Sierra Leone’s President Ernest Bai Koroma on Friday embarked on his first foreign trip since taking office this week, heading to neighbouring Guinea and Liberia to promote ties damaged by more than a decade of war.
The former insurance executive was sworn in on Monday within hours of being declared winner of a run-off election, the first in the former British colony since United Nations peacekeepers left after the end of the 1991-2002 civil war.
Poorly controlled borders meant rebels and mercenaries, many of them children, crossed between Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire during intertwined conflicts in the 1990s, among the most brutal in modern African history.
Koroma’s trip aims to bolster cooperation in the region so that such unrest cannot happen again, officials said.
“First we will talk about security. If you have good relations with your neighbours you’re halfway there,” Koroma’s spokesperson Alpha Kanu said as the presidential convoy made its way to Freetown airport amid cheers of support. “It means if anybody wants to invade this country, it will be very difficult.”
Sierra Leone’s conflict was triggered when rebels attacked from Liberia, already engulfed by its own civil war. Sierra Leone’s then-president, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, accused his Liberian counterpart, Charles Taylor, of backing the insurgents.
Taylor, now on trial at The Hague for war crimes, meanwhile accused Guinea of backing the rebels active on his territory.
Mistrust between the three countries helped keep the intertwined conflicts raging for a decade, costing a quarter of million lives and leaving a region with natural riches including diamonds, timber and iron ore mired in abject poverty.
While the guns have long since fallen silent, Sierra Leone and Liberia remain among the least developed nations in the world. Corruption is rife, infrastructure is in ruins and jobless youths mill on street corners.
Koroma’s win comes almost two years after Harvard-trained economist Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf won office in Liberia, becoming Africa’s first elected female head of state. Many hope the new leaders will open a fresh chapter in the region’s fortunes.
Reviving the Mano River Union, a regional bloc founded in 1973 to encourage economic cooperation, is seen as key to future stability. The union, which takes its name from a river that starts in Guinea and forms the boundary between Liberia and Sierra Leone, fell apart during the wars.
“The three countries have these very porous borders and different ethnic groups straddling the borders, so they are very difficult to police,” said Michael Kargbo, a political analyst in Freetown.
“There’s a lot of smuggling. If we open up the countries and harmonise our tariffs and try to cooperate, then it will benefit all three,” he said.
Koroma met Guinea’s President Lansana Conte on the first leg of his one-day tour and was due to travel on to Liberia later.
He was due to discuss with Conte a territorial dispute between Guinea and Sierra Leone over a patch of land alongside the Makona River, occupied by Guinean troops during Sierra Leone’s war and claimed by both countries. — Reuters
Additional reporting by Katrina Manson in Freetown, Alphonso Toweh in Monrovia