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Statement on US Congressmen’s position on Al Jazeera Broadcast

Statement on US Congressmen’s position on Al Jazeera Broadcast

The Government of Sierra Leone is aware of a letter dated 12th December 2011 written by some eminent Congressmen of the United States of America to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton expressing “serious concerns regarding reports that individuals acting on behalf of senior officials in the Government of Sierra Leone may have solicited bribes in exchange for permission to conduct illegal and destructive logging operations.”

Government would like to appreciate the concerns of the Congressmen, and want to make it clear that, as a matter of policy, it had placed a ban on the timber trade, and that what was broadcast by Al Jazeera does not represent the government’s view even where people supposedly close to this administration are allegedly implicated.

The President, only recently, in a determination to protect the flora and fauna, declared the Gola Forest a national park with stringent rules and regulations to protect that park and other parks in the country. He strongly holds the view that the protection of the environment is a priority and that Government would continue to enforce the rules relating to the preservation of the forests of Sierra Leone.

It is unfortunate that the President’s efforts have come close to being undermined by the activities of some Sierra Leoneans and top government officials.

The letter written to US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and signed by 19 members of the US Congress is welcomed by the government especially in the area of fighting corruption and protecting flora and fauna.

The President has always maintained that corruption must be eradicated particularly in the body politic as he continues to insist that there are no sacred cows within his government when it comes to combating the malaise.

Sierra Leone, under this Government, continues to maintain an open democratic system, promoting freedom of expression, and allowing the Anti Corruption Commission (ACC) to independently pursue corrupt acts and to prosecute suspected culprits, no matter who they are, without any hindrance or interference. The matter relating to the Al Jazeera broadcast on the timber trade in Sierra Leone is currently being looked into both by the ACC and the Sierra Leone Police, after which the President will make a public statement.

This government believes in the maintenance of excellent ties with Sierra Leone’s bilateral and multilateral partners – appreciating its very exceptional relationship with the Government and people of the United States of America –  and that any attempt by any individual or group of individuals to undermine such strategic ties by their nefarious actions will be fiercely resisted.

To this end, in order to give the process further credibility and integrity as implied in the letter from the Congressmen, Government has written a letter to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton requesting the support and involvement of American/international investigators that would collaborate with the ACC and the police in trying to get to the bottom of the allegations.

It would be recalled that when this government came to power in September 2007, the statistics of our environmental degradation were staggering. Records show that between 1990 and 2005, Sierra Leone lost 9.5% of its forest cover and 17.7% of its forest and woodland habitat. This was mainly due to illegal logging and timber export.

An article in the ecological website www.mongabay.com titled ‘Goodbye To West Africa’s Rainforests’ published on 22nd January 2006 painted a grim picture of the environmental situation in the sub-region, Sierra Leone inclusive. A July 2007 study report, published in the journal Ecological Applications by Dr. S. Joseph Wright of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama, named Sierra Leone as one of the most vulnerable environmental-disaster prone countries in the world. In concluding its report, the study stated that “We hope these data will facilitate national, regional, and further global level analyses and generate new insights to improve the success of tropical reserves… New resources to improve the effectiveness of forest reserves are urgently needed in many poor tropical countries and especially in Cambodia, Guatemala, Paraguay, and Sierra Leone.”

Knowing very well the importance of protecting the environment therefore, in January 2008, Government, on its own volition, placed a ban on the transport and export of logs, with President Koroma specifically stating that “illegal logging is having adverse effects on the country’s environment and depleting the ozone layer and must be stopped with immediate effect.”

In 2008, Government made its commitment to the protection of the environment more manifest by establishing the Sierra Leone Environment Protection Agency (SLEPA) through an Act of Parliament, giving the agency powers to handle all environmental issues in accordance with both domestic and global standards. Also, new rules aimed at tackling illegal logging were introduced, including monitoring of felling by forest rangers, new transportation permits and identification codes on timber, and a reward scheme set up for informants with information on illegal logging practices.

To underscore Government’s commitment to this at the international level, Sierra Leone participated in, and was a signatory to, the Accra  Declaration which was the result of an FAO/ITTO workshop held in Ghana in July 2008 on the problems and possible solutions to the illegal extraction of forest resources in tropical West Africa.

Since 2008, Government has been collaboratively working with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and Bird Life International in implementing the conservation-sustainable development project in the Gola Forest, resulting to the recent declaration of it as a national park, following several prior visits by the President. RSPB’s Britain-based International Director Tim Stowe described the venture as “bold and progressive”, maintaining that “In a far-sighted act, this developing West African country – which is on the frontline of climate change – has decided to help the world by locking up a vast carbon store as well as protecting its unique and globally-important wildlife. We hope that other nations value this contribution and build on it.”

Prior to that, in May 2009, President Koroma had invited his Liberian counterpart Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to the Gola Forest for the creation of a trans-boundary peace park. During that ceremony, the President said, “The long-term benefits of the conservation of the Gola forests far outweigh the short-term benefits of extraction and destruction. As I have said since I was elected in 2007, the Gola forests will become a national park in Sierra Leone and mining will not be permitted.”

In the fight against corruption, on the other hand, this government stands on an enviable pedestal in giving teeth and prominence to it. Apart from giving the ACC independent prosecutorial powers without any reference to the Attorney General, Government introduced the mandatory annual declaration of assets by all public officials including the President, Vice President and Cabinet Ministers. There has been a long list of high-profile indictments, including cabinet ministers, and the President has always allowed the law to take its course.

The general public, including the international community, is hereby therefore again assured that the President and the Government as a whole are committed to the protection of our environment and in the fight against corruption. With the pending involvement of international stakeholders in the investigation of the Aljazeera broadcast and issues relating to alleged corrupt practices, Government once again assures all and sundry that anyone found culpable, no matter their status in government, will be dealt with according to the law. Even before the new revelations, the ACC had arrested and charged to court 29 persons in relation to illegal logging and timber export.

Certainly, the Al Jazeera allegations will neither diminish the work of this government nor temper its commitment to both environmental protection and anti corruption. President Koroma’s determination to administer a transparent government with minimal or no corruption, together with his resolve to promote a national policy of environmental protection, also explains why he is inviting experts from other parts of the world, including the US, to jointly investigate the corruption allegations brought out by the Al Jazeera television network.

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