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Sierra Leone's Vice President Solomon Berewa headed a government delegation to a donor consultatative meeting hosted by the World Bank European Office in Paris in November 2002. Expo Times Executive Director and Editor in Chief Ibrahim Seaga Shaw, who also attended the meeting as a journalist invited by the World Bank, met the Vice President for this exclusive interview touching on the special court which has just kicked off, and other issues still relevant to the country's development aspirations.

SHAW: There have been reports that war victims are complaining of hardship and neglect because government seems to be paying more attention to the re-integration of ex-combatants and thus ignoring their plight. This has made some of them to be less enthusiastic to serve as witnesses to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. What has your government done to avoid such a situation ?

BEREWA: In the first place their interests have not been completely ignored by government. Some provision is being made for them, and also by certain NGOs. It may not be adequate, but something is being done for them. Secondly, it has been explained to them that it is in every body's interest to successfully implement the NCDDR programme that would secure the peace and make the country safe for everybody, including themselves. It has also been explained to them by no less a person than the president himself that it would be in the interest of the war victims and the amputees to appear before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) because it has the power, after completing its work, to make recommendations for some type of compensation or reparation to the war victims. Those who do not appear would have themselves to blame. So it is in their interest to appear before the commission. And so we are hoping that they would take the point to appear before the commission and assist it in its work.

SHAW: As former Justice Minister are you optimistic the TRC would actually serve the purpose for which it has been set up against the backdrop of the overlap of functions which most observers see between it and the special UN court ?

BEREWA: No, I dont see any overlap there. They are performing two different functions, though leading up to the same results. The TRC is a commission before which people are expected to come and explain what happened to them. The supposed perpetrators of these crimes are also expected to come and face their victims and reconcile with them. It is a healing process-those who were injured would reconcile with those who injured them-that is the purpose. At the end of the day the commission would set the records straight so that we can all know where we went wrong and why. It is not going to try people, send them to jail or hound them. It is a commission and not a court. Now the Special Court is a court ; it would be trying those who they feel were really responsible for the most heinious crimes against humanitarian law and against the individuals' human rights and so forth . These are the ones the Special Court would be trying to conclusion like any court and there would be no overlap between it and the TRC. Rather they would run in parallel. Both of them would be meant to bring peace and reconciliation to the country by getting peoples' grievances addressed and healed.

SHAW: What about a situation where those war victims who have reconciled with their aggressors before the TRC are again called upon to testify before the Special Court against these same aggressors, do you think they would cooperate ? Don’t you for see a problem here ?

BEREWA: If the TRC deals with a matter sufficiently and thinks that matter is within its competence, that is the end of the matter. If a matter is for the Special Court it goes there straight and not first to the TRC. If it is for the TRC, it goes there straight and not first to the Special Court. And so it is not the case that you go here first and go there later.

SHAW: But suppose you need a witness to justify a particular crime that had been committed-a very serious crime against humanity-may be you need a witness who might have testified before the TRC, and you need him or her to come before the Special Court. What are you going to do ?

BEREWA: If somebody has appeared before the TRC, and his victim or oppressor or the person who caused him injury is there as well ; in so far as that particular incident is concerned, it is finished there. A person may appear before the TRC as a witness, he may appear again before the Special Court as a witness in some other matter. The subject matter would not be the same.

SHAW: How far have you gone in raising funds to run the Special Court and the TRC ?

BEREWA: I think they have enough money now to start with their work. At least they have money that would go for one year…

SHAW: How long do you think the Special Court would sit ? Do you think it would drag on like the one on the Rwanda genocide which is now going into the third year ?

BEREWA: No, I dont think so. The two are different. I don’t expect this one to be too long. It is a special court and so it's own arrangements are made to be very simple-not complicated like that on the genocide in Rwanda.

SHAW: Who do you think would be the likely candidates of the Special Court ?

BEREWA: I wish I knew. I really cannot guess. It is a matter within the discretion of the court-the prosecutor. If a complaint is brought before the court it is up to the prosecutor to determine whether it would be given hearing.

SHAW: Now coming to the changing business climate in Sierra Leone that is supposed to be woeing potential investors, what is the fate of the top lebanese businessmen you recently expelled from the country?

BEREWA: They were expelled not because of their business practices but because of their conduct not been in the best interest of Sierra Leone.

SHAW: Have you reconciled with some of them ? What is the present situation ? Are you still having problems with these and other business men in the country ?

BEREWA: No we have no problem with them. Any person, whether Lebanese or Sierra Leonean who works within the law is okay. By and large the lebanese comply. I mean like other businessmen, they carry on with their normal business like other Sierra Leoean businessmen, but if individuals do wrong, we fall on them ; we deal with people as individuals and not as a class. Not because one lebanese has done something wrong, therefore all lebanese are bad.

SHAW: It is like Sierra Leone is quickly moving towards a free market economy with increasing trade liberalisation and other macroeconomic policies set in motion with the help of international financial institutions such as the World Bank and IMF. How is the government reconciling this with the need to protect local industries, promote social services and reverse the economic hardship that is still evident in the country making it to be ranked as the poorest in the world for the past three years in a row according to the UN development report ?

EREWA: We have no problem there. We have always encouraged an open door policy as a very important practice we have in our regime. Any good investors are free to come and compete with others. If you are good you stay. So trade liberalisation is not a new thing to us at all. You see we want to promote industry. We want to promote the manufacturing and export of goods because it would help to ease the unemployment problem we have. There would be a lot of jobs and this may also help us earn foreign exchange. If something is being produced or manufactured in the country, our tendency is to protect it. We wont stop imports but we wont allow imports to be brought in at such a low cost that would disturb or destroy the industry that is producing the same thing. We have some measures we take to protect somehow our local industries because it provides employment for our workers, it pays excise duties, and sometimes even export duties. We can do that without violating the principles of trade liberalisation. So paying tax, excise and custom duties ; these are not really much of an issue. I think what has been the problem is that there have been so many bad things happening in Sierra Leone that to export goods to Sierra Leone, the insurance premium was very high, and also because of the stealing at the ports, that again costs importers a lot. So that at the end of the day, the goods imported, when sold, are very expensive. But thank God that has now been controlled. So as you can see it is not more so the duties but the insurance premium and the importer loses so much goods to stealing and corruption but once those are controlled, people would not bother with the duties that are paid.

SHAW: At the World Bank business forum members of your delegation made some very convincing statements to woe investors to the country and kick-start the private sector economy once again with the war now officially declared over. What concrete steps have you been taking as a government in creating the right environment, including of course infrastructural sectors such as good roads, electricity etc. ? I know electricity has been a problem in the country for some time now. I dont know whether you would throw light on the latest on the Bumbuna hydro project which has been under construction for ages, and which you inherited.

BEREWA: Well, we are aware of the obstacles to attracting foreign investment. When I was addressing these business men today, I told them that some of these obstacles are in fact good opportunities for investment. For instance, we are doing everything to maintain the steady supply of electricity. But we can only do it within our available means and resources. If they are serious businessmen who want to invest in a big way, they would decide to invest in electricity and power. In this way the obstacle created by the absence of electricity, they can use that as an opportunity to invest ; to bring power and do it on a commercial basis. Government is doing everything to raise funds for the completion of the Bumbuna hydro project. The president has gone to a number of places and there are prospects that it would happen but it involves a huge sum of money. And it is not something you can get money for and then finish it tomorrow. It would take some time. But all these obstacles are opportunities for development. Investors can come and if they find out that even the communication network is facing problem then may be they would go for Sierratel and then invest in it and make it a success. Then services would be provided sufficiently. So all these things …that was what I was explaining to the investors this morning.

SHAW: Coming back to the Hydro project, what do you think has actually been slowing down its completion. It's like the construction has been going on for ages ! Is it a problem of security ? What is going on ? Are the Italians still working there ?

BEREWA: No, there is no problem with security. The Italians suspended the work long ago. But it was not damaged during the war. It was well protected. But it requires a lot of money. We are talking of more than US$34 million to finish it, and is a lot of money. So I mean there are a lot of contacts as I told you, with the Italians, the Germans…and some arrangement is going to be put together and so whatever happens. But what ever happens, it would not be finished tomorrow. It would take some time to see it through. So what we need now is the immediate thing-the revamping of the existing power system. And is why I said investors can come in and help revamp this project.

SHAW: And now talking about Sierratel, which you just mentioned, we have been receiving complaints from people who say that they, like others in other African countries, are seriously being exploited by cell phone companies. I dont know whether the government is protecting these rather vulnerable cell phone consumers. Because it's like for instance we hear that in Sierra Leone, when you have a mobile or cell phone, you have to be paying every month just to keep the number, in Europe it is not always the case as there are phones such as the pay-as-you-go's for which you are never required to pay monthly for keeping the number. Moreover, dont you think some of these cell phone agents are taking advantage of the gullibility of these poor consumers and that government is now paying much attention to the cell phones instead of reviving the already bad state of the land telephone network ?

BEREWA: Well, of course, there is no doubt that our cellular phone users are having a much more rougher time than those who use it in Europe as you said when you buy a cell phone you are asked to…you know there are so many ways of doing it. And you said the people are not using the national provider ; it is because it is not feasible everywhere. The cellular phone is easy to handle-you can go every where with it-that is people are clamouring for it. And of course because of that demand for it the tendency is there for people to be exploited. The best way to do it is to allow competition to operate. We have quite a number of cellular phone companies now and you know that may help a little bit. You cannot regulate it in the sense of how much they are to charge and how to charge. Pure economic forces would have to come into play, and if Sierra Tel is able to provide the service all over the country, the need to upgrade cellular phones becoming more expensive would be reduced.

SHAW: Is Sierra Tel also involved in the cellular phone business as well ? Do you share the view that their involvement might help ?

BEREWA: There is the plan for Sierra Tel to be involved but the modalities are still to be put in place and I think it would make the difference.

SHAW: Now talking about the other important issue of the need for an improved business climate to attract foreign investors, you assured potential investors at the World Bank sponsored business forum that the country is now safe and ready for business. But what are you going to do to encourage former investors in Sierra Leone who had the bitter experience of losing everything as a result of the conflict. Some former French investors in Sierra Leone, particularly in the tourist industry, when contacted, said they want to go back and revive their business but fear the risks involved in case of another problem since their home government has made it quite clear that they would not provide them with insurance cover should they prefer to venture again into Sierra Leone, more so as there is no longer any bi-lateral agreement between the two countries.

BEREWA:: Nobody would of course ask the French government to insure its nationals who want to go to do business in Sierra Leone or anywhere else for that matter. We cannot tell the French government to that. Any good businessman, what he wants to do is to find out. There is always what is called feasibility studies-find out about the climate, ask people who are doing business there ; there are French men who live there. That is why we we came here ready to explain to them about the present climate for businessmen in Sierra Leone. People could take advantage of that by going to the nearest missions in Brussels, London etc. And they have a French Consul in Sierra Leone who can tell them about the situation there. Moreover there are many Sierra Leone business groups there who can communicate with them and find out. But we cannot tell their government to insure them. We cannot tell any business man that before you come to Sierra Leone, make sure that you are insured by your home government. We would of course assure them that when they come there would be no problem.

SHAW: Which areas are you expecting more investors to come from : the US, Europe or Asia ; as you said you have an open door policy in your investment programme ?

BEREWA: We are not of course going to concentrate on one area or areas. Our doors are open to all genuine investors : Chinese, Italians , Koreans, Americans, British, French, they are all welcome.

SHAW: What about the foreign missions ; have most of them been re-opened. Most nationals tend to follow their missions ; when for instance they want to go and do business in a particular country such as Sierra Leone but if they dont have a mission to protect them they would not take the risk. What can you say to this ?

BEREWA: There are Koreans there, Israelis, just name the countries they are all there. Even though they dont have consuls or chargé d'affaires, once you are in Sierra Leone the government of Sierra Leone protects you. I mean whether your embassy is there or not ,it is not your embassy that protects you. We are more secured than most countries. It was the war that was causing all the problems but now that it has ended there is no reason to be afraid 

SHAW: What about the political situation where your party- the SLPP- recently won a land slide parliamentary and presidential elections. But what do you think would be the prospect for a sustainable multi-party democracy in a situation where people are saying that there is virtually no opposition in Parliament and therefore limited checks and balances?

BEREWA: You are the witness ; but I think there is opposition in parliament as we have about 20 something MPs from the opposition in parliament. You know that is not a small number. And if they want to work well they would do so by checking all policies properly before passing them into law. In any case the government we have is a presidential and not a parliamentary government. So is not a case where you go and pass a vote of no confidence in a government. Is a presidential system ; in parliament we dont have an opposition side and a government side rather we have a majority and minority parties. They can vote across issues and is working quite well.

SHAW: How do you think this would help the country's recovery programme ? What time frame do you have in mind for the country's economic reconstruction now that the war is over to move it away from the bottom of the development ladder-the poorest of the poor according to the UN ?

BEREWA: How could you not be the poorest country after waging war for all these years and after everything has been destroyed-people killed, buildings destroyed, the infrastructure destroyed. Our ranking as the last of the poorest is not surprising to us. Now the efforts we are making here and what we are doing all over the place is to make sure that we come out of this situation. And if we succeed in getting enough resources then that would determine how soon we would get out of this situation.

SHAW: Now that the World Bank report has praised the government for the impressive performance in checking inflation, what time frame can you give with all other things been equal for this to be felt by all Sierra Leoneans and get the country up the development ladder. ?

BEREWA: Let's dont go by speculation. Everything depends on how fast we are aided in our developmental efforts. If we get all what is needed then the sooner I think we would get out of the present situation. If I begin to say in the next six months, one year, that would not be sensible at all. It depends on how much assistance we are able to get.

SHAW: Thanks very much for granting this interview. It has been a pleasure talking to you.