April 13, 2012 9:00 pm

Twelve days in west Africa: Accra to Freetown

Sierra Leone is gradually raising itself back on its feet, writes Lionel Barber on the final leg of his personal journey through west Africa

Accra to Freetown

Thursday

After sedate Ghana, a turbulent trip to Sierra Leone. Kenya Airways has bumped all Accra passengers to Freetown. Screaming rows, texts and appeals to Nairobi HQ. All seats are miraculously restored. We all arrive in Freetown, but bagless.

The road from Lungi international airport is a dirt track leading to a water taxi terminal. The ride across the bay to the capital is stunning. Freetown is old Africa: red dust billowing through half-village, half-metropolis nestling under the Sierra. Placards proclaim Sierra Leone as the land of the friendly smile. Others carry single words: comity, friendship, prosperity. Each is a reminder of the civil war that ravaged the country between 1991 and 2002, and the foundation of Freetown as a home for freed slaves in 1787.

Sierra Leone – population six million – is gradually raising itself back on its feet. Back in the early 1960s, its per capita GDP was on a par with Portugal. The collapse in iron ore prices in the 1970s was a body blow. The civil war was not the ethnic or religious conflict so often seen in Africa. It was fuelled by natural resources in a country riddled with corruption. A series of army coups followed. The violence spread. Eventually, Tony Blair’s military intervention tilted the battlefield; it may also have encouraged an exaggerated belief in the use of force that led to the Iraqi misadventure. Now, a revival of the mining industry and the discovery of oil have given Sierra Leone a second chance.

At the Independence bar on Lumley beach, we bump into Ishmael Beah, the former boy soldier turned bestselling author whose A Long Way Gone, a harrowing account of drug-crazed killing, is a must-read. He smiles shyly and reveals his next book will be fiction.

That evening we entertain several impressive local guests: a top Standard Chartered bank executive; Cecil Williams, the long-suffering, highly able head of the tourist board; and the energy minister Oluniyi Robbin-Coker (a smooth operator who talks expansively about future privatisation of the power sector. I suggest that Sierra Leone is heading in the right direction. A guest corrects me. Elections are in November and tensions are rising. “We may be heading in the right direction,” he says, “but we won’t know for 15 months or so.”

Another guest is Tom Cairnes, an Oxbridge graduate who speaks fluent Krio, the local lingua franca. Cairnes used to work for the United Nations Development Programme but has now turned to private equity on the grounds that it is more likely to have a bigger, quicker impact. His firm ManoCap, which manages the Sierra Investment Fund and the ManoCap Soros Fund, has invested in fisheries, transportation, mobile money and an ice-making business called Ice Ice Baby, named after the American rapper Vanilla Ice’s popular hit.

Private equity is tough in an economy where a cohort of children had absolutely no schooling and business skills are lacking. But Ice Ice Baby has made a real difference to fishermen who can now afford to stay longer out at sea and thereby increase their catch. The problem is that there is little valued-added fish processing (Sierra Leone doesn’t meet standards for European export) and the Chinese and others are illegally trawling in huge vessels, slashing nets and riding roughshod over the smaller local village boats.

Freetown to Marampa mine

Friday

Our host for the day is Graeme Hossie, CEO of the Aim-listed London Mining. Hossie is a former Bain consultant with a taste for high-risk ventures, in this case the Marampa mine deep in Sierra Leone’s interior. I want to look at an industry that once again has become the growth engine of the economy, albeit one still saddled with controversy over its environmental record and dealings with the local population.

The boat ride to the Marampa mine is a spectacular journey through Freetown Bay and along the Sierra Leone river. We stop at Bunce Island, a 17th-century slaving post, from where tens of thousands of Africans were dispatched to the New World. Now all that remains is a ruined fort and a few iron-cast English cannons from the reign of George III.

The Marampa mine started production in February. Its remote location and the lack of a railway line meant that the customary means of shipping iron ore had to be turned on its head. London Mining had to build a new 43km road from the mine to a mini-terminal on the Sierra Leone river. From there, the iron ore is loaded on to football-field-sized barges and floated down the river to a vast South Korean-designed transshipment vessel (you guessed it, The Pride of Marampa) stationed off the quayside at Freetown port, and then on to Chinese and other super tankers.

©Katrina Manson

Lionel Barber looks out over London Mining iron ore plant in Sierra Leone

The man who devised this logistical triumph is now dead, and this morning we are due to pay him our respects at a ceremony at the river terminal. He was a hard-drinking, hard-driving Special Boat Service operative who in an earlier era would have featured in an H. Rider Haggard novel. Village elders and the paramount chief – the top tribal leader in the district – are present for the service. The ceremony is both Christian and Muslim, and everyone appears able to recite each other’s prayers. Tributes are simple but sincere. Three wreaths of flowers are cast into the river.

The mine itself is far richer than first imagined. As we stroll around in furnace-level heat, the silvery pixie dust on the topsoil betrays deep deposits of iron ore. Our hosts spell out how their production plans will ramp up over the next 12 months. Over lunch in a spartan canteen, the Paramount Chief Bai Koblo Queen II – whose father was a contractor to the old Sierra Leone Mining Company – reminds us of the devastation to the community when it closed down. “London Mining has offered new hope. It is creating new jobs vital for our community.”

Hossie and his fellow executives appear to have made great efforts to keep the locals onside. As for the NGOs, he says some are helpful, others less so. Hossie is mindful of the risks of operating in Sierra Leone and the rewards expected by shareholders. It is time to turn to another industry upon which Sierra Leone has pinned great hopes: tourism. But not Freetown’s famed white sand beaches. Our destination tonight is a lodge at the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary.

Tacugama to Tokeh Beach

Saturday

In 1992, Bala Amarasekaran and his wife Sharmila were travelling through a village about 150 miles north of Freetown, when they saw a baby chimpanzee being offered for sale. The chimp looked weak and sick so Bala decided to pay $30 for him. He called the chimp Bruno, after the British heavyweight boxer who had fought Mike Tyson for the world title three years earlier. Bruno the boxer might have lost to Tyson, but that day marked a famous victory for Sierra Leone’s endangered chimpanzee community.

Over the years, Bala and a small, dedicated team have gradually expanded the number of chimps in their care to the present 101. Bruno is no longer around: he staged a violent breakout with several other chimps and is now roaming wild. The sanctuary survived the incident as well as the civil war, which touched the camp without ever overrunning it. Our guided tour is fascinating, the accommodation charming. Dinner and breakfast are brought to our tree-house – named Augusta after a distinguished chimp – which has a balcony overlooking the rainforest. I ask Bala if there is one thing that would make a difference to Tacugama. “Promotion,” is the immediate reply. “The image of Sierra Leone, with blood diamonds, child soldiers, drugs and war does not match today’s reality.”

In the afternoon, we meet Daniel, our excellent guide from Visit Sierra Leone, the tour company run by Bimbola Carrol, a member of the reverse diaspora, equally determined to show that a new country is in the making.

Daniel drives us to John Obey beach, a stretch of sand straight out of the 1970s Bounty bar ad (the ad was filmed at nearby River No 2 beach). Tribewanted, a non-profit group, has set up an eco-resort promoting “cross-cultural community living”. Accommodation consists of tents on the beach and adobe huts made of local earth and recycled potato sacks, plus a compost heap for outdoor toilets. Most of the guests are locals or NGO-ers taking a couple of days break. There’s a whiff of 1960s peace and love about the place, but the grilled barracuda and rice lunch tastes good. The unpopulated beach, including “Obama beach”, is heaven, even in dirty, sweat-stained clothes. We spend the night further down the coast at Tokeh Sands, one of the many Lebanese investments in Sierra Leone.

Koidu diamond mine – Freetown – London

Sunday

After a two-mile run along the beach at 6.45am, I am ready for our last stop on my 15-day tour of west Africa: Koidu diamond mine in the east, blood diamond territory and scene of some of the worst fighting in the civil war. Our host is Jan Joubert, a former South African 44 Parachute Brigade, Pathfinder Commander who arrived in Sierra Leone in 1995 to work for Executive Outcomes, the private military contractor.

©Katrina Manson

Open-pit diamond mine at Koidu Holdings in eastern Sierra Leone

Joubert, all deep tan and toned muscle, is wearing a crisp turquoise shirt in Tiffany hue. No one could mistake him for anything other than The Boss. He is CEO of Koidu Holdings, the company that runs the eponymous mine. Joubert began redeveloping the site in 2003, at the end of the war. Investors were so wary they put up a paltry $16m. Ten years and much arm-twisting later, Joubert has persuaded investors to contribute $300m, and carat production will go up more than threefold this year. He believes a further $1bn investment will enable him to boost carat production even further and offer the prospect of 25,000 jobs over the next five years.

The trip to the mine is 75 minutes by helicopter, another spectacular cross-country ride. Joubert relishes telling his own story. Koidu was forced to shut down in 2007 after a violent protest that cost two lives. He was a burnt-out case, and so took time out to do an MBA at Henley Business School. His thesis: the business case for exploiting Koidu diamond mine.

My colleague Katrina Manson, the FT’s East Africa correspondent and co-author of a guidebook on Sierra Leone, has written a fuller account of our trip, as well as of the financing and partners involved in Koidu, including Beny Steinmetz, the long-time Geneva-based investor in natural resources in Africa. Suffice to say that the new mine alongside the original is an impressive round-the-clock excavation effort.

Koidu has made efforts to win over the local community with new houses replacing mud-huts for those inside a 3ft wall stretching around the perimeter of the mine. Joubert estimates the cost at $14,000 a pop. In addition, Koidu has built a new school, though Joubert admits it is still struggling to attract high-quality teachers. The diamonds by contrast are top drawer. The mine will principally supply Tiffany & Co, the jewellery company, and will generate millions of dollars of revenue for Koidu and its backers.

Joubert says, half-joking, that he has a love-hate relationship with Sierra Leone: he has worked with bureaucrats, NGOs, paramount chiefs and warlords. But the South African is adamant that, in the final resort, what he and Koidu are doing is all about helping Sierra Leone.

It is easy to be cynical given the enormous profits being made in an admittedly high-risk mining industry. There’s a sense too that Sierra Leone is still very vulnerable, not just to internal conflict but also to external predators. Many locals were highly ambivalent about the increasing presence of the Chinese. For all their road-building skills, the newcomers are viewed with suspicion because of their insatiable appetite for natural resources. Even Daniel, our guide, raised concerns about an influx of Chinese tourists.

One memory remains. As we drive in our four-wheel-drive Land Cruiser through the streets of Freetown, Jan Joubert, the soldier-entrepreneur, seems to know everyone, including the polio victims in their wheelchairs who shout out his name.

Ah dae cam, ah dae cam” (“I’m coming back, I’m coming back”), Joubert says, in his broad Afrikaans take on Krio.

I’d like to think I will too. If only to discover whether Sierra Leone makes the most of its second chance.

Lionel Barber is editor of the FT.

Read a Q&A with Lionel Barber on the future of west Africa

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