Following recent elections in Sierra Leone North Thanet's MP, Roger Gale, has made a flying visit to one of the poorest countries in the world for briefings and discussions with newly-elected Members of Parliament.
"WELCOME to Sierra Leone" says the Ministry of Tourism and Culture billboard. "Land of sunshine, magnificent white sandy beaches and hospitable people".
Sierra Leone has sunshine in searing quantities. Hospitable the people most certainly are. The white sandy beaches and palm trees are there as well. This, after all, is the paradise in which the original "Bounty Bar" advert was shot.
But the Ministry sign alongside the slipway from the ferry is dilapidated, the white sandy beaches are scarred with pollution and rubbish and the natural hospitality of wonderful people is limited by abject poverty.
Sierra Leone is no more prosperous a place to be than it was when I first visited the country as a new Member of Parliament myself in the early 1980s.
This land has water, fertile soil, a magnificent coastline, wildlife and vegetation, rare minerals including diamonds. It ought to be not one of the poorest places on earth but one of the wealthiest. Civil war and evil and avaricious businessmen and politicians have made it otherwise. Our brief, in just a couple of days, is to try to make a difference.
Newly elected MPs with the British Delegation
Tyred out - Lunghi
The Westminster Foundation for Democracy flew the four of us, Labour, Liberal, Conservative and a Member of the Scottish Parliament, to Sierra Leone to meet with their newly elected MPs and to share with them our experiences and thoughts as to how the political system might better work.
Emerging from ten years of terrifying and most brutal civil war during which appalling atrocities were committed the re-building process has begun. When I was last here four years ago seeing men and women and children with arms, or legs, or both, amputated in reprisal attacks was commonplace. The city was scarred with gaping holes where a teenage self-styled "Colonel" describing himself as "The Head of Burning Operations" had, with his gang of drink and drug crazed supporters, torched building after building. The clearance work has started, but with no money and no resources where do you begin? The answer of course is slowly and by hand but progress is tortuous and painful.
From the end of the civil war the country was ruled by the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP). Presidential elections in August and September of this year peacefully delivered a change to an All Peoples Congress (APC) Executive President, Ernest Koroma, and a coalition majority in the 124-seat parliament handing control from the SLPP to the APC. In an unprecedented move, more than 80 of the MPs, on both sides of the House, have been elected for the first time. It is against this backdrop that we commence our work.
On Monday morning we arrive at Parliament. We slog through the role of an MP, Private Members Bills, Select Committees, holding the Executive to account, the Whips and discipline. I get few thanks from the new Leader of the House and his Chief Whip for telling this largely novice parliamentary audience that they are there to think and act for themselves and not to do as they are told. Of 80 present only 30 make the difficult journey to our hotel to join us for supper but the chewing of the political fat extends far into the night.
Day two of two begins with the first sitting of the House. The business, the order paper tells us, is to approve the appointment of Ministers and Ambassadors. With friends and family, the press and ourselves present the morning ticks away. Behind the scenes horse-trading continues. The difficult decision, the ratification of a new Governor for the bank, is kicked into touch until Thursday and, with sighs of relief, the remaining posts are confirmed.
Ambassadors rush for planes and, incredibly after this ordeal, 80 or more MPs still return to the seminar room.
Crunch time. The "C" word. We cannot put it off any longer. It is corruption, at every level from Presidents down to the most minor functionary that has crippled Sierra Leone. Everyone with the chance is on the take. The majority that do not have that chance suffer and die.
We know that we have one hit. With well over half the MPs newly elected there is the glimmer of a hope that they might seize the moment and change the "rules". Not only does this suggestion not go down well with the old and bold who have done, and are doing, very nicely thank you out of bribes but it also poses problems for the new. In these constituencies MPs are expected to hand out money to help bury a family's dead, pay for school uniforms, repair buildings and roads and, of course, buy votes or pay off electoral favours. On a salary of £300 per month, with no access to the
Internet, secretarial resources, office space, travel facilities, accommodation costs and the like the gulf between their professional life and our own is beyond imagination. There is only one, dishonest, way that they can meet the expectations of their constituents.
"You can tell us " they say "that we should not hand out money to our electors - but how do we tell them?"
Outside Sierra Leone Parliament
Water Taxi - Freetown
A report commissioned by the new President, Mr Koroma, reveals that in areas of responsibility such as healthcare, tax collection and the security services millions of dollars, prior to the elections, went missing.
We agree with our parliamentary colleagues that only direct action from the top, through new laws and through the personal intervention of their President and the Speaker of their parliament will get the message across throughout the land that the gravy train of corruption has come to a shuddering halt and release the individual MP from the yoke of economic slavery and allow them to do the real job that they were both elected and want to do.
Ministry of Tourism & Culture sign
Was the visit worth the effort? Yes, of course. These are good people and they deserve all the support that we can offer them.
Did we achieve anything? Only time will tell.
As a footnote, on the day, Wednesday, that we began the overnight journey home we were granted an audience with the British High Commissioner.
I am not certain that an economist and a Manager hell-bent on meeting "targets" is any substitute for the kind of diplomat that still exists elsewhere in Africa and so proudly and fiercely defends the interests both of the UK and democracy. With the Chinese swarming over the continent and hell-bent on screwing every last ounce of valuable mineral out of the land to meet their voracious industrial appetite her Majesty's Foreign Secretary might usefully look to the laurels of his Department. If he does not then the future of countries like Sierra Leone may well be dictated from Beijing.