‘I don’t anticipate a run-off’ – President Julius Maada Bio

Exclusive Interview with the President of Sierra Leone

by Sierraeye

Sierraeye: As the leader of Sierra Leone for the past five years, how do you view the country’s governance system?

President Bio: We have made tremendous progress. Objective international measurements are conclusive about how much progress Sierra Leone has made on various governance indicators. On accountability, Transparency International and the Millennium Corporation Challenge show consistently high grades in the hard control of corruption indicator over five years ago when the then APC government consistently failed. We will soon be awarded the compact for this consistent achievement. In spite of the very tough global economic headwinds, our economic reforms have won the confidence of international financial institutions like the IMF, World Bank etc and they are still with us quite unlike during the last government when they left because of the haphazard handling of the economy. We have attracted hundreds of millions of dollars to fund various sectors because our governance environment is sound.

We have promoted and protected rights. We have abolished the death penalty, hold no political prisoners, repealed obnoxious press laws, created new institutions to uphold our peace, cohesion, and democracy. Our country has been consistently ranked one of the most peaceful and tolerant in Africa. That is progress.

Our institutional reforms have been consistent and are yielding results in spite of the very poor baseline we inherited. We have worked to make public services more effective and available. We have opened up democratic spaces and encouraged greater political participation, especially for women. My party went one step further beyond the public elections law to remove all possible financial constraints on the participation of women in public elections. By all international measures, there is now greater access to justice. We have invested in people right across the board and our human capital development initiative has been lauded the world over. I think we have made tremendous progress in building a better Sierra Leone and better-governed Sierra Leone over the last five years.

Sierraeye: What do you consider to be your administration’s major accomplishments?

President Bio: We have done better on all indicators than the baseline five years ago. On education, there is global recognition of the gains we have made. More children are in school; we have achieved gender parity at basic education and more girls are in school; we now have better learning outcomes; we have better retention and completion rates; and we have higher numbers of passes in public exams.

For health, we have not only made massive investments that have led to greater access to quality healthcare by more citizens, we lead in the sub-region on key outcomes like maternal and infant mortality and immunisation rates, among others.

Our efforts in infrastructure have been better than in preceding years. We have built a new airport, more ultra-modern bridges, more township roads, more feeder roads and bridges to connect producers to the market, port expansion, and more public buildings, including a new Foreign Service Academy, ultra-modern military facilities, the new ACC building, among others. We have doubled access to electricity from 16% to 32% and we have lit up a total of 90 towns and villages throughout Sierra Leone.

We have passed very progressive laws, including the gender bill, the sexual offences act, the repeal of the seditious libel law, the abolition of the death penalty, and more. We have made irreversible progress towards building a just, peaceful, and inclusive society, and we done all of this under very hard circumstances.

Sierraeye: The Free Quality Education program is one of your flagship projects. How has it impacted education in Sierra Leone? There are still significant challenges, particularly in rural areas. What steps has your government taken to address these challenges, and what more can be done to improve education in the country?

President Bio: I noted earlier that learning outcomes, completion and retention rates, gender parity, success rates are all better. Because of our radical inclusion policy, pregnant girls and parent learners persist and thrive in school. We have built more schools in collaboration with development partners and the private sector, trained more teachers, and used more innovation and data in education. We will continue to build on these successes of the last five years. Sierra Leone is looked up to for global leadership in education, as evidenced by my co-chairing the UNESCO High-Level Steering Committee on SDG4 with the UNESCO Director General and my co-chairing the UN Transforming Education Summit with the UN Secretary-General.

The key challenge is the constrained fiscal space, especially as a consequence of COVID-19 and the global economic downturn from the geopolitical problems in Ukraine. While our education outcomes are better by every measure, we need more money to build more school infrastructure, train more teachers, invest in improving student success, and invest in foundational learning to make our work in primary education easier. We will maintain the increased funding levels of 22% and continue to work with our partners and the private sector to build on our successes. Education is the bedrock of inclusive and sustainable national development. Countries that have invested in education develop at a faster rate.

Sierraeye: The issue of corruption has been a long-standing problem in Sierra Leone. What measures has your government taken to combat corruption, and what progress has been made in this area?

President Bio: Legislative and policy reforms, a national strategy for fighting corruption, a specialised anti-corruption court to fast-track trials, and a committed leadership at the Anti-Corruption Commission have all contributed to my government having the highest numbers of convictions and highest levels of asset recovery rates ever. We have made corruption more difficult, costlier, and riskier and corruption cases are fully prosecuted.

International commendation of our efforts against corruption, the consistently high pass marks for the control of corruption by both Transparency International and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and even peer-learning missions to Sierra Leone indicate that we have done a phenomenal job fighting corruption.

Sierraeye: What are the major challenges you have faced during your time as president, and how have you addressed them?

President Bio: The major challenge has been dealing with the economic impact of the multiple crises of COVID-19 and the fall-out from the Russian-Ukraine war. The crises have wrought untold suffering with high food, fuel, and energy prices on hundreds of millions. Sierra Leone being a small economy that imports most of its essential commodities, is unable to influence global prices, so we are fully exposed to the high cost of living like everywhere.
So we have worked to shield our people from the worst impact of the crises. We have provided credit facilities to ensure the availability of essential commodities on the market. We have provided subsidies and waivers to reduce the pace of price increases.

We are also working on long-term fixes by growing our economy from the ground up. We have put in place the macroeconomic basics and we are working to harness our mineral and fisheries resources, expand the agricultural and small-scale manufacturing base, and providing a conducive ecosystem for foreign direct investments. Economies are tough the world over, but we are making every best effort to manage and develop our economy.

Sierraeye: As the SLPP’s flag-bearer in the upcoming elections, what are your expectations for June 24th?

President Bio: I expect that the people of Sierra Leone will look at the baseline of mismanagement and austerity from which we came in 2018, the leadership I have provided, the great progress we have made over the last five years, and my plans to consolidate and expand our achievements in various spheres in human capital development, infrastructure, energy, and international respectability we have gained as a result of our progress. I believe that they will re-elect me to continue doing the hard work of transforming this country.

Sierraeye: Do you anticipate the possibility of a run-off, and if so, how do you plan to approach it?

President Bio: I don’t anticipate a run-off.

Sierraeye: In the event of a run-off, how do you intend to bring opposition parties to your side?

President Bio: Two of the major opposition parties – the NGC and C4C have endorsed my presidency and we are now in an effective and progressive alliance. Several key leaders of the All Peoples Congress party, including a former Vice President, former government ministers, and former members of parliament, have publicly declared their support for my re-election. I think we will have enough votes to win elections in the first round.

In the unlikely event of a run-off, I will appeal to other smaller parties and independent Sierra Leoneans to bet on a future of possibilities, opportunities, and progress with my presidency.

Sierraeye: Can you describe the current relationship between the SLPP and the main opposition APC party in Sierra Leone?

President Bio: As with all political parties competing to govern the state, there is natural competition. I believe that competition should be healthy, peaceful and be undertaken with a view to the best interests of Sierra Leone. As a Presidential candidate, I presented my New Direction manifesto in 2018 with concrete commitments. I want Sierra Leoneans to judge me based on the commitments I made and my achievements. I do not believe political pluralism should be about spreading deliberate disinformation and hate. It is a contest of ideas – the best ideas that can make Sierra Leone a better place for us all.

Sierraeye: Why was there a need to form a strategic alliance with the National Grand Coalition (NGC) party?

President Bio: Both parties decided, as equal partners, that we share the same view on progressive politics and putting Salone first. Together we have a good pool of expertise and experience, committed leadership, and the right mindset to take the country further. It is a great team that will address the challenges facing the country. The strategic alliance is the right thing to do.

Sierraeye: Two years ago, the COPPP was highly critical of your administration’s policies. What steps have you taken to address their concerns and possibly bring them over to your side in a potential second round?

President Bio: We are in a strategic alliance with opposition parties that share our vision and have a significant following. You have mentioned the NGC, the C4C, and progressive former APC top brass in a former vice president, former ministers, and former honourable members of parliament. We are open to dialogue about the best interests of Sierra Leone and we are willing to speak to every Sierra Leonean who shares our view that we have a real opportunity to transform Sierra Leone from what it is.

Sierraeye: What assurances can you give to Sierra Leoneans that the upcoming elections will be peaceful and credible?

President Bio: The ECSL has shown that it is objective, transparent, and accountable. Even when its decisions were challenged in the Supreme Court, there was a transparent trial that was fully broadcast to the public. That illustrates that political parties must get recourse to the courts in order to resolve electoral disputes or disagreements around electoral processes. We wish for full compliance on the part of every citizen with all extant electoral laws and processes. We want every Sierra Leonean to vote in fair, peaceful, and inclusive elections.

Sierraeye: How confident are you in the electoral management bodies, particularly the ECSL?

President Bio: Sierra Leone has conducted five peaceful democratic elections with peaceful outcomes and processes. The current ECSL has conducted several bye-elections in which the opposition and ruling parties have both won and lost. All those elections have been largely peaceful and the outcomes have been accepted by all parties. I believe that the ECSL has won the public trust and confidence by consistently dealing with an equal hand. I am informed that their work is complemented by civil society observers, local and international elections observers, our development partners, and representatives of political parties.

Sierraeye: Will you accept the results of the election and congratulate the winner if you lose?

President Bio: I will be congratulated on June 24 because the people of Sierra Leone have seen the quality of leadership I have provided over the last five years. But more seriously, I do not believe that there are any losers in elections. On the day after the elections, we should set all elections-related acrimony to one side and focus on the more urgent and difficult task of transforming our nation.

Sierraeye: Drawing from your experience in the past five years, what will be your priorities in the next five years if you are declared the winner?

President Bio: We will continue to work on all the programmes we set out in the New Direction manifesto. But I believe that an emphasis on “The Big Five-Game Changers” will fast-track the transformation of our economy. These include:
1. Feed Salone: An initiative to boost agriculture productivity for food security, boost exports and economic growth, and reduce poverty by creating jobs;
2. Productive Infrastructure Programme (PIP): An infrastructure initiative to support agriculture, industry, and businesses.
4. Education and Skills Development for the 21st Century Industry – skilled workers attract foreign direct investments.
3. Youth Employment Scheme (YES): A presidential initiative to create 500,000 jobs for the youth in five years.
5. Accelerating Growth through Technology and Digital Innovation — focus on digitising the financial sector and deepening financial inclusion

Sierraeye: Sierra Leone is one of the countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. How do you plan to address this issue and what steps has your government taken so far?

President Bio: We signalled our serious intent to tackle climate change vulnerability by establishing a standalone Ministry of Environment. The ministry has developed and implemented very meaningful adaptation and mitigation policies and actions, including reforestation and the protection of water catchments. We will push climate smart approaches in our agriculture productivity drive and provide additional incentives for agro-forestry and conservation.Overall, despite the economic challenges of the last three of those years, the past five years have been exciting years of inclusive transformation and sustainable development for Sierra Leone.

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