Breaking the Resource Curse: Freedom of Information in Sierra Leone

January 20, 2010
12:00 am - 12:00 am


Mr. Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai
Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow

with comments by

Dr. Sahr J. Kpundeh
World Bank

About the Event

In 2009, oil was discovered in Sierra Leone, adding to the vast array of natural resources contained in this tiny West African state. Paradoxically, this discovery holds no prospect of prosperity for the population: without prompt action to increase transparency, the people of Sierra Leone will only continue under the burden of the “resource curse,” steeped in abject poverty and under renewed threat of civil conflict. In recent decades, few countries have experienced the tragedy and devastation of Sierra Leone—a brutal civil war, fuelled mainly by an illicit trade in diamonds, displaced nearly half of the country’s population and caused an estimated 75,000 deaths.

For years, the country’s leaders mismanaged revenue generated from natural resources through endemic corruption and the institutionalization of a patronage system. Rather than directing resources toward rebuilding the state and improving the lives of ordinary citizens, a handful of political elites have individually expropriated state resources accumulated from diamonds, minerals, and now oil. Without an effective structure of accountability, this latest discovery portends a return to conflict and a reversal of hard-won democratic gains since the end of the war.

In his presentation, Sierra Leonean human rights lawyer Mr. Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai  considered how the ongoing campaign for a Freedom of Information (FOI) law can help ensure that oil does not become yet another “resource curse” in Sierra Leone. Drawing upon his extensive experience as a leading FOI advocate, Mr. Abdulai showed how such a mechanism could increase transparency and empower the people of Sierra Leone to demand answers from the country’s leadership. His presentation was followed by comments by Dr. Sahr J. Kpundeh.

About the Speakers

Mr. Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai is founder and executive director of the Society for Democratic Initiatives, an NGO that focuses on human rights education, freedom of expression, legal aid, prison monitoring, and anticorruption campaigns in Sierra Leone. A lawyer by profession, he is editor-in-chief of the quarterly Demo-Rights Magazine and author of dozens of articles and reports on human rights in the region.

A champion of freedom of expression and information, Mr. Abdulai drafted Sierra Leone’s Freedom of Information Act in 2005. During his fellowship, Mr. Abdulai is assessing the nature, scope, and limitations of the U.S. Freedom of Information Act and other freedom of expression laws in the United States, including how they relate to media laws in Sierra Leone.

Dr. Sahr J. Kpundeh is a senior public sector specialist at the World Bank.

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