MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We know that a lot of students are still on spring break this week but what better time to take a step back and think about higher education? Today we meet the president of Simmons College, which is a college for women in the Boston area, and we'll hear about her thoughts about women leadership and education.
But first let us hear from a different president, the president of Sierra Leone. Ernest Bai Koroma was re-elected to a second term last year. His government has been praised by President Obama for making important economic and political reforms during his first term in office. While many remember Sierra Leone's incredibly brutal civil war that ended just over a decade ago, in recent years the country has been rebuilding and experiencing strong economic growth.
To that end, he was part of a delegation of African leaders who were invited to the White House last week to talk more about building democracy on the continent and helping to boost economic opportunities. President Koroma was kind enough to receive us at his nation's embassy in Washington, D.C. and we spoke with him in advance of his meeting with President Obama. Welcome to the program. Thank you for joining us, Mr. President.
PRESIDENT ERNEST BAI KOROMA: Well, thank you for having me.
MARTIN: I want to just start out by pointing out that many people in the press, and particularly in the Sierra Leone press, are very excited that you've been invited to the White House. And I wanted to ask if you are similarly excited and what this meeting means to you.
KOROMA: Well, I will say that I am happy that I have been invited by President Obama. The invitation is a recognition of the efforts that we have made as a government, as a nation towards developing the country, efforts in advancing good governance, efforts in promoting economic growth.
We have just come out of elections recently, an election that I won and an election that has been acclaimed to be the most transparent, free, and fair elections in the country and elections that have positioned us as one of the leading democracies in Africa. And I believe that as a result of all of these efforts, America and President Obama have recognized us. So this is a great moment for the country, an exciting moment for all of us.
MARTIN: One thing you and President Obama have in common, of course, is that you are both now elected to your second terms. Many people are saying that it's actually more significant that Mr. Obama was re-elected than it was that he was elected the first time. I wanted to ask for you, is there special significance to your not just winning election but winning re-election?
KOROMA: Well, it is. Because when I was elected for the first time in 2007, we had the opportunity of putting in place a program we called the Agenda for Change, which was the guide we use in implementing development programs in the country in my first term in office. And it's provided us with an opportunity to do the things that will enhance the living standard of the people and improve on the country and rebrand the country.
And to me it's laid the basis and the fact that I have been re-elected is an indication that the people appreciate the efforts; the kind of given a validation to the programs that we have started. And it gives me now an opportunity to mold the programs to the point of ensuring that I leave a legacy when I retire from office in 2017.
MARTIN: You know, Sierra Leone has been considered one of the poorest countries in the world but the World Bank put GDP growth at 6 percent in 2011. So two questions I had was, first of all, to what do you attribute this rate of growth which is impressive, particularly in light of the fact that much of Europe and the United States have been in a period of very stalled growth? And secondly, what specific plans do you have to do what you just said you wanted to do?
Which is to improve the living standards of people?
KOROMA: We have registered a growth because of the activities in the mining, agriculture, the construction, and also to some extent the investment opportunities that we have provided in the country. That is responsible for the growth rate that we have shown.
We will continue to encourage greater activity in the mining sector, the agricultural sector. We have attracted a lot of investment in both sectors. And when we have the growth in the economy we will provide more opportunities for the job situation in the country. We will provide more revenues for the government to improve on our social service delivery.
The health sector has improved. We still need to continue the improvement. We have to improve on the education. Our focus is really to continue with the programs that we have started and also mainstreaming the gender issues so that we can get more women involved. We already have women in big positions in the country more than ever before, but we believe that we must cater for the greater majority of women out there who have the capacity and the potential to do things that will contribute towards the national efforts.
MARTIN: I'm speaking with the president of Sierra Leone, Ernest Bai Koroma. We're speaking with him in advance of his meeting with President Obama. It's been just over a decade since the war ended and, unfortunately, I think for many Americans that's all they know of Sierra Leone. So I wanted to ask are the scars of the war still evident? Secondly, I wanted to know what else would you like Americans to know about the country other than the war?
KOROMA: Well, the war has ended in Sierra Leone and since then the whole country have made a strong commitment to move forward, the leadership and everybody in the country. That is why even our recent history has been a history of war, you hardly see signs of it now. People have decided to put the past behind us. We have reconciled. We are moving forward. We have addressed the issues of the war by setting the special courts and trying people.
But now we have embarked on a reconstruction. People have been rehabilitated. The mines have been rehabilitated. We have embarked on a democratic process that could not be weathered by countries that have not been through a war like us. We've had three presidential and parliamentary elections, local government elections in between.
And I believe these are great indications that the war is behind us and we have now moved forward from rock bottom in the human development index. We are moving at a very fast speed. We have now been recorded as the country with the highest growth rate within the south region. These are all remarkable achievements. And with all of this moving forward, Sierra Leone can only get to the middle level status very soon.
MARTIN: Do you think there's something that Sierra Leone could teach other countries who are unfortunately experiencing these kinds of trauma now? I'm thinking about Syria, for example, where the fighting has been horrible and that many people will have experienced some terrible things. And at some point the country has to recover. Do you think you have some wisdom to offer these countries who will face this process?
KOROMA: I think the lessons we have learned; war is not solving any situation. It will not provide answers to your questions but you have to learn lessons from the mistakes of a nation, of a society, that led to the war. And that is what you must ensure that you don't repeat. When you reconcile, you have to ensure that there is a true reconciliation. There has to be a moment of forgiveness, a moment of looking at the things that unify you rather than the things that divide you, and embrace the issues that unify you, that makes you a nation.
That is the bigger picture and work towards greater dialog. At the end of the day there has to be dialog. There has to be a civil way of engaging yourself. There has to be a democratic way of running the country. There has to be no political or economic marginalization of people, total inclusiveness. These are all lessons that we believe that we can teach other nations and we believe that that is the path to build a reconciled society, a democratic society and a society that we'll enjoy sustained economic growth.
MARTIN: Was the prosecution of the former Liberian leader Charles Taylor helpful to this or not? There are many different opinions about this. Many people feel that these prosecutions for war crimes are a necessary statement of what will and will not be tolerated. Other people feel it just prolongs the bitterness. I wanted to ask your opinion of this.
KOROMA: I personally feel that trying people with the greatest responsibilities for the war is a step forward. I believe that, if not anything, it will serve us a deterrent. It will end the cycle of impunity. People will know that you can no longer be supported to take up arms and shoot your way to power. There has to be democratic ways of assuming leadership and I believe that, to a great extent, the trial of Charles Taylor will serve as a deterrent. That is why our nations and people of the south region have taken a posture of having a zero tolerance to military coups, zero tolerance to people sitting to power other than the democratic process.
MARTIN: Mr. President, thank you. You've been generous with your time. We understand that, in addition to all the growth in infrastructure and other things that you've talked about here, you're hoping that people will once again see Sierra Leone as a tourist destination. We see some beautiful posters downstairs in the embassy that speak to that. What's the one thing you should not miss if you visit Sierra Leone?
KOROMA: Don't miss our beaches, Lumley Beach, the beaches around the peninsula and merely coming to Sierra Leone itself is an attraction. It's beautiful country. The hills and the vegetation - these are all great attractions and when we put in place the necessary tourist infrastructure, Sierra Leone will be the place to visit.
MARTIN: Ernest Bai Koroma is the president of Sierra Leone. We spoke with him during his recent visit to Washington, D.C. Mr. President, thank you so much for speaking with us.
KOROMA: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.