Sierra Leone leader rebuts corruption charge before vote
FREETOWN (Reuters) - Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma denied on Monday accusations he is soft on corruption in a last-minute defence before November 17 elections in which he is seeking a second term.
Koroma will face top opposition rival and former junta leader Julius Maada Bio in polls widely seen as a test of the resource-rich West African state's recovery a decade after a civil war.
Koroma, a former insurance broker in power since 2007, is favoured to win but has drawn fire from rivals claiming he has done little to root out graft. An Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) has failed to send a single person to jail under his rule.
"You are trying to give the impression that I, as president, should be doing the work of the judiciary and that is where you go wrong," Koroma told reporters in the capital Freetown.
"You don't expect me to interpret the law, you don't expect me to sit in the courts and pass judgments."
He said the ACC, formed by the government in 2000, was no longer a "toothless bulldog" after his administration revised laws to give it power to prosecute, and not just investigate.
Koroma's rivals, including Bio, have also attacked him for nominating his vice president Samuel Sam Sumana as his running mate despite an Al Jazeera documentary alleging Sam Sumana's office took bribes for timber deals.
Sam Sumana has denied wrongdoing, and an ACC investigation reported that it found no evidence he was aware of any payment of bribes to people claiming to represent him.
BIO ADDRESSES RALLY
On Sunday night, Bio addressed a rally in the southern town of Moyamba, saying the incumbent had failed his people.
"The father failed, and state house is not a classroom where if you failed you repeat," Bio said in the Krio language, referring to Koroma.
Bio's party manifesto promises a renegotiation of all mineral deals as well as Sierra Leone's mining code, which he says have failed to benefit ordinary citizens.
Sierra Leone remains one of the world's poorest and least developed countries after a devastating 1991-2002 civil war, and relies heavily on its burgeoning resource sector to fund its recovery and ease rampant poverty.
It produces iron ore, gold, as well as the diamonds that once helped fund its conflict. Iron ore producers African Minerals and London Mining, gold miner Amara Mining Plc, and diamond miner Octea operate there.
Koroma's government had come under fire for setting a low tax rate of 6 percent for London Mining -- far below the 37.5 percent level stipulated in Sierra Leone's mining laws -- though the contract has since been revised.
In an interview with Reuters on Sunday Bio said "there is a lot to be done in the mining sector."
"What we have done in the past, we have not really bargained in the interests of the country," he said.
On Monday, Koroma mocked Bio's plan to renegotiate deals, stating that his government had already retooled several agreements to the state's advantage.
"The issue of the opposition talking about reviews, I don't know where they're coming from," he said.
However Koroma, whose own All Peoples' Congress party manifesto includes a section on "optimising" mineral rents, acknowledged too that in the past Sierra Leone has struggled to profit from its lavish natural resources.
(Editing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Michael Roddy)
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