THE CHANGE-MAKER – H.E. Julius Maada Bio, President of Sierra Leone

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Purpose-driven leadership, love for people and servant leadership has been at the heart of President Julius Maada Bio’s leadership trajectory. President Bio has been consistent from cradle to full bloom, and his leadership inspiration has continued to shine as the northern star.

The first test of leadership and public-spirited demeanour came when he took over power on 16th January 1996, the Military head of state and kept his word of organizing elections and handing over power to a democratically elected president – resisting pressures from contemporaries to act against his conviction. Happening at the time when military coups were in fashion in west Africa makes his decision all the more riveting.

Fast-forward to May 2018, in pursuit of a better life for the millions of Sierra Leoneans; President Julius Maada Bio led the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) to upstage the ruling party and emerged the democratically elected President of the country.

True to type, His Excellency President Maada Bio wasted no time making bold and strategic decisions designed to return the country to its glory days. A clear-headed leader, he unveiled his roadmap and aptly christened the “New Direction” agenda – with Human Capital Development as the cardinal plank of the plan.

If the primary focus of the New Direction Agenda can be summed up in one phrase, it would be a “Citizen-centric Development Plan.” The plan is fixed on improving Human Capital Development, emphasizing education, agriculture and food security and health – with education being the flagship program of the human capital development agenda.

When President Bio, on the 12th May 2018, announced the introduction of free and quality education for both primary and secondary school-age children, in line with his primary campaign pledge, some analysts questioned his sanity while also calling his bluff. Some even argued that it was impossible to commence, let alone run successfully for the tenure of the President. Four years on, the government hasn’t only proved naysayers wrong, but President Bio has also practically given wings to the famous phrase, “where there is a will, there is a way.”

Inheriting a badly damaged economy and assuming office at a time of global uncertainties wasn’t enough to douse the determination of the President to return the country to the “Athens of West Africa.” Far from it, instead, it propelled the government to allocate the most significant part of its GDP towards building the country’s present and future. The sector receives about 22% of the country’s budgetary allocation, far above the global average.

It could be argued that the Free Quality School Education project launched in 2018 has led to an increase in the number of pupils enrolled in schools and a decline in the mortality rate of children. In 2021, more than 600,000 additional children, especially girls, accessed schools with 5,000 additional qualified teachers recruited.

Four Years on, President Bio’s commitment to service hasn’t waned an inch; instead, his unrivalled commitment to see the lives of Sierra Leoneans improve daily keeps him up at night. In this exclusive interview with the African Leadership Magazine UK team, he talks about his legacies. While other political leaders are more concerned about the next election, President Bio focuses on the next generation. Much has been seen in his generational programmes and initiatives, and he tells us why. Excerpt.

You are the first Sierra Leonean among the very few Africans to have served their countries as Military Heads of State and democratically elected presidents. This is no mean fit. Can you tell us more about yourself and what prepared you for this critical leadership role?

I was born in and groomed in leadership. And I’ve had the opportunity to lead selflessly most of my life, sometimes grudgingly, but mostly willingly.

I am the son of a Paramount Chief and the last born of my beloved mother, who was God-fearing, strong and industrious. I lost my father at the age of four years, so I was raised by my uneducated mother who instilled the values of hard work, perseverance and humility in me. These values have served me well throughout my life.

Despite my mother not having received formal Western education, she greatly valued learning and education, making sure that her children had the opportunities she did not get growing up. With all odds stacked against her, she struggled to put me through primary school, but she was determined to give me the opportunity for a better quality of life. I went to live with my older sister

in my final year of primary school, in pursuit of a better future. I was successful in my Selective Entrance examination for secondary school and gained admission to the prestigious Bo Government Secondary School, (popularly known as Bo School), a boarding school for boys founded by the British Colonial government to educate the sons of Paramount Chiefs or nominees of Paramount Chiefs.

I thrived at Bo School, and I had seven fulfilling years acquiring education and some of my valuable lessons in discipline, teamwork, and leadership. The Bo School has produced many leaders in all walks of life. I am the first person from the school to become President, and the school is over 100 years old.

When I graduated from Secondary School, I wanted to be an academic, an engineer for that matter, but life works in funny ways. While waiting for admission into University, I taught briefly at a School.

During that time, I saw an advertisement to join the Sierra Leone Armed Forces Military Academy. Weighing my options, the opportunity to serve my country, receiving cost free education and training and becoming an officer in the army, I decided to pursue the option of becoming a cadet.

I gained admission at the Military Academy, and I excelled in the rigorous trainings. I graduated as an officer with the rank of Second Lieutenant. I proved to be quick witted, calm and dependable right from my first posting serving in various units including aviation security and economic emergency. My leadership qualities did not go unnoticed by my superiors in the army. I was made a platoon commander in record time.

By 1990, a civil war was brewing across the border in Liberia, prompting the West African region to establish a peacekeeping force called the ECOMOG (Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group). To support the peacekeeping effort, Sierra Leone sent some of its best soldiers to join ECOMOG in attempting to quell the bloody civil war that was raging. Still a young officer, I was among this contingent sent to protect the Sierra Leone-Liberia border.

Unfortunately, by 1991, Sierra Leone had trouble of its own brewing in the East, with a group of rebels known as the RUF (Revolutionary United Front). I and several of my colleagues were redeployed from the border to the Eastern region of Sierra Leone to combat the burgeoning rebellion.

In the battlefield, we observed first-hand how starved the army was of resources, training and leadership to face a well-armed rebel force. As a result, due to the malfunctioning of our outdated weapons we were outgunned and overran by the rebels. This necessitated my determination to be a force for change in a country operating without a plan and mired in corruption and inefficiency.

Sierra Leone had, since 1968 experienced authoritarian rule and the suppression of dissent under the then ruling All People’s Congress (APC). By 1978, a new constitution made the ruling APC the only legal political party in the country, turning an already de facto oneparty state into one backed by law. By 1992, I and a group of other young military officers that were fighting relentlessly in the warfront and experiencing the failings of the government hatched a plan to travel to the capital Freetown to confront the brutal dictatorship which oversaw a crumbling nation and plunged the country into decades of political and

socio-economic doldrums. The plan was set in motion and I and my colleagues mostly in our twenties took control of the government, deposing the President in a bloodless coup on April 29, 1992.

We were welcomed with much jubilation at home and abroad. It was a welcome relief for our people who had suffered years of oppression under the autocratic APC regime. I had very clear goals as a member of the nation’s leadership during that period.

I had no intention of replicating the brutal and corrupt government we had been part of overthrowing or of holding on to power. The main priorities were ending the war, which was raging across the country, restoring the ailing economy and most importantly, returning the country to stable, democratic rule.

But some of the leadership team deviated from our initial plan to return the country to democratic rule and on January 16, 1996 some of us that were committed to our original plan staged a palace coup to remove the Head of State whose leadership was becoming increasingly untenable. I took effective control of administration of the country and began the process of executing the most important tasks of restoring the economy, returning the country to democratic rule and ending the war that was raging across the country. In my three months as Head of State, we stabilized the state enough to organize the first democratic elections in three decades, effectively ending dictatorship and military rule. The decision to hand over power and return the country to democratic rule wasn’t an easy one to make. I had very strong opposition from people wanting to cling on to power, even within my inner circle, from some of my trusted peers, family members and friends.

But I have always believed in democratic ideals and delivering on my promises, so my strong convictions outweighed the dissenting views of hanging on to political power. So I decided not to cling on to political power and organised the first credible multiparty presidential elections in our nation’s history and respected the votes of our citizens who deserved accountable governance and leadership.

I did not simply do a cosmetic handing over of political power while remaining in the shadows pulling strings. After handing over power to President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah in March 1996, I retired from the Sierra Leone Army and went to the United States of America to pursue my further education with my young family. I was 32 years old.

During my three months as Head of state, I was also instrumental in initiating the first peace talks with the elusive rebel leader, that led to the peaceful settlement of the Sierra Leone civil conflict some years later.

I led at the battlefront and the political front for a short while as a military head of state. And during those times, I had the opportunity to look at the public sector and leadership differently. I usually say I stumbled into politics. It was not my desire to enter politics at that time. I never had any plan to get near politics. I was motivated by my strong conviction that it is possible to get it right as a nation; the belief that Sierra Leone and Sierra Leoneans deserve a better future. I must be part of the change that I want to see in our nation.

My journey to democratic political leadership has been a long and arduous one. It was a 22-year journey of life’s ebbs and flows. I like to call it my wilderness years, like the Biblical story of the journey of Moses and the Israelites from Egypt to Israel. Fortunately, I arrived at my Promised Land, unlike Moses. Through it all, my unwavering faith in God kept me focused on the promise.

I was democratically elected as President of the Republic of Sierra Leone in 2018, on the cusp of turning 54-years old. In fact, my inauguration was on the day of my 54rd birthday. Some may say I was too young to become President or a bit too old, depending on where in the World you come from. One thing I knew for sure was that I was ready to serve my nation in the highest office. My leadership abilities had been tried and tested for 22-years since I organised the first democratic elections in nearly 30-years in my nation’s history, and peacefully handed political power to the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) in 1996.

My desire to make a difference in the lives of Sierra Leoneans through good governance, accountability and the rule of law was and still is unquenchable. Since assuming office, my government is resolute on driving and leading the change from fragility and corruption to resilience, peace, and sustainable national development.

During your inauguration speech upon assumption of office, you announced that the theme and focus for your national development plan for the next five years is: ‘Education for Development”, signalling your readiness to return the country to its glory days as the “Athens of West Africa.” 4 years down the line, how has this agenda fared?

At the heart of my government’s agenda is Human Capital Development. I believe an educated population accelerates inclusive and sustainable national development. Education is a great enabler for personal and national development.

My government’s top priority is access to free quality basic and senior secondary education and strengthening tertiary and higher education. Beyond our natural resources, our nation’s most substantial asset is its young and dynamic population, which, like natural resources, must be properly developed to deliver shared economic growth and meaningful poverty reduction and prosperity for all.

As part of our “Education For Development” strategy, my government has developed innovative policies and rolled-out transformation initiatives in the last four years. It has not been easy, but I was under no illusion at the time when we set the Development Agenda. I knew it will not be an easy task considering how long it had taken since we lost our glory as the Athens of West Africa. I concluded that quality education made us a powerhouse in West Africa and Africa in the years following our Independence from colonial rule. I realised that education is even more critical today in our globally competitive world than it was at that time. For effective governance and to undertake development itself, which is a very complex and multifaceted process steeped in different paradigms, I recognised that we must build the capacity of our citizens. I realised that we could not start or pretend to even start effectively building our nation without an educated population. The citizens are the change agents, so they should be prepared to drive change through human capital development.

When I assumed office in 2018, three out of four or five adults in this country could not read or write. That statistic is still valid. Changing this narrative will take some time but we are making concerted efforts to tackle the issue. With such high level of adult illiteracy, my government recognised that the population is not ready to be competitive in the 21st century or be part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

So, for me, it is an existential threat. I must bring education that is fit for purpose, one that fits into the 21st century so that we can reposition this country for the Fourth Industrial Revolution and fully partake in its benefits for national development.

Rather than just be an Athens, we must aspire to be a hub of science, technology and innovation. My vision is for our nation not to be at the receiving end of another Industrial Revolution, having been at the receiving end of the previous three Industrial Revolutions. To become a middle-income country in the 21st century, we must ensure that we educate our people.

There are several impediments to the successful implementation of our Education for Development plan, but we are making great strides in overcoming them. For instance, many parents could not send their kids to school because they cannot afford $20 to $30 a year to enrol and sustain their kids in school. Under my government’s Free Quality School Education program, the State will be responsible for the education of every child born in this country from pre-school until completion of secondary school.

We are making good on the promises in the New Direction agenda including providing tuition-free education, school feeding initiatives, school bus transportation services in some neighbourhoods, and payment of transition examination fees. We realised that some school children would prepare for three or four years for transition examinations.

When it’s time to pay the transition exams fee, the child’s parent or guardian does not have the financial resource to pay the fees for the NPSE (National Primary Schools Examination) or WASSCE (the West African Senior School Certificate Examination), and they drop out. The dropout rate at the transition school level has been curbed since the payments of transition exams fees by my government.

It has been challenging to address all these issues. People wondered whether the free quality education initiative would be possible within our first mandate, but we are proving that where there is a will, there will always be a way.

Education, for me, is a navigational tool for the world ahead of us. And if we are going to task our children with the sustainable transformation of our nation, then we must adequately prepare them. We must do so through quality education that is fit for purpose.

An educated population helps the development process, both personal and national development. In addition, it is also good because we go around the world inviting businesses to come to Sierra Leone; they are only ready to come when we have a prepared workforce. When the population already has the skills and the level of knowledge that is required to move their businesses.

Without that, you are not very inviting as a nation. So, as a result of all these things, I thought it was necessary to put a premium on education. Notwithstanding, my government’s overarching priority to improve human development indicators also includes access to quality healthcare services, improve agriculture and food security, decent jobs for the youth, inclusive growth, and building a resilient economy.

I shared earlier about my humble beginnings, and I could barely attend school. I was the last child of an illiterate woman born at a time of very limited opportunities for education especially for the girl-child. Despite life’s challenges as a widow, she placed strong emphasis on education. Somehow, my mother knew that education was necessary to unlock my full potential. Education played a critical role in my journey, and for me, as you’ve rightly characterized it, and for me, it is not about the next election, but the next generation. This is about the genuine development of our nation. We want to prepare the whole country because education is a leveller. Interestingly, the school that did very well in the country comes from a region that does not represent my political stronghold. But they are equal beneficiaries of the free quality education program. So, what we have made available is for every child in Sierra Leone; it does not matter if you voted for me or not. But I know that we need to give every child a chance of a prosperous future. Therefore, we are levelling the field for everyone. My young daughter is in school, and every child in the country is also in school. And that is what we want to make available; the tools for everybody to embrace personal and national development and become instruments of global change and competitive world citizens. So, education for me is everything.

One of the strategic objectives of the New Direction Agenda is to change and transform Sierra Leone and provide efficient political and economic management of the state and abundant natural resources for the benefit of all Sierra Leoneans. How has your administration fared in the prudent management of resources for the use of all?

As you may be aware, Sierra Leone is very rich in natural resources and effective natural resource management has been critical because we see it as a net contributor to GDP but also as an accelerator for our Human Capital Development (HCD) priorities.

In terms of our actions, the first thing we did was clamp down heavily on corruption and waste. We have been very robust in responding to the menace that led us towards corruption and waste. Not only have we supported and strengthened institutions in curbing corruption, but my government has also restored the autonomy of the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) to lead in the fight against and control of corruption through prevention, investigation, prosecution and public education.

For over two decades, we had a one-party state and corruption was rife at all levels. You had limited options for real change to the system. What do you do as a productive citizen? Do you vote continuously for the corrupt one-party system until you die?

Unfortunately, a major contributor to our nation’s bleak history, the civil war was the endemic corruption at the time. The status quo was what led to our actions in 1992, as young and productive citizens, to say that enough was enough, there had to be an opportunity for real change for the people. Unfortunately, corruption remained deeply rooted in our society even after the War. Since I assumed office in 2018, we have been fighting corruption decisively across the board. It’s a long and brutal war. When corruption becomes a culture, even fighting it is dangerous. Because it’s a way of life that had existed even before I was born. And some people have thrived in the corrupt system. Our recent efforts in fighting corruption is making it less fashionable because we will go after you to ensure that what is meant for the state is kept and used for its purpose. I keep saying it’s a fight that we must fight. And it’s a fight that we will win.

My government’s efforts in decisively fighting corruption is paying off. In less than a year into my administration, we greatly improved all the financial and economic performance markers for the IMF’s positive approval ratings. And with that, we have attracted credible investors and development partners like the World Bank, African Development Bank and others to support our socio-economic development reforms.

Typically, when you talk about natural resources in Sierra Leone, you have to talk about its mineral resources. As a nation, we have not successfully managed and exploited the full potential of our mineral resources for the benefits of all citizens. We inherited a woefully mismanaged and wholly paralyzed mining sector. Our administration has taken a holistic approach for effective, equitable and sustainable management of our mineral resources for the benefit of the current and future generations.

We have made significant strides in developing and implementing the enabling legal and regulatory frameworks to fully exploit our mineral resources potential for sustainable economic growth and transformation. For instance, we have reviewed the Minerals Policy and revised the governance framework to improve accountability and transparency. The Mines and Minerals Act has been revised and its ratification by the Parliament is imminent.

One of our great achievements in the mining sector is the reorientation of our policy stance to make sure that revenues generated from our mineral resources are managed in transparent, fair and accountable ways. We have ensured that the State and its citizens benefit significantly from our mineral resources wealth. I strongly believe that stakeholders and decision-makers could do better for mining communities. Mining communities should be paid substantially more to invest in sustainable livelihood and community development projects that would sustain the economic viability and resilience of their communities. Our administration, for the first time in the history of our nation, enacted a law that increases Community

Development Agreement (CDA) payments from a paltry 0.01% to 1% of annual revenues in the best interests of mining communities. Government in the past have not full considered and planned for the eventual transition of mining communities from being mining-dependent to self-reliant post-mining communities. When mines shut down, jobs disappear, economic activities cease, and communities go into a downward spiral of Poverty. We are ensuring that the mining communities transition to economic hubs even beyond the life of a mine.

Also, we have guaranteed not only that mining investments are secure and can be fully supported within a transparent regulatory regime, but that investors can also make a profit and repatriate or reinvest their profits. Revenues have gradually increased from the mining sector because of the enabling policies, control measures, and discipline we have introduced. This is creating direct and indirect jobs with significant impact on local economies around mine sites. It’s a long way to go. But it’s beginning to pay off.

You inherited one of the worst economic situations in the country since independence and coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic. How have you managed scarce resources towards delivering dividends of democracy to your people?

My government has undertaken extensive reforms in strengthening public financial management to maximise the value of our limited public resources and to deliver essential public services and sustained development. We have focused on clamping down on corruption and waste, implementing rational fiscal management, managing public debt, building strong macroeconomic fundamentals, and mobilising domestic revenues.

We inherited a system where the public Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) managed their own financial resources independently, which was a breeding ground for excesses. My administration instituted a consolidated Single account where the public funds are pooled together. Managed by the Ministry of Finance, the consolidated single account for public expenditure is helping to curb the pervasive excesses. It has been a game changer for our public financial management.

We were making significant economic development gains as a government, then COVID-19 hit just over a year into our administration. The pandemic has been a disrupter of everything, and the economic and social consequences are far reaching globally. Notwithstanding, it has presented an opportunity for our government to do things differently. Our strategy for our post-COVID-19 economic recovery efforts involves discipline in handling state affairs, including effectively managing state resources, macroeconomic fundamentals and inflation.

As a government, our post-COVID-19 efforts include pushing for reforms that increase revenue collection, prioritise health and capital spending, and restructure the management of fiscal risks. We have been deliberate in terms of structural reforms to increase the productivity of domestic firms and strengthen the role of the private sector to support a more sustainable and resilient recovery.

With the limited fiscal space, my government continues to implement sound economic policies and public financial management reforms that are geared towards maintaining a stable economy and responding to the financial and socio-economic shocks brought about by the pandemic.

Our strategy during and after the pandemic also includes bailing out small businesses to save jobs and cushioning livelihoods through expanded but properly targeted social protection program given the limited fiscal space. We worked with businesses to help absorb the economic shocks triggered by COVID-19. For instance, instead of a hard lockdown at the height of the pandemic, we opted for a soft lockdown approach (2-3 days at a time during which we ramped up contact tracing and disease surveillance) that prioritised lives and livelihood.

With prudent financial management, my government is able to rationalize the use of state resources. We have embarked on different development projects across the various growth sectors including education, agriculture, energy, transport and mining.

Our free quality education program receives the largest budget allocation under my administration, which is 22% of our GDP into education. We are supporting about 2.5 million school kids, providing not only free tuition but also buying textbooks for kids, paying for the transition examinations, and buying teaching and learning materials for the teachers. People have wondered how we have been able to manage scarce resources, especially with the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our approach has been effective state governance, relentlessly clamping down on corruption and curbing wastages across the MDAs. The resources recovered are ploughed into financing the national development program. This has not been a popular approach for those who benefited from the previous weak state governance model. However, I consistently reassure citizens that my administration is not governing with the business-as-usual approach of squandering state resources. We are investing in the future of our children who will become productive citizens and leaders of tomorrow hopefully in a well-governed society if the foundations my administration is laying remains.

Our commendable efforts ineffective public financial management have not gone unnoticed by development partners and international investors. We have received over US$ 200 million in grants from the World Bank based on our prudent public financial management track record post- COVID-19. To date, we have entered into strategic partnerships with both traditional and non-traditional investors worth millions of dollars. What seemed impossible, is now happening because of the firm and well-disciplined approach to state governance and leadership.

My government will continue to implement prudent public financial management policies focused on enhancing domestic revenue mobilisation, rationalizing expenditures, working towards single digit inflation, maintaining sustainable debt levels, a stable exchange rate, and increasing reserves to support inclusive growth.

You launched three peaceful democratic wars upon election: War on Indiscipline, War on Corruption, and War on Poverty. How well have the government fared in the battleground?

The central cause of the civil war was endemic greed, corruption and nepotism, which deprived the nation of its dignity and forced its citizens into poverty. Therefore, the war on indiscipline, corruption and poverty is one that my administration is determined to win to improve the quality of lives of our citizens. No Retreat! No Surrender!

Fighting corruption and illicit financial flows is at the forefront of my government’s New Direction agenda in ushering in sustainable socio-economic transformation. Under my leadership, the Anti-Corruption Commission has been allowed to carry out its duties autonomously in the fight against corruption with record improvement in all global and local indexes, surveys and reports. To date, over US$ 3 million in cash, excluding property assets and fines, has been recovered. A portioned of the recovered cash is being used to build a public hospital and the remaining funds used as contribution towards our National Student Loan Scheme.

The Millennium Corporation Challenge (MCC) has us passing the control of corruption indicator on their scorecard for three successive years. The MCC has declared Sierra Leone eligible to develop a compact in recognition of my government’s performance in investing in people, ruling justly, and economic freedom.

We have scored an unprecedented 83%. Transparency International rates us highest in their Corruption Perception Index. We will continue to build on these successes because, as I have said, the fight against corruption is a fight that we must win.

Poverty has existed among human beings for almost as long as we have existed on Earth. Poverty is a disease, but illiteracy is a curse. It is said that the biggest weapon against cyclical poverty is education. I am a people-centred leader and the social and economic injustice in the world is what drives my motivation to make a difference.

Click HERE TO ACCESS THE FULL INTERVIEW on pages 10 – 28 of the Special 2022 edition of the African Leadership Magazine.

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