Many Sierra Leoneans see her as an enigma. For some, Sierra Leone’s First Lady, Fatima Bio, is a lady in a class of her own. For others, she has been breaking down boundaries and creating new ones. Yet, there is a school of thought which believes that she is the gravitational force around which the Presidency of Julius Maada Bio revolves.
Born in Koidu City, in the Kono District in the Eastern Province, Fatima Bio left home when the civil war broke out in 1992. Her family decided to move back to The Gambia whilst she stayed in Sierra Leone to continue her education. She attended the Anzarul Islamic Primary and Secondary school and spent six months at the Saint Joseph’s Convent where she spent about six months before she left for The Gambia and later went to the United Kingdom.
A divorcee who parted ways with a Gambian footballer, the First Mother disclosed in this interview that Julius Maada Bio became the “perfect friend” at some point in her life. She noted that “It’s not like we just met each other and jumped on each other and said let us go and have fun. No. It took almost six months we were talking; we understood each other and opened up.”
However, marrying a President was never her dream. “The First Lady position is for the elites and people who are untouchable. I never imagined that. That was never part of my agenda because at the age of 12, I originally knew who I was supposed to be married to, and that person definitively does not look like a President,” she told SierraEye.
Fatima also took time to justify the trips the First Family has embarked on since elected in 2018—something some Sierra Leoneans have criticized as a waste of state resources. But first, we discussed her marriage. She was asked how she met President Julius Maada Bio…
Mrs Bio: I first met President Maada Bio in 2012 in the United Kingdom. Then they were fundraising because he was going to contest the presidential election. I was working with OTV and at that point, I was in the acting world. I had my own platform then when a friend called me and said, they had their leader coming and asked if I could interview him. I thought OK if that’s what I can give to Sierra Leone why not. So, I decided to accommodate them. When Maada Bio came to London, a romantic relationship with him was the last thing on my mind because at that time, I had just come out of a divorce. I met him like any other person.
He stayed in England for a few days, and I was able to get the TV company to do a documentary on him. I had a team of journalists who came on board to do some sort of work. So we were able to do a 20-minute documentary that was aired in the UK. He left and we exchanged numbers. We were talking as friends, nothing beyond friendship. Then it got to a point, I became more of his confidante. Whenever he wanted to do something, he would call me and ask what my thoughts were. So, he was just somebody who met me and then had trust in my ability to tell him the truth. At that point, he was looking for somebody who was not scared of telling him the truth because, within his circle, he did not get that at all.
By October 2012, before he got into the presidential elections, he told me he was going into a presidential election as a bachelor, but that he had stopped looking from the day he met me. Well, I do not know what he was looking for, but he said he stopped looking since the day he met me. He asked if I was willing to be his wife. I was like: ‘you know I have heard you, go and do your election and we will see what happens from that’. He went into the 2012 election, and we all know the result. He needed someone to talk to and I was there. It was after the 2012 elections that I made up my mind that if I were to settle down with somebody, it would not be someone of my age. I wanted somebody older and one that we would not be competing against each other because I had that issue in my previous marriage. My ex-husband was a footballer and when we got married, I was a model and I had to sacrifice my career for his because as a footballer wherever he went, I had to go with him. So my career suffered for the nine years we were together. So Maada Bio was the perfect friend. It is not like we just met each other and jumped on each other and said let us go and have fun. No. It took almost six months. We were talking, we understood each other and opened up to each other. I had two kids at that point, I was struggling with my children not financially because after the divorce, I have my side of the settlement from my divorce. So money was not a problem. However, my son took it so hard and he wanted to be with his dad and I felt like no I’m not going to let you go. He was only six at the time and my daughter was four. So when Maada came into our lives, he was there to help him. He was able to settle the uncertainty that was around me with the kids; he was there as a father figure. My son became more reliant on Maada, he listened to him. He listened more to what Maada would say than what I would.
SierraEye: You were already married to the President. Why was the need for another wedding in February 2020?
Mrs. Bio: That’s the thing. It is called religious tolerance. When we got married, my condition was that I wanted to be married in a mosque because I’m a Muslim. I knew he was a Christian. That is where you first know your husband loves you for real because he could have opted out. In 2013, we got married. We went to the mosque, and he fulfilled my side, which is my religion. When we got back here, in Sierra Leone, because of the 2018 election campaign, we were so busy. Initially, we were going to be married in 2016 on April 8, but then they kept changing the date for the SLPP convention and we got to a point where we just gave up. We had all our souvenirs for that date, April 8, 2016. In 2018, he was now under pressure from the church. He is a Catholic and everybody knows he is married, but the Catholic Church has to register it. Though we were married, in the eyes of the Catholic Church we were not married. So we decided to go and do it and get it over with it. It’s nothing extraordinary. We didn’t bring the sky down. The only difference is the person getting married is the President.
SierraEye: Let us talk about politics. How did you get involved in it?
Mrs. Bio: I believe everybody is a politician. Every human being is a politician. Even among your kids, you play politics. Everything in the world is politics. Because anywhere that you have to look for favours; anywhere you have to make people believe that you are a better choice, it is a political game. So I don’t think I’m into politics. I am only supporting my husband’s cause.
SierraEye: You actively campaigned with the President in the period leading up to the 2018 elections. Can you describe your role during the campaign and the contribution you made to his election?
Mrs. Bio: My role in the campaign was simple. I was just a support mechanism. I needed women to see the other side of politics. I needed to give women the information that was lacking and the platform to believe in themselves. I was bored with the kind of politics that Africa has: that the only thing women are valued for is to clap, dance and sing along the road. I wanted to change that and I wanted women to believe that they could also speak up and be at the forefront; they can be a voice and that the kitchen is not just for women, it is for women and men. 51% of Sierra Leone’s population is women. Men cannot make decisions for us all the time. We should be part of those decision-making processes because no matter how much they know us, we know ourselves better.
SierraEye: Why is there the need to have the Julius Maada Bio Women different from the SLPP’s Women’s Wing?
Mrs. Bio: When I got married to Maada Bio, he was not the flagbearer of the SLPP. This is what people need to understand. He was fighting to become the flagbearer of the SLPP. And at that time, the SLPP was so saturated and disorganized that everybody had their own politician they were supporting. You had the Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella Movement; the Alie Kabba Movement. You had all those movements and they were all part of the same SLPP. So, I said we are going to have the Julius Maada Bio Women’s Wing. Again for the SLPP to hold its convention, it took four years before we were able to have it. Everybody was doing their own thing. Kandeh was doing his, Alie Kabba was doing his. And from the day we said it’s Julius Maada Bio no one has managed to penetrate us. So I think that’s the only thing: every member of the Julius Maada Bio Women’s Wing is a core SLPP. Everywhere in the world, every President has a support group, so why should it be different with Maada Bio. The Julius Maada Bio Women’s Wing was the biggest financier to his campaign because we believed in his cause. We put the money into the SLPP, we voted for the SLPP, we all hold SLPP party card. We are SLPP. Just that we have one focus which is Julius Maada Bio. The day Maada Bio ceases to be President, there would be no need for the Julius Maada Bio Women’s Wing.
SierraEye: Do you support the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendation for 30 per cent representation of women in elected assemblies, cabinets, and other political posts?
Mrs. Bio: I think it’s wrong because that’s limiting women’s ability to serve. Excuse me, we don’t need a quota. For me, anything you want to talk about when it comes to representation, I believe in a few things. I don’t have the power to, but if I’m consulted, these are the things I will say. We have 51% of the population in our country that are women. I think if the President is a man, the Vice President should be a woman, that’s my own belief. If the President is a man, it should be a mandate in all political parties, when you choose your leader and if it is a man immediately, your running mate should be a woman. That is where we need to start first.
SierraEye: Do you see yourself as part of the Government?
Mrs. Bio: I see myself as the President’s wife. If that means I am part of the Government, fine. When I came as First Lady, I did my homework. I tried to check within the sub-region what is best practice. I checked with my colleagues and the ones that I have direct access to. I asked them how they run their offices. Some said they write their programmes and present them to the Government and then they would be sponsored. But then also, they have special budgets to host guests to their countries; budgets for the First Lady to look good even though you’re not part of the Government. But then, when you go out with the President, you have to be able to present yourself well as the First Lady of a nation. 80% of them travel with their makeup artists; they have budgets to be able to prepare gifts if another First Lady is visiting. Unfortunately, in Sierra Leone, I do not have any of those and I do not get any of those.
So that’s why when people talk, I don’t just get crazy because I want to be mad. It’s frustrating when you are the one making all the efforts, and the Government is not giving you. For instance, when I do “Hands off Our Girls Campaign” if I need posters for the campaign the vendor will put together the cost. Government will then pay to the vendor. It has been three years since I became the First Lady, I have no official car. I’m working because I believe it is not about what I am getting as a First Lady nor about what I should get as a First Lady. Sometimes, when you are serving your people and you see the changes that you are making, it gives you the satisfaction that at least you can do something worthwhile.
SierraEye: Since you became the First Lady, you’ve made the campaign to end rape and other forms of sexual violence- Hands off our Girls campaign- your flagship programme. There have been massive events around the country. Why did you choose this issue as your flagship programme? What Strategy is driving this campaign? What has been achieved so far since the launch of the national campaign?
Mrs. Bio: 51% of the population is women and most of them are vulnerable. Most of them are victims and I think somebody needs to say something about it. When you rape somebody, she never gets okay in life. It becomes a lifetime problem. My strategy is advocacy, to say things that other people are scared of talking about. Nobody wants to talk about sex in this county and everybody is having sex. We need to have this conversation. We should be able to educate our children. We need to have sex education in our schools because it is only when you prepare your child, then you are preventing them from being victims. We launched the Hands off our Girls campaign, and I managed to get the conversation not only in Sierra Leone but within the sub-region going. Since it was launched, we’ve got the President to announce a State of Emergency on Rape; we have got the Special Court on rape and sexual related offences. There is a stand-alone ministry that focuses on gender and children’s issue. The advocacy has grown beyond the Office of the First Lady. It now includes the Rainbow Centre, Aberdeen Women’s Centre, the Sierra Leone Ambulance Service, the Sierra Leone Police, the Sierra Leone Military, we’ve got the Lawyers, we’ve got the Sierra Leone Female Doctors’ Association, and all of them have come together. We have Save the Children and UNFPA.
SierraEye: In 2018, you flew in six African First Ladies to launch this flagship programme. What impact did that visit make?
Mrs. Bio: It brought the attention of the world to the plight of women in Sierra Leone. Like I said, it is the first time that has happened. So, issues that people don’t talk about have become topical. Every UN organization that comes to Sierra Leone wants to sit and understand our campaign because we are now the case study. We have become the model for other nations to learn from. Now people can come and talk. Rape and early marriage are not issues people talk about in Africa. People are talking now. Even the ones that were advocating silently now do so publicly.
SierraEye: Can you share your experiences working with women and girls in Sierra Leone? Your achievements and some of the low points?
Mrs. Bio: I have managed to have a very good relationship with some women. Some women are very easy to work with, especially older women, because we do not see each other as equals. It is like a mother and daughter relationship. I am now forging a better relationship with women of my age and we are working. It’s not an easy thing, but then you have certain women no matter what you do, it is just not good enough. So, I’m done trying to please women who never see my work as good enough. I am only concentrating on the ones who want to help us have the change. The ones who don’t see our work as good enough they are the problem. I thank God the kids who we are trying to save are with us in this. It gets to a point where if you go after under 18-year-old kid, she will tell you I’m Fatima Bio’s daughter. This means they are now with us; they understand what the Hands off Our Girl campaign is.
SierraEye: You have stated on several occasions that you do not get money from Government for your project. How do you secure funds for the various projects you run as First Lady?
Mrs. Bio: They don’t give me the funds. It is not like I manage the funds myself. If I have a project and I want to do it, they will go and sit and do the costing. When I wanted to do the sanitary pad programme, unfortunately there was no money. So, I started fundraising. I started organizing dinners. I did the One Nation Concert. So, I raised US$400,000 in two programmes. I put the money straight into buying sanitary pads for our girls as I promised. We spent the whole month buying sanitary pads for our girls. We were not able to buy sanitary pads for all 650,000. But we managed to buy for 51,000 girls. So moving that burden, we will go to the companies and ask them to fulfill their Corporate Social Responsibilities. The government also saw the importance of them having sanitary pads and they started factoring the buying of sanitary pads into their budgets. I work with UNFPA and Save the Children, but they don’t have money. But I do appreciate the little that they would give me. The other company that I work with is Africell.
SierraEye: Some people believe that the first family spends too much time out of the country. What is your reaction to this perception?
Mrs. Bio: The First Family spends too much time out of the country, but everywhere we go we meet ten other presidents, ten other First Ladies. So, we don’t just go for jolly rides, we go for international meetings. Sierra Leoneans are not used to seeing their President and First Lady together. Well, this President is one that wants his wife around him all the time. They also have forgotten something; that the President of Sierra Leone is the head of the C-10. This means any meeting that involves Africa, be it in Africa, Asia or America, he has to be there. Now the other thing they don’t know is, I am the chair for West Africa for the Organization of First Ladies.
SierraEye: Sierra Leone seems sharply divided along partisan and regional lines. National cohesion is vital for national development. What role do you see the First Lady playing in bridging this divide?
Mrs. Bio: I have now made a conscious decision not to be bothered by political party business. I wear red on all state functions. Being partisan does not develop the country. We cannot be on election 365 days. We would not do anything. My election ended on April 4, 2018. By the time we get to 2023 or whenever we go back to the people, we should be able to say, this is what Maada Bio promised, and we have done ABC and D and he has achieved this.
As it stands, he gave 32 promises to this country and he has fulfilled at least 28, which I am aware of. So, everything you do; if you smile in this country, there’s politics behind it. Nobody sees anything anymore as Sierra Leoneans or as just human beings. It’s all about politics. Everything that the Office of the First Lady does, I do it in every region. In fact, the first place I started my campaign was Makeni. When I started the distribution of food under the National Food Basket, the first five places I went to where in the north. So that is how I am operating. When I go there, I don’t ask for party card I only serve the people.
SierraEye: Do you tweet and post on Facebook yourself, or does someone in your office do it for you? Some people think you are too much on social media and responding to everything. How do you react to this criticism?
Mrs. Bio: I do when I’m being attacked sometimes. But I do have people who work within my office and run my pages. How do they know it is me that is responding? I have people running my page. I do respond to what I want to respond.
SierraEye: Do you not think, your active presence on social media impedes the work of State House Communications of the Ministry of Information?
Mrs. Bio: When did social media become someone’s personal property? The greatest President on earth uses social media. So, why would my being on social media affect other people? The Minister of Information is working under the Government of Sierra Leone and he speaks on behalf of the Government. The Minister of Information doesn’t speak for the Office of the First Lady and I don’t speak for the Ministry of Information. I don’t speak on their behalf. I am not their mouthpiece. I speak on behalf of the Office of the First Lady. The only person in the Government that I can come out and defend is when you attack my husband.
The fact is in the world today, you cannot take social media away from the reality. The reality is, social media has taken over and if you cannot use social media, then you are leaving out maybe 40% of your constituents. If you go on the radio, you know who you are targeting. If you go on TV, you know who you are targeting. If you go on the newspaper, you know who you are targeting. But when you go on social media, you know you are targeting a much larger audience.
So because I am now First Lady, I should not talk to 40% of my fan base? I am not Government. When I feel there is the need for people to know what is happening, I will talk and when I think that something is happening to the people that the Government might not know; I will also speak so that the Minister of Information will hear what I’m saying and then they will go and address it.
SierraEye: How would you like to be remembered by the people of Sierra Leone? What legacy do you want to leave?
Mrs. Bio: All I want for this country is a change for women. Where a woman would be safe, free, be educated and empowered. And, above all, they are included in every decision-making process. My most significant achievement would be equality.
SierraEye: Would you ever be directly involved in politics?
Mrs. Bio: I don’t know. I don’t know if I am a politician or somebody who just speaks out the truth. Whether that would make me a good politician, I don’t know. But if being in politics is to lie and make up stories just to get people’s attention; I don’t think I’m going to be a good politician. But if politics is about honesty, about helping, about making a difference, about touching people’s lives and empowering as many people as possible; then, maybe, I can say I’m a politician already!