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2012: The Year for Change in Sierra Leone - and Africa

Posted: 22/02/2012 00:00

If 2011 goes down in history as the year of Arab revolutions, then there is hope 2012 will be the year democracy triumphs. Across the world, from Russia to the continent of Africa - where my country of Sierra Leone is holding Presidential and Parliamentary elections this year - so many countries are in need of governments that are in tune with the needs of their people.

And in Sierra Leone a positive new direction needed. Our current government has been in the news of late, and not for the right reasons. From allegations of corruption levelled at the Vice-President's office by Al-Jazeera, to Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index showing an increase in corruption in the country, to the Mayor of Freetown arraigned before the courts on a 25 count charge of corruption, the outlook is not good.

For the 400,000 Sierra Leoneans living in the UK, this is worrying. Many arrived as refugees during the years of bitter civil war that followed 18-years of one-party rule by the All People's Congress, the party of the current President who was democratically elected in 2007. Many wish to return home, and though while in the UK some have become distant from the party-politics of their homeland, others frustrated by the speed of change in Sierra Leone are forming online groups and helping to campaign for a new direction in the country's governance this year.

In part this is because the APC - the party of the current Vice President, the Mayor of Freetown and the current President - has not been as supportive of democracy as people once hoped. In September last year, I was stoned and hospitalised by government supporters while a attending a rally that was intended to launch my candidacy for the elections. Rallies were then banned by the police in a serious blow against freedom of speech.

In early January following a shock victory in a local election by my Sierra Leone People's Party in the Western Provinces - a part of the country long considered a stronghold of the APC - the newly elected representative was stabbed in the leg and then beaten by police. After waking up from a coma in hospital, he has now been left to languish in prison after being denied bail by the courts.

It was an absence of democracy, freedom of speech and a serious ethnic imbalance in government that led to civil war, and it only ended when free and fair elections returned in 1996.

No Sierra Leonean wants such atrocities to happen again, and it only the safety valve of the ballot box which can ensure it.

Yet at the same time Sierra Leoneans need more than the knowledge that elections will be free and fair. As it was once said in America, "you cannot offer a hungry man the Constitution". The people of Sierra Leone need to see with their own eyes and feel the difference in their pockets that the economic and social development of the country is moving in the right direction.

If our President is to be believed, then Sierra Leone is booming. Supported by Tony Blair and international lobbyists, he has taken this message around the world. But good PR is no substitute for the truth. When political appointments have been made nearly exclusively from the President's own tribe, his Vice President's aides have been caught on camera offering to lift bans on illegal timber contracts and Colonel Gaddafi gifted honorary membership of the Sierra Leonean parliament, there is so clearly much that is rotten.

The people of Sierra Leone know this. And the Sierra Leonean Diaspora in the UK knows this too. This is why so many of them are now rallying for change.

For ordinary Sierra Leoneans, life has become much harder. Rice, flour and fish - the essential foodstuffs of our people - have doubled in cost since 200710. Fuel prices have rocketed. Five million Sierra Leoneans remain in desperate poverty. This decline is in contradiction to a Government that portrays itself as spearheading an economic boom.

That's why a change of leadership cannot come soon enough. There must be a newfound coherence in our economic policies and development goals. Foreign investment must be agreed transparently and in the public domain to protect our natural resources and people and bring our hardworking but increasing disillusioned youth into employment.

When I campaign across the country this year I will put forward a positive message to those yearning for a better life. Sierra Leone, and the African continent, has much to offer the world economy. Direct capital investment is only just beginning to flow. Under responsible leadership, working closely with our development partners, we can seize this opportunity. A modern market economy can exist, our reliance on foreign aid is not permanent and when the world emerges from these dark economic times, our nation will be ready to grasp every opportunity that comes its way.

However none of this will be possible if our government does not demonstrate willingness to operate freely and fairly. Economic growth will never materialise while Mr Koroma presides over at best incompetent and at worst corrupt stewardship of our economy while simultaneously undermining the political process. These coming months are therefore a chance for Mr Koroma, and the entire Sierra Leonean political class to demonstrate that we are the guardians of our nations resources and that we respect the rights, desires and freedoms of our citizens.

Our country has been through tough times - through dictatorship, civil war economic collapse. I am determined that we shall not return to those dark days. And I am also determined come election day the positive momentum towards respect for democracy and the will of the people will reach Sierra Leone.