LONDON (AP) — Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair drummed up support Wednesday for investment in Sierra Leone, arguing that the west African country has recovered from its brutal civil war and could offer unmatched opportunities in agriculture and tourism.
With miles (kilometers) of untouched beaches and arable land, Blair encouraged investors to take a chance on the land once riven by civil war — especially since its leadership is committed to stamping out the corruption that has impeded growth in other African countries. Sierra Leone's president, Ernest Bai Koroma, fired one of his ministers for corruption earlier this month and has promised to make the government more transparent.
"It's (Sierra Leone) got massive natural resources, wonderful possibilities commercially in agriculture, tourism, mining," Blair told The Associated Press on the sidelines of the conference. "What it's got now for the first time is a stable system of government with a president who genuinely wants to make change, root out corruption."
Blair said, for example, that Sierra Leone had one of the biggest reserves of iron ore in the world, and had recently privatized its port, which could be used for exports off the west African coast.
"Africa is a rich country with poor people — Sierra Leone is the clearest example of that," he said.
Sierra Leone is still struggling to recover from a civil war between 1991 and 2002 during which rebels recruited child solders and were known for hacking off the limbs of civilians to terrorize them into submission.
Many in Sierra Leone credit Blair for helping to end its brutal conflict. British troops that Blair sent to Sierra Leone in 2000 played a decisive role in preventing rebels from seizing the capital, Freetown.
He now works with Sierra Leone through a charitable group, the Africa Governance Initiative, which encourages private investment in sub-Saharan Africa.
Sierra Leone is still one of the world's poorest countries. Britain's Department for International Development, the government department that coordinates aid programs, says the country has one of the worst infant mortality rates in the world, and that 70 percent of women and 50 percent of men are illiterate.
But in a speech given earlier at the conference, Koroma said Sierra Leone was improving fast, with growth of around 6 percent a year since the war ended seven years ago. It is expected to grow around 4 percent this year.
"Instead of symbolizing Africa's tragedy, Sierra Leone symbolizes Africa's hope," Koroma said.