from Africa in Transition

Sierra Leone: Change You Can (Not) Believe In

November 30, 2011

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Sub-Saharan Africa


Sierra Leone

This is a guest post by Mohamed Jallow. He is an interdepartmental associate at the Council on Foreign Relations and graduate of the CUNY Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies. Mohamed came to the United States as a refugee from Sierra Leone in 2003.

Sierra Leone is in the middle of a corruption firestorm after a damaging al-Jazeera investigative report uncovered what appears to be corruption at the highest levels of government, including the vice president. Sorious Samura, the country’s celebrated investigative journalist, broke the story for al-Jazeera after he infiltrated government offices. For two thousand dollars, undercover reporters were granted access to the vice president and other senior government officials who hinted at the possibility delaying the official ban on timber exports and allow the so-called investors to engage in what is clearly an illegal activity. You can watch the entire video here.

Corruption is not new in Sierra Leone, and some might say it is a normal part of conducting business there. The report has generated considerable public interest, both in Sierra Leone and in its influential diaspora communities. Many are calling for the resignation of the vice president, Sam Sumana, who is featured in the video apparently talking to the undercover reporters and appears to indicate that he could arrange for a delay in implementing the moratorium on timber exports. Though he personally denied any involvement, two of his close associates where offered money.

In a rather bizarre attempt at damage control, Sylvia Blyden, a well-known newspaper proprietor and government insider, released her own documentary, attempting to absolve the vice president of corruption and pinning the blame on his associates. She alleged that the original report is a witch-hunt aimed at bringing the vice president down. In a hastily produced video, she goes to great lengths trying to claim entrapment and accuses al-Jazeera of fabrication.

Sierra Leoneans nevertheless are outraged about the entire scandal, and for what they see as graft within a government that made fighting corruption its top priority. The question now is not whether someone should be fired and held accountable, but whether cronyism will once again trump accountability—as it has in the past. There have been similar outcries over the past two years, following a slew of large mining and land deals that were signed without proper vetting or transparency. These concerns are justifiable because the country remains one of the most corrupt in Africa, a fact that is impeding its recovery from the decade long civil war that ended in 2002. To its credit, the government has stepped up efforts to combat corruption, though it will be a difficult battle against entrenched interests.

In fact, thanks to an avalanche of reactions from the country’s growing and influential social media community, the government and its anti-corruption agency are now vowing to investigate the matter and bring all those involved to account. For the first time, Sierra Leoneans are foregoing their normal ambivalence toward corruption and want this government, despite its rhetoric, to go after its sacred cows. Failure to do anything about this scandal will spell doom for an otherwise popular president as the 2012 general elections approach.