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A police officer directs traffic in a bustling downtown intersection in Freetown, Sierra Leone. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
A police officer directs traffic in a bustling downtown intersection in Freetown, Sierra Leone. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Africa next

Africa next: With investment outpacing aid, is this a new golden age for the poorest continent? Add to ...

The small West African nation of Sierra Leone is seeing both the best and worst of the trend. Just a decade removed from an era of brutal warlords and blood diamonds, it is seeing its hopes rise dramatically. But, as in even the best-performing African countries, the boom threatens to create two solitudes, between the Sierra Leoneans who will be on the winning side and those who risk losing hold of what little security they already had.

Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries on Earth. Most of its six million people survive on less than a dollar a day. Founded by British traders and freed colonial slaves in the 18th century, its capital, Freetown, is filled with vast slums built on the edge of huge smouldering garbage dumps. Children dodge among the smoke and flash fires to collect metal and plastic scraps for recycling.

Visitors to Freetown’s beach restaurants are mobbed by war amputees who beg for a living. The city is plagued by power shortages. To reach it from the airport, visitors must take a rickety speedboat or an overcrowded ferry across an estuary. (Politicians keep promising a bridge and a new airport; nobody knows when they will be built.)

Yet Sierra Leone is also one of the world’s fastest-rising economies. Its growth rate is projected to be a world-leading 34 per cent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.

The speedboats from the airport these days are filled with jovial young mining executives and agribusiness investors, eagerly discussing the profits to be made from oil, minerals and palm-oil plantations.

Sierra Leone’s government is luring agricultural investors by promoting its cheap farm labour (usually just $2 or $3 a day) and its cheap land – leasing for just $5 to $20 a hectare annually, compared with $100 in Brazil or $450 in Indonesia.

In total, nearly a million hectares – almost a fifth of Sierra Leone’s arable land – has been leased by foreigners or is being negotiated with investors from nations such as China, India, Portugal, Belgium and Switzerland.

Meanwhile, oil companies are investing more than $100-million in offshore oil discoveries here. The mining sector is booming. Chinese construction workers are rapidly expanding the roads. And the country’s biggest diamond miner is supplying gems to the famed U.S. jeweller Tiffany & Co.

The president, Ernest Bai Koroma, predicts that Sierra Leone will become a middle-income country within 25 years and a donor country within 50 years. He proudly tells investors that the capital will get its first five-star hotels this year, a Hilton and a Radisson Blu. (The Radisson is emerging from the ruins of a former United Nations military base, an apt symbol for the country’s revival.)

But the President also admits that all the business activity so far has failed to provide much improvement in the lives of ordinary people. Sierra Leone’s foreign investors generally enjoy favourable tax rates and other incentives from the government, but most profits are exported to their overseas owners, and the local benefits are poorly distributed.

For example, mining accounts for almost 60 per cent of Sierra Leone’s exports, but provides only 8 per cent of government revenue, according to a recent report by DanWatch, a corporate-ethics watchdog.

Commercial land deals often have provoked protests. Dozens of people were arrested for blockading roads in protest against a Belgian company’s lease of 12,500 hectares for palm-oil plantations, at the bargain price of just $5 a hectare annually for 50 years.

Addax, the Swiss company operating in Romaro and Lungi Acre, insists that it consulted local communities before proceeding with its plantation. It says it is creating more than 2,000 jobs at double the minimum wage, and plowing and sowing more than 1,500 hectares of farmland for the villages. All the dissent is being stirred up by “wicked” groups of foreign activists, it says.

But many of the villagers, according to local activists and independent think tanks such as the U.S.-based Oakland Institute, were unaware of how the land deal would work when their chiefs agreed to it.

“Most of the time, it was induced consent, because they’d heard that the government was behind it,” says Lansana Hassan Sowa, a project officer at the Sierra Leone Network on the Right to Food, a civil-society group that works with the villagers. “It has totally altered their former way of life. They’re concentrated in a much smaller area now. They can never do anything except on the timetable of Addax. Everything is measured by the company. It means total dependency.”

While the plantation may have created jobs, it has also created unemployment, he says: Where for generations the villagers shared the planting, plowing and harvest of their rice and cassava fields, that way of life is gone. “You can see people sitting idle in the villages now. You never saw that before.”

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