "Blood Diamond" have a continuing negative impact on the perception of the country?
Well, we have been out there in the news for the wrong reasons. Yes, we had a war. The war is over. We have gone through a rehabilitation process. We have done something in Africa that is a shining example. We will build on that. We will present ourselves as a Sierra Leone that is now a safe place to be. A Sierra Leone where you can do business. A Sierra Leone where we have the best beaches. And a Sierra Leone where you have paradise on earth.
Should people remain concerned about buying diamonds from Sierra Leone?
The situation has changed drastically. We have been implementing what is called the Kimberley Process [certification scheme], and we believe that the diamond industries are substantially under control. I think people should come to Sierra Leone to buy good diamonds. It's one of the safest places you can be on earth today.
What are your observations about the violence in Kenya?
What is happening in Kenya is unfortunate. It's unfortunate because it presents to the world that Africa is not able to manage itself. The issue now is bigger than both political parties and both individuals. It's about the survival of Kenya, and the image, and the impact that will have on Africa.