Lungi International Airport is a sight better than it was. It’s not long since livestock wandered across the runway. Now it has its international airlines back: BA three times a week. An independent called Astraeus operates an excellent service out of Gatwick and has understood something important about its market: its baggage allowance is a generous 60 kilos per person, although there is one caveat – “no tyres on board” the ticket says.
Getting from the airport to the city is, however, not much improved. The most direct way is still to take the helicopter operated by one of two companies. The choppers are Russian and so are the crews. It is an eight minute ride. You count every second till the wheels hit the tarmac at the Mami Yoko hotel. Eight days after we made the journey, one of the choppers, on its way back to the airport, crashed killing all but one of the 22 people on board. Most of the dead were soccer fans from a neighbouring West African state, in town for an Africa Cup of Nations qualifying match. It’s a speed boat for me next time.
It is seven years since Tony Blair’s decision to send a battalion of paratroopers to Freetown. I have never seen a country’s prospects turned around so immediately by a single bold and imaginative deployment. Eight hundred pairs of British boots on the ground and, almost overnight, a rebel offensive which threatened to engulf the capital, was over.
There remains something odd about it, seven years on. The then Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, repeatedly told the House of Commons that troops had been sent to evacuate British nationals and other foreigners as the security situation deteriorated, The truth (and why didn’t he say it?) was more ambitious and more noble. The British were there to intervene in a civil war, not as neutral peacekeepers but to take sides. Britain armed and trained the government army. It sent guns and ammunition. It sent helicopters to move men and hardware around the front lines. It sent a team of officers under the command of Brigadier (now General) David Richards, to take charge of the war. The point was not to end the war by making “peace” between “warring factions”; but to end it by winning it. Oh yes, this was a new kind of British foreign policy: bold, yes but also honourable. And it worked.
This is why Tony Blair is more popular in Sierra Leone than he is anywhere else in the world. The day before he flew in to Lungi (he wisely declined to get aboard the Russian chopper so missed the chance to see Freetown itself – though it would have been instructive) I put together a piece for the BBC’s Ten O’Clock News. In it I say something which I consider to be uncontroversial and indeed self-evident: that the government the British rescued seven years ago are still in power and have, ever since, presided over a system of entrenched corruption that keeps the political elite rich and the mass of the people very poor. This means that the two conditions that proved to be the seed bed for war – poverty and graft – remain in place.
The next day I wait for the Prime Minister’s entourage to arrive, surrounded by members of Freetown’s professional elite. They have all seen the report. I am, I find, rather less popular than Tony Blair. A beautiful and articulate young woman approaches me. She is a lawyer who is to chaperone Mrs . Blair while Tony is being made Paramount Chief. “Why do you do it?” she says. “Why do you go and film in the poorest parts of our city and show a false picture of our country? Why don’t you film our beautiful beaches and mountains?” Another man – more sympathetic – tells me “They are all talking about you. They are furious”. Tony Blair is on the ground for about five hours. There is no disputing his heroic status. But at the press conference which follows, there is a quiet and welcome reminder that for all its troubles Sierra Leone has one of the best educated urban populations and one of the freest presses in Africa. The first question is from a Sierra Leonean agency reporter: can the Prime Minister (who is standing beside the President of the republic) please explain what progress the President has made in embracing good governance? What is the nature of this progress? Where is it evident? Can the Prime Minister please be specific?
The Prime Minister is indeed specific. The progress is that the war is over and few expect it to come back. This generation of slum children will not be expected to fight one another. The signature atrocity of Sierra Leone’s conflict – the chopping off of limbs – is a thing of the past. One more thing. The very fact, the Prime Minister says to the brave reporter, that you are free to sit there and ask me that question in front of your president is evidence that this country is moving towards a strong and rooted democracy. Maybe so. A couple of weeks later, though, Mr Blair gives the same answer to an Iraqi journalist who asks the same question at a press conference in Baghdad. Harder there, I imagine, to argue that the freedom to put such a question is evidence of a secure and rooted democracy.
I get back to London to an e-mail from the man I’d sat next to on the flight into Freetown. On his way out he’d turned up at the Mami Yoko to take the helicopter back to the airport. He didn’t get on because there’d been a football match and the fans beat him to it. He took the ferry instead. It saved his life.