As a “new kid on the block” in the Mano River Region in West Africa, and the exclusive club of leaders in the African Union, Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Bio, 55, wouldn’t want to be seen as impulsive or “poking his nose” into the affairs of his ‘older’ colleagues. Even so, he has a word or two of advice on leadership for them. “If your continued presence or stay in power becomes a threat to peace, you should reconsider your options,” he said in response to questions on the vexed issue of self-perpetuation in power and respect for term limits among African leaders at a lecture on governance at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Governance early this year.
He made it clear that it was his personal opinion and not intended to impugn the reputation of anyone, not least of all, his “brother” African heads of state. After all, that has been his position on the issue since 1996, when he voluntarily relinquished power as military head of state after organizing elections to return his then conflict-ridden country to democracy. He has run full circle to return as Sierra Leone’s leader, but this time through the ballot box for a single 5-year term, renewable only once; a condition that he intends to comply without any airs or excuses whatsoever.
The articulate and personable leader wouldn’t contemplate anything that would tarnish his cultivated image as the “Father of Democracy” in his country, a reputation he earned back in the 1990s when he audaciously chose to discard his military uniform and embark on a self-improvement programme. Along the way, Bio earned himself a Master’s degree in International Affairs before becoming president of International Systems and Science Corporation, a consulting and management firm in the United States. He fully “civilianized” himself when he picked up a Doctorate in Peace Studies while he was a Senior Research Fellow at University of Bradford in the UK.
Bio’s affinity for education goes way back to his early beginning, when he lived with his elder sister, a school teacher in Pujehun, a short distance from his native town of Tihun in Bonthe District. His leadership skills were groomed from his stint as Senior Prefect in his A-level days in Bo, a main town in his locality. Since then Bio has been drawing from the deep, rich resources from his childhood, especially his mother’s penchant for Catholicism-driven hard work and the administrative skills of his father, who juggled the lives and welfare of 9 wives and 35 children alongside his responsibilities as a paramount chief.
Bio’s flagship prrogramme, Education for Development, the theme for Sierra Leone’s Medium Term National Development Plan, is reflective of the leader’s own life and vision for his country and compatriots. He is convinced that “investment in human capital through quality education” – the type he has availed himself of – “and free, quality healthcare services and food security will accelerate national development”. In conjunction with development partners, he turned his thoughts into action by devoting 21 percent of national budget to education. To encourage girl-child education, his administration gives full scholarships to girls studying science, technology engineering and mathematics in tertiary institutions.
To redress the culture of waste and fraud in the public sector, Bio appointed a young turk into the leadership of the anti-corruption commission. Under a year, the commission recovered $1.5 million in stolen funds from venal and corrupt public officials and their accomplices. Without ceremony, Bio promptly plowed the funds into establishing the first-ever National Medical Diagnostic Centre in Sierra Leone.
Bio’s love for humanistic ideals and philanthropy were already evident before he ran for president. His Maada and Fatima Bio Foundation was known for donations to the victims of the Ebola epidemic in 2014 and the environmental disaster that inundated parts of Freetown in 2015. He rues the uncomfortable fact that Sierra Leone has been “mining minerals and receiving aid for over 50 years but remains in poverty”.
He is committed to doing something to remedy it. This is why he sees leadership as the opportunity to “listen to with empathy to the ‘craziest’ of ideas, the hopes and aspirations of the younger generation who are looking for a chance to make their lives and the country better”.
As President of the Republic of Sierra Leone, Bio now has not only the opportunity but also the pedestal and levers of state to make the dreams of his young compatriots a reality.