African adventure is an education for both sides

Jo Swinson with new MPs in Sierra Leone

Jo recently spent four days training new MPs in Sierra Leone

Jo Swinson returns from her recent visit to Sierra Leone to reflect on the huge challenges facing the country’s newly elected Members of Parliament:

The visit was intended as a training programme for newly elected Members of Parliament in Sierra Leone. But setting foot on African soil for the first time, I had the sense that this trip would be as much an education for me as it would be for them.

The similarities between politics in the UK and Sierra Leone are as stark as the differences.

Their Parliament has a speaker, who wears robes and a wig, and MPs refer to each other as ‘honourable members’ in the same way as they do at Westminster. In fact it is easy to see where their politics has been modelled on the UK system.

But in some ways, much more is expected of Sierra Leone’s MPs. They are asked to help pay school fees for their constituents, and if there is a funeral – for any of the people they represent – they are expected to attend and help meet the cost. This certainly adds a new dimension to the perennial debate over MPs’ salaries.

From the ordinary people in Sierra Leone, the sense of trust, optimism and political engagement is extraordinary. They have been through so much, but after years of civil war the country seems to be emerging with a sense of unity and positivity.

The challenges facing the new MPs are of the most basic kind: people need enough food to eat and basic sanitation to avoid disease. But the feeling among both the MPs and the ordinary men and women I met was of a new Sierra Leone emerging to a brighter future.

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