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A World Bank study, released on May 14, 2003, concludes that while diamonds fuelled an "economic miracle" in a country like Botswana, they led to a total economic collapse in Sierra Leone. This study highlights how sound economic management or mismanagement can produce drastically different results.

The report outlines that in 1961, the per capita income of the two diamond-rich African countries approximately stood at $1,070. Today, Botswana is cited as an example of a stable and well-functioning democracy, with a per capita income of about $8,000, relatively equally distributed. In contrast, Sierra Leone's poor governance "led to the state's collapse and created the incentive, as well as the opportunity, for a rebellion throughout the 1990s." Sierra Leone is now among the poorest countries in the world, with a per capita income of about $480.

Over the years, the study observed, the government of Sierra Leone lost control over its assets, enabling private entrepreneurs and organized criminals to take charge of the diamond mining. Youths were marginalized in the economic and political collapse of the 1980s and turned increasingly to crime and drugs, making it "relatively easy" for rebel leader Foday Sankoh to recruit young men for his civil war and to finance warfare through diamond extraction. Botswana on the other hand "went down a different path", and with a sound financial management of its precious stones, the country has emerged as one of the very few success cases of stable democracy in Africa.

It is now a year since the release of that World Bank report, and so far, going by latest developments on the ground-in the diamond industry and other sectors of the country's economy-the situation in real terms remains the same, if not worse. Sierra Leone ranked the poorest of the poor in the recent United Nations Development Report, the fouth time in a row, with almost the same per capita income. International and local media reports are awash with the increasing impatience of the population who continue to suffer in abject poverty with dwindling public utilities ranging from transport, electricity, health and sanitation, water to food security, to name a few.

The marginalisation of youths, a problem which partly provided Foday Sankoh's rebellion with the manpower he needed, is still very much evident in the country. A recent BBC report by Lansana Fofana hinted on how he found some of these marginalised youths digging in diamond pits in Kono instead of being in School. More than half of the squad of the Sierra Leone under 17 were forced to go into hiding and seek asylum recently in New Zealand because, according to them, they have no future in Sierra Leone. All these are far from being isolated, but rather part of a wider chain of more recurrent, developments. With teachers and lecturers always on strike for better conditions of service, the educational system has been rendered weak and ineffective to serve a growing, and increasingly desperate, youth population. This explains why most youths today in Sierra Leone are in a hurry to leave the country for better opportunities elsewhere.

It is now more than two years since the war was officially declared over, but the reconstruction efforts are still a long way to go to translate all the flowery promises of making use of the diamonds and other valuable minerals to benefit the people. Last year alone, over 45 million US dollars worth of diamonds left the country through unofficial channels. But according to a report from the government gold and diamond office, $44 million worth of diamonds had left the country through the official channel so far this year, predicting a constant rise in exports over the next several years.

"This is the first time in the last 15 years that diamond exports have increased so significantly,... "That steady increase is linked to good governance and awareness." said Lawrence Ndola Myers, the Chief Government diamond Valuator and head of the Gold and Diamond Office.

International watchdogs have estimated that illegal smuggling of diamonds from the poor tiny country , denied the country's state coffers a staggering $400 million over the past 15 years. Legal trading resumed cautiously in 2000, with exports of about $10 million worth of alluvial diamonds. By last year, Sierra Leone legally shipped $76 million in raw stones to cutters in Europe, Israel and Lebanon.

If, as Myers put it, the surge in diamond exports is linked to good governance and awareness, then it must indeed be welcome as good news since these are words that have been lacking in the political landscape in Sierra Leone for ages. It is now hoped that corruption, characterised by advance fee payment and bribery, which has been bugging this country's steady growth to catch up with countries like Botswana, is now becoming a thing of the past.

But again it is always easier said than done. Sierra Leone indeed has a long way to go to catch up with Botswana, and this process can only be accelerated if, and only if, pro-active measures are put in place to eradicate corruption in the mining sector, as well as other important sectors of the country's development. This financial discipline is also needed if the millions of dollars accrued from the diamond sector, and other areas of the national economy including aid, are to trickle down to the ordinary man by way of providing jobs and very basic social amenities such as water, electricity, health and sanitation, education etc.

 

 

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