S.Leone in uphill battle to avoid 'resource curse'

Wed Jan 25, 2012 12:39pm GMT

By Simon Akam

FREETOWN (Reuters) - On the fifth floor of Sierra Leone's main government office building, a decaying hulk where working toilets are scarce and the lift unreliable, Mines Director Jonathan Sharkah exudes optimism.

He is, after all, one of the most powerful figures in the West African country's iron ore sector, and its revival could potentially create jobs and infrastructure in a nation struggling to recover from a civil war.

"It means a lot to us. Lots of revenue, lots of employment, and lots of everything," he told Reuters during a recent interview in his office in the Youyi Building, which towers over its corner of the seaside capital Freetown.

To redeem this promise, however, Sierra Leone will need to fight an uphill battle to avoid the 'resource curse' of high-level graft, civil unrest and a lack of economic diversity that has afflicted many regional neighbours, whose economies depend on their rich deposits of metals or oil.

A recent bribery scandal in the office of the vice president, along with worries the government is not up to the mammoth task of overseeing the industry, have sparked fears ordinary Sierra Leoneans will miss out on the boom.

"We are making a genuine effort to make sure we don't make mistakes that others have made," said Unisa Sesay, a spokesman for President Ernest Bai Koroma. "We are not waiting for the problems to happen before we start addressing them."

Sierra Leone holds some of the world's richest iron ore deposits, but the industry ground to a halt ahead of a 1991-2002 civil war that claimed some 50,000 lives and ruined its infrastructure and exports stopped.

That changed last autumn with the first shipment in more than two decades, a major step for a country eager to rebuild and create jobs and a potential boost for Koroma as he seeks re-election in November.   Continued...

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