S Leone leader promises 'zero tolerance' on graft

Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma promised “zero tolerance” on Thursday for corruption in his country after a leaked government report said rampant official graft had swallowed up donor funds.

Speaking at his formal inauguration in Freetown, the 54-year-old former insurance executive called for a change of attitude in the West African state to leave behind nearly two decades of poverty and conflict.

Koroma won a tense presidential ballot in September as the opposition candidate and was quickly sworn in the same month, promising to heal political and social divisions still lingering after a 1991to 2002 civil war in the former British colony.

“I have no doubt, that like the phoenix, we shall rise from the ashes of war and rise like the proud nation that we are, the Athens of West Africa,” he said in a speech in the packed national stadium in Freetown.

On the eve of the ceremony, attended by several West African presidents, a leaked confidential government report commissioned by Koroma himself revealed chronic levels of corruption in the preceding administration of president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.

“We will exercise zero tolerance towards corruption,” he told the stadium audience, drawing cheers and applause.

“Corruption is not only a matter for the leaders and heads of government institutions, it is equally a matter for everybody ... unless we change our attitude, we shall never be able to create the prosperous country that we dream about.”

Cheering supporters of Koroma’s All People’s Congress (APC) party dressed in its red and white colours crowded the national stadium, where traditional dancers entertained the audience in sweltering heat before the start of the ceremony.

The formerly ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), unseated in the vote, boycotted the inauguration in protest of Koroma’s replacement of a pro-SLPP central bank governor.

The presidents of Nigeria, Senegal, Liberia, Gambia and Burkina Faso were among the guests at the ceremony.

Reform agenda

Koroma also pledged to reform the judiciary and civil service, remove barriers to investment and improve the lives of ordinary people in a country ranked the second poorest in the world last year by the United Nations Human Development Index.

He promised “to provide an environment where things get done and people are accountable for success or failure”.

United States-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) sent a public letter to Koroma urging him to make a break with a past that has included one of Africa’s most brutal civil wars in which drugged child soldiers slaughtered civilians and hacked off their limbs.

“Five years since the end of the armed conflict, the government has failed to stem rampant corruption, which has for decades robbed Sierra Leoneans of their basic human rights,” Peter Takirambudde, HRW’s Africa director, said in a statement on the eve of the inauguration.

“The time of turning a blind eye has passed: President Koroma’s administration must face the problems ... head on.”

Information Minister Ibrahim Kargbo said the government would follow up on the leaked corruption report and the Anti Corruption Commission would take appropriate action as required.

“Senior members of the past government tampered with state funds, donor funds, and the international community is appropriately most unhappy about it,” he told reporters, adding the report would be made public in due course.
- Reuters

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