Salone News

France to reopen embassy in Freetown

7 November 2020 at 17:34 | 1082 views

Commentary

By Gibril Koroma, Editor/Publisher, Toronto, Canada

The recent visit to Sierra Leone by Mr. M’jid El Guerrab, a member of the French parliament, as reported by the State House Communications Unit, is very significant news.

El Guerrab, who represents the Maghreb and parts of West Africa in the French legislature, met President Bio last Thursday and they discussed bilateral relations. Also present was the Speaker of the Sierra Leone parliament Dr Abass Bundu who accompanied the visitor to State House.

Sierra Leone and France had had a diplomatic relationship for a long time, almost soon after our independence, and since then that friendship had flourished with us having an embassy in Paris and France having an embassy in Freetown, housed in a tall building around the Cotton Tree area. The American and the then Soviet Union (later known as Russia) embassies were also in the same neighborhood.The British High Commission was further down towards the sea, sharing office space with the then Standard Bank of Sierra Leone.

I personally think the 1980s were the "golden years" of Sierra Leone- France diplomatic relations with French investors pouring into the country, all the time. A lot of investment in the tourism industry was made by these investors and the crown jewel of it all was the establishment of Hotel Sofitel Mammy Yoko (now called Radisson Blu Hotel) which was opened just in time for the historic Organisation of African Unity (OAU) summit in 1980. The OAU is now known as the African Union or AU. The other hotels that played a significant role during that conference were Hotel Bintumani and Cape Sierra hotels both of which had British connections.

The then booming tourism industry in Sierra Leone in the 80s happened thanks to the French who would bring in hundreds of French tourists every week to enjoy the country’s sunshine, beaches and hospitality. I think some of them were also investors coming into the country to look for possibilities.

Chalets and bungalows were built by the French in the early 80s on prominent beaches like Tokeh beach, Mama beach and others. Tour agencies would send mostly French tourists to the countryside to visit natural touristic sites and enjoy boat rides up and down the rivers.

French businessmen were also involved in mining, agriculture and several other activities and one of such businessmen, Michael Fletcher, was appointed French consul in Freetown when the embassy closed in 1996 due to the rebel war. Today, Bollore Africa Logistics, a French company present in many African countries, is transforming our major seaport in Freetown.

Apart from tourism, the French government also invested heavily in education. Fourah Bay College, the then Milton Margai Teachers’ College and secondary schools all over the country received all forms of assistance in the teaching and learning of French. FBC and MMTC had French expatriate lecturers directly sent from France (paid by the French government), with free textbooks and French laboratory equipment. French students from Fourah Bay College were sent to France towards the end of their studies to absorb the culture and they received a hefty allowance for living expenses and accomodation. As a French student at FBC in the 80s, I was a direct beneficiary of that generosity from the government and people of France.

To create greater understanding and appreciation of French culture, the embassy facilitated the establishment of an Alliance Francaise, place with a library and restaurant where adults could go and learn French in the evening after work, read books and magazines in French and watch French films (with English subtitles) late into the night. French artists and musicians were brought to the country to perform and do exhibitions of their work and conduct workshops almost every month. Sierra Leonean artists and musicians, journalists and other professionals were also sent to France to do short courses and pick up new skills. There was also a Centre Pedagogique near the embassy whose main function was to provide support and further training for French secondary school teachers all over the country.

So, in essence, the relationship between France and Sierra Leone had been one of mutual benefit although I would say Sierra Leone received more from the relationship. This relationship should therefore be encouraged strengthened again with the vigour it deserves. We need to return to those glorious days.

Sierra Leone closed its embassy in Paris in 2014, an unwise decision by the past government. It should be reopened by the current progressive government so that the French would reopen theirs in Freetown, leading to a return of more and more French investors and the excellent teaching of the French language and French technical assistance in all fields as in the past.

In fact both President Bio and Mr. M’jid have indicated a readiness to reopen embassies in each other’s country. Knowing President Bio as the Talk and Do president he is, we will soon have an embassy in Paris again and knowing the French for the speed with which they do things, we will have a French embassy in Freetown again soon.

Currently, the French embassy in neighbouring Guinea is in charge of Sierra Leone.

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