Sierra Leone

Diamond in the rough

Sierra Leone’s first 50 years of independence were blighted by wars and mismanagement, but the West African country’s High Commissioner to London, Edward Turay, tells Embassy Magazine there is light at the end of the tunnel

The story of Sierra Leone’s first 50 years of independence is a tale of survival and courage in the face of adversity, much like the life story of the country’s High Commissioner to London, Edward Turay.

“During the past 50 years we have had so many problems – no doubt about it – civil wars, bad governance, corruption,” says Turay speaking on the occasion of his country’s golden jubilee.

Sierra Leone came into being on 27 April 1961 with very little development – 47 miles of tarmac, to be exact – remarks Turay. The ‘blood diamonds’ and minerals beneath its soil turned out to be a curse; the wealth made corruption commonplace and funded a succession of military coups and civil wars.

But what Sierra Leone did have was education. “We were known as the Athens of West Africa,” says Turay, who is a product of the system.

Born into a large family, the son of a local chief, he lost his mother at seven months and learned from a young age to fend for himself. “My father always used to say that I would be the first lawyer in the family because I liked to argue!” he laughs.

So, after obtaining a business degree, he boarded a steamboat and sailed for Liverpool, where he studied law at Manchester University (and started a lifelong passion for Manchester United football). After practising law in the UK and Jamaica, his president persuaded him to return home to serve as a magistrate.

It wasn’t long before Turay’s gift for debate led him into politics and in 1986 he was elected the All People’s Congress (APC) MP for the Bombali district, a seat he held for the next quarter of a century.

“As we mark the 50th anniversary of our independence we can celebrate that we are united. Despite the atrocities committed we were able to come together as a nation to forgive ourselves”

But it was a perilous time to be an outspoken politician. Corruption and mismanagement had brought the economy to its knees and in 1992 a military junta seized power. The High Commissioner, who was then Secretary General of the party, was jailed six times and narrowly escaped a massacre inside the notorious Pademba Road Prison.

Undeterred, as leader of the APC he registered his party for the 1996 elections and ran for president. He did not pull his punches during the campaign, loudly criticising the junta for failing to stem the incursions of the RUF rebels.

“I said to the military: ‘Get out of power now, go back to your barracks.’ The moment I said that, I feared for my life,” he recalls. The High Commissioner believes that he owes his life to the diplomatic community in Freetown, who rallied around him. “The consul general of Germany said they would tell the military junta that if anything happened to me, they would consider them accountable.”

In the end he lost the elections but a year later the country suffered another coup – and this time he and his family fled to neighbouring Guinea. With secret agents operating in the country, Turay had to seek asylum in the US.

The intervening years were appalling for the country – the High Commissioner tells of acts of unspeakable brutality committed by RUF insurgents. It was UK soldiers who eventually routed the rebels in 2000, for which he and Sierra Leone remain deeply indebted, adds the High Commissioner.

“The British intervention was a turning point. Their actions effectively ended the war. And after the war, they stood by us and supported us in rebuilding the country – they trained the army and the civil service.”

With the war ended, Turay returned to contest the 2002 elections, but lost to the SLPP and handed leadership over to Ernest Bai Koroma who went on to win the elections in 2007. Turay was appointed leader of the majority party and Leader of Government Business in Parliament before being appointed High Commissioner to London.

Despite its traumatic past, the High Commissioner refuses to believe there is nothing to celebrate on Sierra Leone’s golden jubilee. “As we mark the 50th anniversary of our independence we can celebrate that we are united. Despite the atrocities committed we were able to come together as a nation to forgive ourselves. Under our Peace and Reconciliation Commission people came together – Christians, Muslims alike.”

From languishing at the bottom of the UNDP’s UN development table, the country has climbed nine places. “We also top the Gallup Co-exist Index for religious tolerance,” adds the High Commissioner.

The Koroma Government has introduced its Agenda for Change policy framework, which aims to mobilise the country’s considerable resources to get it off its aid dependency. “We are running the government as a business – and our citizens are the shareholders. We are accountable to them,” says the High Commissioner.

The government has engaged in a massive reconstruction effort, rebuilding destroyed infrastructure, houses and schools. “We want to regain our reputation as the Athens of West Africa,” says Turay.

With a generation of uprooted children and child soldiers, it will be a challenge, he admits, but adds that the government is working hard with the help of NGOs to reintegrate and educate this ‘lost generation’.

Attracting investors to the country is critical and the government has introduced a package of incentives for those who want to do business in Sierra Leone.

The location of the country is ideal, he adds. “We are only six hours to South America from Freetown. We are negotiating with the Chinese to build at new international airport so that we can be the hub of Africa for the growing markets of South America.”

With corruption being a hurdle to businesses both local and foreign, the government is on a determined anti-corruption drive, adds Turay. “We have introduced an Independent Corruption Commission and we’ve looked at corruption laws all over the world. The law we’ve introduced is one of the toughest.”

Attracting Sierra Leone’s diaspora in the UK back home is a long-term goal for the High Commissioner but he realises it will take time to upgrade the country’s infrastructure to acceptable levels. “They joke that we are the darkest country in the world – because of the power shortages! There is a lot to do but we are working on it.”

Literally and figuratively, Sierra Leone is emerging from the darkness and the High Commissioner says he is mounting “an aggressive public relations campaign” in the UK and the eight other countries to which he is accredited.

“Many people think we are still fighting. I have to go to all those countries and let them know that the war finished a decade ago. We have peace and investment. We want to revive the ideals of those freed slaves who made Sierra Leone their home all those years ago.”

Changing the public’s perception of the country is a tough challenge but Sierra Leone is fortunate to have the persuasive Edward Turay arguing its case. “I risked my life for my country. I am not about to give up on it now.”

Elizabeth Stewart, editor of Embassy Magazine, interviewed the High Commissioner for Singapore on 15 July, and updated the text on 5 November