His war-ravaged and impoverished country ranks dead last in the United Nations' latest tally of development levels around the world, but Sierra Leone's newly re-elected President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah sees reason for optimism even in that ignominious distinction. "I hope it will send a very powerful message to our people that we should learn to live in peace together and work hard to reconstruct our country," he says. "It's not a pleasant thing to be rated as trailing all the other countries in the world."
When Kabbah, a former civil servant and longtime U.N. official the U.N. Development Programme, where he worked for 21 years, publishes the report that listed Sierra Leone last was first elected in 1996, the country was mired in a civil war whose hallmark was rebel soldiers' tendency to hack off the limbs of their victims. Kabbah's initial hold on office was so tenuous that foreign troops had to intervene to reinstate him when he was briefly ousted by disgruntled soldiers in 1997. A cease-fire agreement with the rebels paved the way for the deployment of 16,000 U.N. peacekeepers in the country. With elections in May that were for the most part judged free and fair, the establishment of a war-crimes tribunal and the inauguration last month of a seven-member Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Sierra Leone seems at last to have emerged from its decade-long descent into devastation. The withdrawal late last month of most of the British forces in Sierra Leone a core group of some 100 officers will remain to help train local soldiers signaled the former colonial power's confidence in the country's future under Kabbah.
Critics of his goverment have accused him of corruption and his officials of involvement in the illicit trafficking of so-called conflict diamonds. Kabbah rejects such charges and says an anticorruption commission, which he refers to as his "baby," is making inroads against one of the country's most pervasive problems. "It's impossible to fence off the two-thirds of the country that has diamonds," he says, while insisting that efforts to stem the gems' flow have been effective. The precious minerals, says Kabbah, are not the only thing of value that Sierra Leone can offer for export. Like some 70% of Sierra Leoneans, he is a Muslim. But unlike nearby Nigeria, riven by sectarian violence, "in Sierra Leone there is no religious bigotry," Kabbah says. "This is one of the things of which we're very proud."
Given the country's interfaith harmony, mineral riches, abundant natural resources and a once-vaunted educational system that boasted the first university in sub-Saharan Africa, Kabbah's promise to return it to its past glory seems less quixotic than Sierra Leone's current war-scarred state would suggest. Age, says the 70-year-old widower, is no impediment to his plans, but money is. That is why, when he addresses the U.N. General Assembly in New York next month, he'll be making a special plea for funding for the TRC. Peace, like war, doesn't come cheap.
TIME: What are your goals for your second term?
Kabbah: To stabilize the peace process and rehabilitate and reconstruct our infrastructure. I've vowed that no Sierra Leonean will go to bed hungry. We want to show that we as a nation are able to feed ourselves.
TIME: So why, when you've been in office since 1996, does Sierra Leone continue to rank last in the U.N.D.P's list?
Kabbah: The data they had were from the war, and during that time more than half the country was under the control of the rebels. Also, there are countries, like Liberia, for which they have no information, that are not even listed.
TIME: What about the problem of corruption?
Kabbah: I accept that there was corruption, and for this reason I asked the British to help us set up an anticorruption commission, whose operations I follow carefully. They are determined and are doing extremely well detecting those engaging in corrupt practices.
TIME: How are former child combatants in the civil war being reintegrated into society?
Kabbah: We've set up a commission to rehabilitate these children and provide homes to those who are homeless. We're making progress. School-age children are being sent to school, and others are being trained to undertake vocations.