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Sierra Leone’s education conundrum

Austin Thomas

17 September 2011


When global indicators show that Sierra Leone is ranked as one of the poorest nations in the world, it does not somehow come as a surprise.

With 'functional literacy' estimated at less than 25% of the adult population, it is obvious that productivity, wealth creation and economic growth will be stunted.

After 50 years of independence, Sierra Leone continues to be known as a nation of petty traders, rather than a developing country whose economic progress is driven by industrialists and scientists.


Much blame has been poured on the failings of successive governments, since the country gained independence in 1961. But many Sierra Leoneans take the view that the problem is caused by decades of under-investment, lack of vision and leadership, corruption and poor management of the nation’s education sector.

Austin Thomas takes a cursory look at the performance of the country’s current and most recent ministers responsible for education; Alpha Wurie and Minkailu Bah. Both ministers are products of the country’s university education and much is therefore expected of them:

The most important factor in wealth creation and industrial production is human resource, without which, land cannot be productively utilised for farming, construction, or infrastructure development.

Capital cannot be invested to bring in the much needed profit without human resource, nor can industrial machinery be bought and operated without a skilled and educated workforce. So there is no denying that the quality of human resource is the most important factor of production and wealth creation.

Countries that have attained development have done so by investing heavily in raising the education levels and skills of the people. Take China for example; some 20 years ago, China was never considered an economic power, because education in china was very low - less than 50%.

Today, more than 80% of all Chinese are functionally literate and productive. The middle man power that is needed in the country is amply available in every sector of production, thus giving the country its present status of 'global economic giant'.

Sierra Leone can never develop if we continue to fail to improve standards of education in the country.

What is interesting though is that, if we take a look at the last decade of our educational attainment records, we will see mixed results, due largely to the competence, vision and leadership of the respective ministers responsible for that department.

Sierra Leone has one of the lowest levels of literacy in Africa and that has been the main cause of our under-development. But credit must be given to the former education minister - Dr Alpha Wurie, for implementing some of the most innovative strategies aimed at improving the quality of education, and increasing the number of children attaining the required standards.

Those strategies and projects were moving along the right direction. Indeed some had already been implemented successfully, such as the ‘Sababu’ and Girl child education drive.

Other projects were in the pipeline. And there was hope that after 2007 there would be continuity with those projects, so as to improve the quality of life of students and youths, that will in turn have a positive effect on the country’s productivity and economic growth.

But ironically, and despite the economic need for those planned education projects, after 2007 they were either abandoned or had their funding reduced to the detriment of the nation. Much needed funds are now being spent on grandiose infrastructure projects for the sake of posterity. Even the IMF has recently expressed concern.

Today the improvements that the country should have made in education, have not materialised and the deplorable figures speak for themselves.

I would want to do some reality check between these two ministers who hail from the same universities where they had also lectured for many years, in the engineering and the science departments respectively.

Alpha: Visionary and innovative

  I will start with Alpha Wurie, who in the last 10 years served as minister of education for six years. Alpha Wurie, I will say is a man of vision. He is an innovator, intelligent, respectful, smart, and astute. He is a respected family man and who listened to the voices of the public to make changes where necessary.

Alpha’s management of the education ministry can be described as a success story.

His vision and leadership led to the implementation of the compulsory Girl Child education programme, and the Sababu project that saw hundreds of schools built or refurbished all over the country. Thousands of teachers were recruited to run the schools.


Alpha Wurie was always in dialogue with teachers and lecturers because he knew about conditions in the classroom. He averted industrial strikes and curbed the ugly violence of cults and clubs in university campuses.

He was always ready to listen to parents, and he understood their concerns. He knew that by improving standards of education in the country, Sierra Leone’s development and prosperity could be assured.

Alpha was an orator. He was articulate and not pompous. He was a good administrator, a very good lecturer, an excellent business man and a respectable father. Those who knew him at Fourah Bay College will attest to how he helped many to become what they are today.

He represented a political party (SLPP), whose philosophy is based on education for all. If we should go down memory lane, we will find that most in the party’s hierarchy were educated elites. And this is also true of today.

The SLPP party believes in education, which is why since independence they have never exploited the youths to carry out politically motivated violence.

Alpha never cared much about tribe, region or party. He did all he could to improve and change lives during his tenure as education minister. More girls enrolled in schools than at anytime in the country’s history. Uniforms, books and food were supplied to encourage children to go to school and stay on till completion.

At Regent, Alpha Wurie built a science college that should have served as a very good laboratory for the entire Western Area. Many schools could have made use of this facility to conduct their science practicals on regular basis, and proceeds would have been used to replicate this initiative in other regions of the country.

Today that science college has been abandoned and the three buildings are now being squatted on.

Minkailu: lacks vision and leadership

  Our education was heading in the right direction until September 2007, when we had a change of government and another lecturer from FBC in the name of Dr Minkailu Bah took over the reins.

Dr Minkailu Bah took over from his FBC colleague, and I am sure Alpha would have given Bah good advice with which he could continue the success story.

On taking over, the first task that Minkailu Bah embarked upon was to carry out an investigation into so called 'ghost teachers' as a cynical ploy to cut government spending on education.

Although the result is yet to come to light, it was alleged that after finishing the investigation he had more teachers on his list than what he inherited from Alpha.

During his lectureship at FBC, Dr Bah was the electrical engineering lecturer who took a lighted candle to start a generator, causing an explosion, which killed another employee.

There was no investigation done, so there is no police report on the accident. Suffice it to say he was appointed education minister after parliament’s approval with such an embarrassing record.

Four years since taking over as minister of education, the Sababu project is almost dead. The girl child education is a thing of the past; school fees have increased exponentially.

Bah says that education is expensive, so parents should be prepared to face the difficulties. But his government has increased the cost of living, increased poverty and frustrated teachers to the point that almost every month there is a strike in his ministry.

The Millennium Development Goal on education, which we had hoped would be achieved come 2015, is now looking very bleak. Thanks to the policies of the present government and poor leadership of minister Bah.

Today, every sector of the education ministry has problems. Most of these problems should not have occurred in the first place, if those working in the ministry had not lost their sense of direction and confidence in the minister.

When the lecturers were on strike a few weeks ago, rather than talking with his colleagues to settle the matter amicably, he accused them of politicking. This is the man who four years ago, was also working in that same institution as a lecturer. But as the saying goes: "e fordom nar wata en turn fish".

Minkailu Bah has reversed the upward trend set by his predecessor.

And now there is no hope in sight that if he continues at the helm of the ministry of education for another six years (though I hope the APC will be kicked out next year), there will be any improvement in standards.

But the reality is that he represents a political party that has never taken education seriously in the past. The APC has channelled the energies of our youths into becoming substance abusers, criminals and hustlers.

Their policies have never been geared towards developing the country’s human resource that will improve prosperity and promote economic growth.

SLPP believes in education for all, so that we can all be productive and make full use of the opportunity to contribute to the development of the country.

If we can turn back the clock to 2007, I am sure many Sierra Leoneans would think differently and would have voted for Berewa and SLPP. But sadly we cannot.

All we can do now is to discern the right from wrong, good from bad and evil, peace from war, so that we can make the desired change in 2012, if we want to develop Sierra Leone sooner, rather than later.

Let us remember that education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change Sierra Leone. A good head and a good heart, are always a formidable combination to bring success to any endeavour we undertake.

In conclusion I would like to end with a quote from the great Nelson Mandela who once said;

"Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor; that a son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine; that a child of a farm worker can become the president of a country".

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