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Sierra Leone acts tough on corrupt investors amid Guinea worries

Thursday November 19 2009

By PETER APPS, LONDON, Thursday

Sierra Leone’s anti-corruption commissioner has a simple message for foreign investors coming to his country for its mines and oil — offer bribes and you could find yourself in prison.

Oil was discovered off the coast in September, exciting investors but also raising fears that, as so often previously in Africa, natural wealth might bring with it greater corruption and bloodshed.

“Definitely, the oil worries me — the resource curse,” Commissioner Abdul Tejan-Cole told Reuters in an interview at a Sierra Leone investment summit in London.

“It is very important that it is as transparent as possible. We are proud of what we’ve achieved on that, but we can and should do more.”

He said he was happy with Sierra Leone’s new mining law and that they had signed the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, but more transparency was needed over oil deals.

Sierra Leone emerged from a decade of civil war in 2002, and this year improved 12 places in the Transparency International global corruption rankings.

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The former human rights and insurance lawyer said his commission would have no compunction about prosecuting corrupt foreign investors in court in the capital Freetown, and that could land them in a Sierra Leonean prison.

“It’s a mandatory sentence,” he said. “And I can assure you that our prisons are not somewhere where you would want to be.”
But that should not deter foreign investors.

“At the end of the day, they are safer in a country that has low tolerance of corruption, and where the rule of law is better,” he said, adding that should reduce the risk of expropriation or unfair interference.

Mr Tejan-Cole said the commission was forging increasingly close links with prosecutors and law-enforcement agencies in Britain, the United States and elsewhere as Western countries tightened up their laws to reduce corruption overseas.

“I think the worldwide environment is changing. But, by choice, I would rather prosecute in Freetown because I want to show that our systems work,” he said.

The government sacked two ministers earlier this month for alleged graft, and Tejan-Cole said he was continuing to try to probe corruption at the highest level —and beginning to tackle lower-level problems such as ordinary policemen seeking bribes.

Another minister had voluntarily informed the commission that he had been offered a bribe, he said — the first time this had happened in Sierra Leone.

President Ernest Bai Koroma came to power in 2007 on a pledge to tackle corruption, and Mr Tejan-Cole said he would be perfectly happy to probe him if needed.

Meanwhile, Sierra Leone, trying to rebuild an economy shattered by a decade-long civil war, is confident neighbouring Guinea can avert collapse and will not destabilise the fragile West African region, a senior minister said.

In an interview with Reuters Insider TV, Trade and Industry Minister David Carew said a standoff between Guinea’s government and opposition could be solved without descending into the type of violence which tore his country apart in the 1990s.

“We are very concerned naturally,” Mr Carew said.

“We are certain that the situation will not deteriorate significantly because they have got experience of what happened to Sierra Leone and I don’t think they’ll allow that to happen.”

Guinea’s opposition is demanding the military junta gives up the power it seized last December. Tensions have risen since the September 28 killings of opposition protesters in a soccer stadium by security forces, an incident human rights groups described as a pre-planned massacre.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, attending an investment conference in London with Sierra Leone officials, said he was confident the Guinea crisis need not spill over into neighbouring countries.

However, Mr Blair, who sent British troops into Sierra Leone in 2000 after rebels flouted a peace deal, refused to be drawn on how the international community should respond if the Guinea situation worsens.

“The government in Sierra Leone has changed two times now by democratic mandate, but, more than that, there is a whole new attitude in Sierra Leone around investment, around developing the opportunities of the country,” he said. (Reuters)