Sierra Leone Telegraph: 19 October 2015
The name Julius Maada Bio (Photo) is one that has the tendency to evoke mixed reactions, depending on which side of the political fence one is standing.
But, loathe him or like him, he will always be remembered as one of the young military boys who turned their tanks and guns away from the rebel forces in 1992, and headed straight for the capital of Sierra Leone – Freetown, to topple the corrupt and dysfunctional APC government of president Joseph Saidu Momoh.
Though regarded as a brutal soldier by many in Sierra Leone, as well as being held responsible for the numerous human rights abuses committed by soldiers under his watch back then, including the extra-judicial execution of 29 people in Sierra Leone, in 2012 Maada Bio contested the presidential election as the opposition SLPP candidate.
Bio not only lost the 2012 election, but his party – the SLPP faired much worse than in the previous 2007 elections when the party was in power, by winning only 37.4% of the popular votes.
Today, Bio is hoping to once again contest the 2018 elections, if elected as the SLPP presidential candidate. But there is a serious problem, described by many as “too much personal and political baggage”.
Across the country and within the SLPP party, there is a common held view that Bio would be unsuitable for the presidency. But Bio and his supporters think otherwise. They are confident of his chances this time around. And even the ruling APC are now backing the Bio campaign.
Bio’s opponents are alleging that he has either been banned from entering the United States of America, or he is a wanted man by the police in the States for crimes committed whilst living in America.
Speaking on local radio this morning, the retired military brigadier and former president of Sierra Leone said that he has not committed any crime in the United States, nor is he a wanted man by the authorities in America.
But he was quite evasive when pushed to confirm whether he can travel to the United States or not, and to explain the real reasons behind these allegations.
This is what Bio told the radio reporter:
Reporter: In a situation where you are elected flagbearer and automatically you happen to win the election in 2018, how will you negotiate your entry into the United States of America, upon the belief that you are not opportune to go there? How much do you want people to understand the significance of that particular assertion?
Bio: That is so irrelevant to what we are doing.
Reporter: Are you sure? This is principal… it is key, retired Brigadier.
Bio: You are wrong to also make that assertion. I did my first and second degrees in the United States of America – Washington DC, and I have absolutely nothing in terms of offence in the United States, and I have challenged you severally, to bring me a single offence that I committed in the United States, and you keep talking about this. But you can’t bring it to me.
I have a problem with the immigration, which is common with the United States, a difficult immigration problem, which is why I have not been allowed to go there. And sometimes you can have a simple problem, even filling your visa application.
If you mis-state or state anything that is not correct, or they consider being incorrect, you will be refused in the United States or any part of the world. That is true.
But let me tell you, there are so many leaders around the world who……….I don’t need to go to the United States to lead my country. It is the people of this country who will have to decide.
And to be sure, I just want you to know that, as and when the people of this country say I am the leader of this country, the United States will not refuse me visa.
We saw what happened in India. If you are only current with international affairs, so many leaders have been banned from going to the United States. The present prime minister of India was one. Even Nelson Mandela was another.
I don’t even put myself in the same class as Nelson Mandela, but these are historic problems that have a direct reference to what is happening.
And I would have been worried if there was a criminal record against me in the United States. I would have been worried if I did anything wrong.
I left there on my own volition. When my visa ran out in the United States when I was there, I decided to apply for asylum at the time when the war was still heavy here.
When the war was over, I spoke to president Tejan Kabba when he was there, and he said to me: “You have to come back. We need all hands on deck.” He sent me my diplomatic passport, which had expired at the time, and he said you have to come.
But then I was still an ‘Asylee’, that means I was still being protected by the United States. And because I was an Asylee I was not supposed to come to Sierra Leone. Because when you apply for asylum, it means you are not supposed to go to the country where, you are in fear of persecution and other problems.
And at the time I applied, this was 1999, we all can attest to what was happening in this country. If I had come, I would have been part of the problem, because of my profile. So I refused to come.
But remember I came here on the 17th of April 2003. The United States have a problem with that, because I told them the reason that I applied for this status (Asylum) had expired. We have peace agreement in Sierra Leone, the various factions have been disarmed, we have 17,000 UN troops stationed here, and therefore the premises upon which I applied for this have completely vanished.
I don’t want to stay (in the States) anymore; I have to go back to my country. And because I came without their authority, they think that I had applied (for Asylum) wrongly and that I had no fear in the first place.
Somebody is trying to say that I have a problem in the United States, because I had a problem with my wife. You can phone my former wife, I have never been to a police station, and I have never had a fracas with her that, we caused anybody to come.
This is all a calculated means to smear my character, and that’s why I have challenged you. In the US there is openness, go there and try to find out about me; and if you come back with anything that I was involved in any problem with my wife, bring it out and I will talk about that. (End of Radio Interview).
This radio interview, though fascinating as it was, raises many questions as much as it answers.
For example, many listeners would perhaps ask Maada Bio whether his application for asylum in the USA was genuine. They would also ask whether he was fully aware of the asylum application rules at that time, which made it unlawful for him to have travelled back to Sierra Leone, without the permission of the US authorities.
Furthermore, does Bio understand that by overstaying his visa; leaving the US without the permission of the authorities as an asylum seeker, he was clearly breaking the US law?
And if so, does he then accept that his image and credibility as a potential world leader have been badly damaged?
Bio argues that other world leaders such as Nelson Mandela and the Indian prime minister have also been banned from entering the US, and in the case of the Indian Prime Minister – Narenda Modi, he has since officially visited the US and stayed at the White House – courtesy of Obama.
But most Sierra Leoneans would say that the two cases are significantly different.
Bio was judged by the US authorities to have committed a crime in the USA after overstaying his visa and then sought to regularise his stay as an asylum seeker without complying with the rules, whilst the Indian prime minister and Nelson Mandela, were believed by the Americans to have committed a crime in their own respective countries.
The argument surrounding Bio’s inability to travel to the US will continue. But what matters most, as Sierra Leone approaches presidential and general elections in 2018, is whether the electorate will be prepared to elect a president, who has not only got overseas travel restrictions overshadowing his presidency, but is believed by many to have lied about his asylum application to the US authorities.
Perhaps much more significant for the Bio campaign, is the allegation of extra-judicial killings that refuses to go away.
There are sections of the Sierra Leonean population, especially in the north of the country, who are still finding it very difficult to forgive Maada Bio for leading a military junta that executed 29 people on the 29th December, 1992, without due process.
And up till today, no one knows where their bodies are buried.
In 2011, Maada Bio apologised for the behaviour and conduct of his soldiers, and accepted collective responsibility for all the human rights abuses suffered by the citizens of Sierra Leone.
President Koroma has decided he will not open up investigations into the killing of the 29 people.
Today, senior ruling APC politicians – including the president, believe that Maada is a reformed statesman – a man they can do business with, especially as the 2018 election approaches.
But would the people of Sierra Leone, especially the northerners who are largely finding it very difficult to forgive Maada Bio, be prepared to elect him to State House, where this time he is expected to rule without the barrel of a gun?
A serious question also raised by the interview, centres on Bio’s assertion that president Kabba sent over to him his expired diplomatic passport. Why did president Kabba – a highly trained, ex – UN official send Bio an expired diplomatic passport that legally was of no use to Bio? Potentially, that could have landed him in much bigger trouble, had he tried to travel with that passport.
Why did president Kabba send Bio a diplomatic passport (expired or otherwise), despite Bio having ceased to be a government official?
Can Bio convince the majority of Sierra Leoneans that despite his huge personal and political baggage, he can still be trusted to rule and transform Sierra Leone from its current state of economic decline and deep social inequalities?
Can Maada Bio unite the whole of Sierra Leone?
Listen to the radio Interview here: