BUMBUNA, Sierra Leone (Reuters) - Sierra Leone's new president, Ernest Bai Koroma, has pledged to complete a massive hydroelectric dam delayed for decades by war, corruption and a lack of cash in the power-starved West African country.
In his first official visit outside the capital Freetown since winning power last month, Koroma pledged late on Saturday to make good on his campaign promises to end the former British colony's crippling reliance on small, private generators.
Work began on the Bumbuna dam, nestled among lush hills some 200 km (120 miles) northeast of Freetown, in the 1970s but a 1991-2002 civil war, looting of vital equipment and a lack of funding have hampered the project.
The dam will provide the country with 50 megawatts of power, enough once fully up and running to light up Freetown and other towns across the country which currently have no power or rely on expensive, noisy and polluting small diesel generators.
"This project has been going on for close to 30 years, we have spent over $200 million, and we're still not sure when it will be completed," Koroma told Reuters as he toured the site. "I am determined to ensure it will be completed."
Wearing a baseball cap, trainers and short-sleeved blue tie-dye shirt, the 54-year-old former insurance executive walked along the top of the 88 metre-high dam and donned a hard hat to inspect the engineering works.
"I made meself come see for meself the devil that holds this project. We go kill am (him)," Koroma said in an address in the Krio dialect to cheering locals gathered nearby.
The World Bank has said the absence of power reduces Sierra Leone's economic growth, currently at 7.5 percent, by 1 to 2 percent. More than 70 percent of the population lives below the poverty line in a country struggling to rebuild.
Begun as an Italian aid project, the Italian government has already spent more than $150 million on Bumbuna. No commercial banks have been ready to offer loans and costs have spiralled.
Contractors hired mercenaries to defend the near-completed works during the war, but were eventually forced to evacuate. When the conflict ended, looters stole 207 km (130 miles) of transmission cables and many of the pylons that link the project to Freetown to sell for scrap.
Work has now stalled once again because of a funding shortfall of 30 million euros.
Salcost, the Italian contractors, say they have not been paid for two years and are owed 18 million euros. They estimate the project will cost a further 12 million euros.
An Italian government delegation says it is ready to put in 12 million euros and hopes the African Development Bank and DfID, the UK development agency which is Sierra Leone's largest bilateral donor, will contribute the rest.
After so much investment, the engineers are reluctant to abandon the project.
The Italians have become so settled in Sierra Leone that their canteen boasts sun-dried tomatoes, prosciutto ham and one of the country's few cappuccino machines, which froths up lattes beneath the palm-tree covered hills.
But despite the home comforts, so long in such a remote location has led to some cabin fever.
"Everybody is fed up with Bumbuna. They want to complete