A vision for the future of Sierra Leone | Julius Maada Bio


On Tuesday, January 16, 1996, I walked into the office of the president as head of state
of the Republic of Sierra Leone. I had not been elected. Four years earlier, I was one of 30 heavily armed
military officers, all in our 20s, who had driven from the war front into the capital city, Freetown. We had only one objective: to overthrow a corrupt, repressive
and single-party dictatorship that had kept itself in power
for over 25 years. But in the end, it wasn’t a violent coup. After we fired a few shots
and seized the radio station, hundreds of thousands of citizens
jumped onto the streets to welcome us as liberators. If you are thinking this seems
like a movie script, I’m with you. I was part of the ruling
military government, and I served in several roles. Our goal was always to return the country
to democratic civilian rule. But after four years, those multiparty democratic elections
had still not happened. Citizens were beginning
to lose faith in our promise. But you know what? I like to keep my promises. Some of my comrades and I
staged another military coup, and this time, against our own
head of state and commander. Again, it was a bloodless coup. That is how I became the new
military head of state on January 16, 1996. I was still only 31 years old. Of course, power was sweet. I felt invulnerable. I had thousands of heavily armed men and aircraft at my command. I was heavily protected, and I lived in luxury. But my obligations to my nation
were always superior. Millions of fellow citizens
were either displaced or fleeing the violence
and pillage of war. So I engaged in a series
of diplomatic activities right across the subregion and convinced the reclusive rebel leader
to initiate peace talks for the very first time. I also called a national
consultative conference of civil society organizations
and stakeholders to advise on the best way forward. In both cases, I shared with them what I believed in then and now: that Sierra Leone is bigger
than all of us, and that Sierra Leone must be a secure,
peaceful and just society where every person can thrive and contribute to national development. And so, I initiated peace talks
with the rebels. I organized the first multiparty
democratic elections in nearly 30 years. (Applause) I handed over power to the newly elected president, I retired from the army, and I left my country
for the United States of America to study — all in three months. (Applause) In many a long walk, I wondered how we could
get it right again as a nation. More than 20 years later, in April 2018, with a few more wrinkles and grey hair, I was again head of state. But guess what? This time I have been
democratically elected. (Applause) At the polling stations last year, my three-year-old daughter,
Amina, was in my arm. She insisted on holding on to
my ballot paper with me. She was intent and focused. At that moment, with my ballot papers in both our hands, I fully understood the one priority for me if I was elected president
of the Republic of Sierra Leone; that is: How could I make
the lives of Amina and millions of other young girls and boys better in our country? See, I believe that leadership is about
creating possibilities that everyone, especially the young people, can believe in, own, work to actualize, and which they can
actively fight to protect. The pathway to power and leadership can be littered with impediments, but more often, with funny questions
that may seemingly defy answers: How does one take on the unique challenges
of a country like Sierra Leone? We had mined mineral resources
for over a hundred years, but we still are poor. We had collected foreign aid
for 58 years, but we are still poor. The secret to economic development
is in nature’s best resource: skilled, healthy
and productive human beings. The secret to changing our country
lay in enhancing and supporting the limitless potential
of the next generation and challenging them
to change our country. Human capital development
was the key to national development in Sierra Leone. As a candidate, I met with and listened to
many young men and women right across the country and in the diaspora that were feeling disconnected
from political leadership and cared little about
the future of our country. How could we engage them and make them believe that the answers
to transforming our nation was right in their hands? Immediately after becoming president, I appointed some of Sierra Leone’s
brightest young people as leaders, with responsibility to realize
our shared vision of transforming Sierra Leone. I am grateful many of them said yes. Let me give you a few examples. Corruption had been endemic
in governance, institutions and in public life in Sierra Leone, undermining public trust and the country’s
international reputation. I appointed a young attorney
as Commissioner for the Anti-Corruption Commission. In less than a year, he had a hundred percent conviction rate and recovered over
1.5 million dollars of stolen money. That is seed money for building
the country’s first-ever national medical diagnostic
center in Sierra Leone. (Applause) The Millennium Challenge Corporation
recently gave us a green scorecard for the Control of Corruption indicator, and multilateral development partners
that had left Sierra Leone are now beginning to return. We are determined to break
a culture of corruption and the culture of impunity that is associated with corruption. Before I became president, I met a skinny, dreadlocked
MIT/Harvard-trained inventor in London. Over coffee, I challenged him
to think and plan along with me how innovation could help
to drive national development in the areas of governance,
revenue mobilization, health care, education, delivering public services and supporting private sector growth. How could Sierra Leone participate
in the digital economy and become an innovation hub? Guess what? He left his cozy job at IBM, and he now leads a team
of young men and women within the newly established Directorate
of Science, Technology and Innovation in my own office. (Applause) That young man is right in here. I challenged another
young Sierra Leonean woman to set up and lead the new Ministry
of Planning and Economic Development. She consulted widely with Sierra Leoneans
and produced, in record time, the medium-term national development plan, titled, “Education For Development.” We now have our national development needs in easily understandable clusters, and we can now plan our budgets, align development partner contributions and measure our own progress. But the story of my government’s
flagship program is even more daring, if I can call it that. Today, three out of five adults
in Sierra Leone cannot read or write. Thousands of children
were not able to go to school or had dropped out of school because their parents could just
not afford the $20 school fees per year. Women and girls, who constitute
51 percent of our population, were not given equal opportunity
to be educated. So the obvious answer is to put in place
free, quality education for every Sierra Leonean child, regardless of gender,
ability or ethnicity. (Applause) Great idea you’ve clapped for. Right? But the only problem is we had
no money to start the program. (Laughter) Absolutely nothing. Development partners wanted to see data
before associating with my vision. Of course, political opponents
laughed at me. But I campaigned that a nation that invests in human capital development through free, quality education, affordable and high-quality
health care services and food security will accelerate its national
development program. I argued that for Sierra Leone
to produce a highly skilled, innovative and productive workforce fit for the 21st century global economy, we needed to invest heavily in human
capital development in Sierra Leone. But we had no money, because the previous government
had virtually emptied the coffers. We clamped down on corruption, closed up the loopholes
for fraud and waste, and we watched the money build up. We successfully launched
a free, quality education program in August last year, four years, four months later. Today, two million children
are going to school. (Applause) Twenty-one percent of the national budget supports free, quality education. In close collaboration and in partnership
with development partners, we have now provided teaching
and learning materials, safe spaces for girls, and started implementing
school feeding programs across the entire country. We have even paid backlogs
of salaries for teachers. Any girl admitted to university
to study science, technology, engineering, mathematics
and other related disciplines receives a full scholarship
in Sierra Leone today. (Applause) And here is why this matters: in a few years, we will have
a healthier, better educated and highly skilled young population that will lead and drive the country’s
national development. They will be well-equipped to deploy
science, technology and innovation. Then we’ll attract investment
in diversified areas of our economy, from tourism to fisheries and from renewable energy
to manufacturing. That is my biggest bet. In my mind, this is what
leadership is all about: a mission to listen with empathy to the craziest of ideas, the hopes and aspirations
of a younger generation, who are just looking
for a chance to be better and to make our country better. It is about letting them know that their dreams matter. It is about standing with them
and asking, “Why not?” when they ask seemingly
impossible questions. It is about exploring, making and owning a shared vision. The most audacious
and nation-changing events or policies or even personal choices happen when we ask, “Why not?” then make bold choices and ensure
those bold choices happen. I wake up every day believing that our country should no longer be
defined by the stigma of the past. The future offers hope
and opportunity for all. It matters to me that young men and women
right across the country can imagine for themselves
that they, too, can be and are part of the story of our nation. I want to challenge them to build a nation where three-year-olds
like my daughter, Yie Amie, can grow up in good governance, quality education, health care and good infrastructure. I want our children
to become young men and women who can continue nourishing
the trees that will grow from the seeds that we are planting today. Now can someone tell me why we should not dare imagine
that future in Sierra Leone? Thank you. (Applause)

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