QBP Speech of Peter West, British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone

Peter West, British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone (photo: gov.uk)

Peter West, British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone (photo: gov.uk)

Delivered 21st April 2016 ….
Acting Foreign Minister, Members of Cabinet, Ministers, Special Advisers, Parliamentarians, Fellow Colleagues of the Diplomatic and Consular Corps, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen

A very warm welcome from all the British Government Team in Sierra Leone to our national day, a day of celebration of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s official birthday. Thank you for coming.

By a nice coincidence today is not just symbolically but actually Her Majesty’s 90th birthday; she was born on 21 April 1926. On this special day, I thought I’d say a few words about the relationship between the UK and Sierra Leone over those 90 momentous years.

When the Queen was born, Sierra Leone was still divided between a Crown Colony and a Protectorate, with a British Governor, complete with his ostrich feathers.

It was another world. But that world was already changing.

Just five years earlier, Britain and Ireland signed a treaty which led to Irish independence – the first former colony to leave the British Empire since the United States was formed. Two years after the Queen’s birth, recently qualified Dr Milton Margai returned to Sierra Leone.

By the time the Queen came to the throne, in 1953, Sierra Leone was a united country, with Ministerial powers, and Sir Milton Margai had become Chief Minister.

Eight years later, the Queen visited a newly independent Sierra Leone. She inspected the Royal Sierra Leone Regiment who were now part of the independent nation’s armed forces. She saw the devil dancers in Bo, and she received a symbolic key to Freetown before huge crowds in Victoria Park. I recommend the Pathe newsreel of the visit on YouTube – you might even recognise some of the faces…

Since then, Sierra Leone has come on a long journey.

We have seen hope fulfilled – independence, the establishment of national institutions, democracy, the start of development.

And we have seen hope disappointed, and democracy betrayed … the subversion of national institutions, civil war, poverty, the collapse of infrastructure. Development in reverse. Most recently Ebola claimed the lives of almost 4,000 people.

Throughout these years, the UK has been Sierra Leone’s partner, and friend.

We played a part in bringing the civil war to an end, and helping build the peace.

The UK contributed £427 million to the fight against Ebola, deploying over a thousand military and civilian personnel to support the government’s response. The successful fight against Ebola showed the best of Sierra Leone in responding to a crisis.

Now we are working with you on the recovery. Political leadership was crucial to tackling Ebola; so it will be to the recovery. As President Koroma has said, this should not be a return to business as usual, but a chance to rebuild Sierra Leone as a better, more resilient and fairer society.

The lessons from the Ebola response can help guide the recovery: leadership from the very top; better delivery; personal responsibility and accountability at all levels; and strong ownership at the district and community level. It is on this basis that the UK Government pledged £240 million over two years to support the government’s recovery priorities – in health, education, social protection, energy, water and the private sector.

Leadership is paramount, but also crucial to delivering across those priorities will be improved governance, which the government has added as a seventh priority.

We often talk a little glibly about the personal and cultural ties between Sierra Leone and the UK. More fundamentally, I believe that the two peoples share many of the same aspirations and values in wanting to see respect for human rights, accountability and transparency. Sierra Leone has made progress in a short space of time; the country completed its second Universal Periodic Review in February. The UK will support the commitments Sierra Leone has made to advance the rights of women and girls, to improve access to justice, and to safeguard free speech. Development, and the respect for human rights, requires accountable security. We will continue, through ISAT and the UK military and police, to work with the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces and the Sierra Leone Police to support Sierra Leone’s important contribution to peace and security in Africa, and we are helping Sierra Leone prepare to return to Peace Support Operations soon. We will continue to support national efforts to improve security sector accountability. Sierra Leone also has a chance to entrench democratic stability and constitutional reform. A robust first national census in over a decade, a successful review of the 1991 Constitution and above all a proper process for Local, Parliamentary and Presidential elections by 2018 would be a powerful testament to the health of this democracy. It would be an important legacy for President Koroma’s successor. This is my last Queen’s Birthday Party in Freetown – Kampala has drawn the short straw for the next four years!

Julia and I have been here during an extraordinary time. We will leave the reminiscences for another occasion but we know we will miss this country and its people. You will indulge me a few words of thanks to all the members of the British Government Team in Sierra Leone past and present for their support and wise advice. Their teamwork and collaboration has been personified in the preparation and hosting of tonight’s event: thank you all!

We leave at what is once again a time of hope, and a chance for Sierra Leoneans to take ownership of their future.The UK will continue to play its part with the government, international partners, political parties and civil society.

The private sector will also have a pivotal part to play. Let me thank five British companies who are investing in Sierra Leone’s future and are our generous sponsors for tonight’s event: De la Rue, G4S, Joule, Nectar and Stellar Diamonds. Nelson Mandela said “money won’t create success, the freedom to make it will” . The sincere development of a business environment where a wide range of investors, including western investors, can operate with confidence must be a cornerstone for sustainable success in Sierra Leone.

This weekend sees another important birthday: it’s 400 years since Shakespeare’s birth. Shakespeare is for the whole world, as the Globe theatre showed us with their excellent Hamlet last month at the British Council Auditorium. But thinking of Sierra Leone and the UK and Shakespeare I was reminded of this:

“Everyone that flatters thee is no friend in misery Words are easy, like the wind. Faithful friends are hard to find.”

I hope that the UK and Sierra Leone will always remain faithful friends. As a symbol of that friendship, and with thanks again for honouring us with your presence, I ask you to raise your glasses in a toast to the President and People of Sierra Leone.

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