Sierra Leone must not be defined by the stigma of the past – Bio tells the world

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 18 April 2019:

“I wake up every day believing that our country should no longer be defined by the stigma of the past.  The future offers more hope and opportunity for all. It matters more to me that young men and women all across the country can imagine for themselves that they too can be and are part of this story of our nation.

“I want to challenge them to build a country where three-year olds like my daughter, Amina, can grow up with good governance, quality education, healthcare, and good infrastructure. I also want our children to become young women and men who can continue nourishing the tree that grows from the seeds that we are planting today.

“Now, can someone tell me why we should not dare imagine that future in Sierra Leone?”

Those are the words of president Julius Maada Bio of Sierra Leone, speaking at the TED 2019 Conference, taking place in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

If president Bio’s aim in attending the TED conference is to help change the narrative written about Sierra Leone’s past, present and future, then it must be said that his speech at TED 2019 has gone a long way in redefining that narrative and presenting renewed hope where there was despair.

He was frank and honest about his role in the NPRC military junta that ousted the APC government from office in 1992 and the country’s transition and return to democratic freedom.

This is what he said:

On Tuesday, January 16, 1996, I walked into the Office of the President as Head of State of the Republic of Sierra Leone. I had not been elected.

Four years earlier, I was one of 30 heavily-armed military officers, all of us in our twenties, who had driven from the war front into the capital, Freetown. We had only one objective – to overthrow a corrupt, repressive, and single-party dictatorship that had kept itself in power for over 25 years. But in the end, it was not a violent coup.

After we fired just a few shots and seized the radio station, thousands of citizens jumped into the streets of Freetown to welcome us as “liberators”.  If you are thinking that this seems like a movie script, I am with you.

I was part of the ruling military government and I served in several roles. Our goal was always to return the country to democratic rule.  After four years, those multi-party democratic elections had still not happened. Citizens were losing faith in our promise. And I like to keep my promises.

So, some of my comrades and I staged another military coup – this time against our own head of state and commander. Again, it was a bloodless coup.  That is how I became the new military Head of State on January 16, 1996.

I was still only 31 years old. Power was sweet. I felt invulnerable. I had thousands of heavily armed men and aircraft at my command.  I was heavily protected and I lived a luxurious life. But my obligations to my nation were superior.

Millions of fellow citizens were either displaced or fleeing the violence and pillage of war. I engaged in a flurry of diplomatic activities across the sub-region and convinced the reclusive rebel leader to initiate peace talks for the first time.

I also called a national consultative conference of civil society organizations to advise on the best way forward for our nation.  In both cases, I shared with them what I believed in and still believe in now – that Sierra Leone is bigger than all of us.

And that Sierra Leone must be a secure, peaceful, and just society where every person can thrive and contribute towards national development. And so I initiated peace with the rebels; organized multiparty democratic elections, handed over power to a new civilian president, retired from the army, and left my country for the United States of America to study, all in 3 months.

On many a long walk, I wondered how we could get it right again as a nation.

More than twenty years later, in April 2018, with a few more wrinkles and gray hair, I was again the Head of State. But this time, I had been democratically elected.

At the polling station last year, my 3-year old daughter Amina was in my arms.  She insisted on holding on to the ballot paper with me. She was intent and focused.

At that moment, with my ballot paper in both of our hands, I fully understood the one priority for me if I was elected president: How could I make the lives of Amina and millions of other young girls and boys better?

See, I believe that leadership is about creating possibilities that everyone, but especially young people, can believe in, own, work to actualize, and which they will actively fight to protect.

The pathway to power and in leadership can be littered with impediments but more often, with thorny questions that seemingly defy answers.

How does one take on the unique challenges of a country like Sierra Leone? We had mined mineral resources for 100 years but we are still poor. We had collected foreign aid for 58 years and still very poor.

The secret to economic development is in nature’s best resource-skilled, healthy, and productive human beings. The secret to changing our country lay in enhancing and supporting the limitless potential of the next generation and challenging them to change our country.  Human capital development was the key to national development in Sierra Leone.

As a candidate, I met with and listened to many young men and women all across the country and in the diaspora. They were feeling disconnected from political leadership and cared little about the future of our country. How could we engage them and make them believe that the answers to transforming our nation was right in their hands?

Immediately after becoming president, I appointed some of Sierra Leone’s brightest young people as leaders with a responsibility to realize our shared vision of transforming Sierra Leone. I am grateful that many said yes.

Let me give you a few examples: Corruption had been endemic in governance institutions and in public life, undermining public trust and the country’s international reputation.  I appointed a young attorney as commissioner for the Anti-Corruption Commission. In less than a year, he’s had a 100% conviction rate and recovered about $1.5 Million dollars of stolen money. That is seed money for building the country’s first ever national medical diagnostic center.

The Millennium Corporation Challenge recently gave us a green scorecard for the ‘control of corruption’ indicator, and multilateral development partners that had left Sierra Leone are now returning again. We are determined to break the culture of corruption and the culture of impunity associated with corruption.

Before I even became a candidate for president, I met a skinny, dreadlocked, MIT-Harvard trained inventor in London.  Over coffee, I challenged him to think and plan along with me how innovation could help to drive national development in the areas of governance, revenue mobilization, healthcare, education, delivering public services, and supporting private sector growth.

How could Sierra Leone participate in the digital economy and become an innovation hub? Well, he left his cozy job at IBM and he now leads a team of young men and women within the newly established Directorate of Science, Technology and Innovation in the Office of the President.

I challenged another young Sierra Leonean woman to set up and lead a new Ministry of Planning and Economic Development. She consulted widely with Sierra Leoneans and produced a medium term national development plan titled “Education for Development.”

We now have our national development needs in easily understandable clusters and we can now plan our budget, align development partner contributions, and measure our progress.

But the story of my government’s flagship program is even more “daring,” if I can call it that. Today, 3 out of every 5 adults in Sierra Leone can’t read or write. Thousands of children were not in school or had dropped out because their parents could not afford the $20 school fees per year. Women and girls who constitute 51% of our population were not given an equal chance to be educated.

So the obvious answer is to put in place free quality education for every Sierra Leonean child regardless of gender, ability, or ethnicity. Great idea… RIGHT? But the only problem is we had no money to start the program – absolutely nothing.

Development partners wanted to see the data before associating with my vision. Political opponents laughed at me. But I campaigned that a nation that invests in human capital development through free quality education, affordable and high quality healthcare services, and food security will accelerate its national development.

I argued that for Sierra Leone to produce a highly skilled, innovative and productive work force fit for the 21st century global economy, we needed to invest heavily in human capital development. But we had no money because the previous government had virtually emptied the national coffers.

We clamped down on corruption, closed loopholes for fraud and waste, and we watched the money build up. We successfully launched the free quality education program in August- four months later.

Today, two million children are going to school.  21% of the national budget supports free quality education. In close collaboration and partnership with development partners, we have now provided teaching and learning materials, safe spaces for girls,  and started implementing school feeding programs across the entire country.

We have even paid backlogs of teacher salaries. Any girl admitted to university to study science, technology, engineering, mathematics and other related disciplines receives full scholarships.

And here’s why this matters. In a few years, we will have a healthier, better educated, and highly skilled young population that will lead and drive our country’s national development. They will be well equipped to deploy science, technology, and innovation. They will attract investments in diversified areas of our economy from tourism to fisheries and from renewable energy to manufacturing. That’s my biggest bet.

In my mind, this is what leadership is about: a mission to listen with empathy to the craziest of ideas, the hopes and aspirations of a younger generation who are just looking for a chance to BE better, and to make our country better. It is about letting them know that their dreams matter.

It is about standing with them and asking, “Why not” when they ask seemingly impossible questions.  It is about exploring, making, and owning a shared vision. The most audacious and nation-changing events or policies or even personal choices happen when we ask “Why not,” then make bold choices, and ensure those bold choices happen.

I wake up every day believing that our country should no longer be defined by the stigma of the past.  The future offers more hope and opportunity for all. It matters more to me that young men and women all across the country can imagine for themselves that they too can be and are part of this story of our nation.

I want to challenge them to build a country where 3 year olds like my daughter, Amina, can grow up with good governance, quality education, healthcare, and good infrastructure. I also want our children to become young women and men who can continue nourishing the tree that grows from the seeds that we are planting today.

Now, can someone tell me why we should not dare imagine that future in Sierra Leone?.

I thank you.

10 Comments

  1. David Bangura… as birds of the same feathers always flock together, its the same also with bloodthirsty fawning hyenas that run in packs. Your defense of Bio signals clearly that you are not an APC supporter at all; rather a naive, delusional sympathizer of Bio, or someone who has been totally brainwashed, or completely bought. One thing for sure, you are certainly one of them – SLP.

    The fabricated lies and misleading information you have been spewing here will only makes matters worse for our beloved county. Denial of existing political and social realities, without doubt, in my mind will only lead a nation as quick as lightning to heartbreaking calamity and disaster.

    The reality on the ground is different from the sugar-coated picture you are painting here. Tribalism and the SLPP go hand in glove together. Bio is a tribalist, self-centered and inept. He has seen a coup-plotter that has brought his country stability,peace,economic prosperity,and progress? Name me one of them.

    Overthrowing President Momoh was the gravest, unforgivable mistake Strasser, Bio and others committed. They are the ones that destroyed Sierra Leone, strangled and drowned it in unending poverty and misery. And now, again he is running around borrowing more money and plunging a fragile nation into the abysmal bowels of unpaid debt….Truly sad!

    Tensions are increasing, tempers flaring because of his tireless attempt to threaten, harass, arrest, and torment the opposition. Rest assured we will surly not forget all he atrocities he is committing now during his tenure in office. Rising Sun will rise again!

    • Mr. Saidu Conteh, if folks like you remain in the APC, I don’t see any hope for our party in the next three decades. Evidently, the truth makes folks of your ilk very uncomfortable. I can see that Saidu Conteh is one of those who still believe that Ernest Bai Koroma was the best thing that ever happened to Sierra Leone.

      The difference between you and I is that whereas you will take the truth and hide it under the rug, I speak truth to power because as I have already stated, I am more loyal to Sierra Leone than I am to the APC. If that warrants you to expel me from the party that I have been a member of for the last thirty years, then be my guest.

      Now, to the facts. Where has Maada Bio borrowed money from since he came power and how much money has he borrowed? I bet you will not answer this question because you are lying. Also, you allude to tensions that are increasing in Sierra Leone. Yes, there are tensions but these are tensions that are artificially manufactured by hoodlums and thugs who cannot come to grips with the fact that the APC was constitutionally ousted from power. These goons have the power to cease their unpatriotic activities and stop giving the APC a bad name. Can you promise me that you will talk to them?

      Additionally, are you insinuating that Joseph Saidu Momoh was a good leader? The man who was pitchforked from the army by Siaka Stevens and unconstitutionally imposed on Sierra Leoneans? The wicked man and tribalist who saw his country being invaded in 1991 and did nothing because the invasion happened on the territory of the tribe that was opposed to APC rule? They say whatever goes around comes around. It was the rebellion that tribalist Momoh refused to confront that eventually consumed him.

      Mr. Conteh, truth is, while folks like us are pushing for a progressive agenda in the APC, an agenda that would make the APC a more competitive and national political party capable of attracting members from every corner of Sierra Leone, folks of your ilk that belong to the retrogressive wing of the APC, the wing that continues to bow down to the likes of Ernest Koroma, Osman Yansaneh and Minkailu Mansaray are destroying any meaningful opposition to the SLPP.

      Your wing of the APC presents an ugly, tribalistic and retarded version of our party, the version that breeds contempt and division among Sierra Leoneans. Now, go ahead and expel me from the APC.

    • Indeed. What a counter commentary Mr. Conteh. Am I allowed to tell a short STORY? Once upon a time, did Sierra Leone have a GOVERNMENT that was the worst in its history, IMPOSE itself against the will of the PEOPLE and ACCOUNTABLE to itself? DISCUSS!

  2. I respect everyone’s opinion on this article, which is fair enough. But on the other hand, when you read the article carefully, especially the first paragraph, you will come to the conclusion that the President was referring to SOCIAL STIGMA (difficult to recognise phrase). He was right about that, especially with regards to what has happened to our country over the ages.

    This is the first line of the President’s speech and I quote – ‘I wake up every day believing that our country should no longer be defined by the stigma of the past’. But he continued by saying and I quote – ‘The future offers more hope and opportunity for all. It matters more to me that young men and women all across the country can imagine for themselves that they too can be and are part of this story of our nation’. With common sense, he was talking in terms of SOCIAL STIGMA. So, in my view, if people were feeling that their leaders were dishonest to them or they were marginalised, not well taken care of etc in the past, all will change and the future will be better.

    By the way, SOCIAL STIGMA entails a lot of things from DISHONESTY to MARGINALISATION. If one does not fully understand what the president was talking about or up to on this particular speech, then I am afraid, his speech will definitely be misunderstood and taken out of context.

    I see no problems with the President’s speech. To be honest, the President just short circuited everyone, including me, trying to find any loophole to go on the attack. Better luck next time.

  3. well…it all sounds good,but first start with treating your opponents with fairness…tribalism is the trademark by which this man and his adminstration can now be defined. In case you forgot, Bio was once a military officer that overthrew his boss…he lacks loyalty,honesty,and dedication to ideals other than his own.

    He is selfish…Never trust such a man…he is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Again,it is a myopic,and shortsighted vision to think the opposition will not one day return to power,to even things out in a Tit for Tat manner. Then what? True governance demands that we be conscientious in our dealings with others.

    A country does not, and cannot make genuine progress where witch hunts exits,and is embraced by one tribe as an acceptable norm. The way forward is quite easy…refrain from digging the past,especially in a country like Sierra Leone that has a brutal past in the history pages of War!

    • Mr. Saidu Conteh, before calling president Julius Maada Bio a tribalist, please answer this simple question: Do you expect president Bio to work with an all-Northern government? This question is relevant because this was how the government of Sierra Leone was when Bio won the presidency in April last year.

      In the history of politics in Sierra Leone, the term tribalism/regionalism should be used on only one leader – Ernest Koroma. Until we APC folks are able to accept this unpleasant fact, we should have no moral ground to stand on to accuse Bio of trbalism. Bio’s government is more tribally and regionally balanced than any of the governments under Ernest Koroma.

      In fact what Bio has been doing all along is leveling the playing field by bringing folks from the Southeast and Western Area in governance thereby diluting the high concentration of Northerners in government and parastatal leadership. But even with this effort, there still exist a disproportionate Northern presence at the leadership levels of the Bank of Sierra Leone, NASSIT, NacSA, NRA and other parastatals.

      Also, contrary to reports that Northerners have been fired in the civil service, I would argue that nothing of that nature has happened since Bio came to power. The Northerners that Bio sacked were from political positions. The constitution gives the president the power to do that. Accordingly, the president appoints folks to political positions. Don’t expect Bio to keep corrupt elements of the Ernest Koroma era.

      Suffice it that instead of blaming Bio for our palpable dysfunctional existence, let us blame Ernest Koroma, Minkailu Manasaray and Osman Yansaneh. We allowed these spent forces to destroy our party and we keep bowing down to them. Ernest Koroma, who was never APC in the 1990s, in the first place, has never had anything good to offer the APC. All that he brought to the APC and Sierra Leone was suffering. Let’s confront him instead of Bio who appears to be doing a lot of good for his party and his country.

      I am APC but I am even more a Sierra Leonean than a party man. For our country to move forward, we must be prepared to face the truth no matter how uncomfortable it might be.

  4. “I wake up every day believing that our country should no longer be defined by the stigma of the past”

    My question is this – Mr President, who is defining our country by its past? Let us examine their past and see whether they be fit to judge us by our past. Let those who want to judge us by our past step forward and reveal themselves that we may examine their past too. But this negative portrayal of our nation and it’s people on world stage by what others are saying must stop. Whether what people are saying of our past be true or not.

    Yes, we may have a dark past but that past is not entirely owned by us. The same people today who are pointing fingers at our past are equally liable of that past to this day. But you (Mr President) is not going to confront them on that but instead you will stand in their midst and openly accept their notion about our past. This is not only pathetic and shameful but its sad.

    I don’t care whether you go begging in front of the world but please be mindful of what you say or do in front of them. For I also bear the nation of that nation.

    This has always being our problem. Making ourselves vulnerable to the world. And this is why no one respects us as a people. This is the same thing, the children of Israel were doing when God spoke through the prophet Jeremiah asking him “Why trimmest thou thy way to seek love? therefore hast thou also taught the wicked ones thy ways”. We’re constantly in front of the world telling everyone everything about us as if we owe the world an explanation.

    We’ll stop at nothing in our effort to beg from the conceptual West. Even if we have to assassinate the image of our own nation and its people, we would do it. I just can’t understand it. It seems to me the only time we have an enemy is when one of our own brothers do or say something that goes against our political or religious believes. Immediately they (our brother) become our enemy. But we can stand on world stage not considering our audience and not considering at all that there’re nations out there who hates us and can’t stand us. And that we should order our words carefully.

    What secret do we hold in this world?

    Remember the time of old, you were not even considered a man to this world. Our forefathers fought and died just so we could have freedom in this world. The little freedom that was gained, we have hand it over back to the same people who they were fighting against. We look up to them as gods, if they don’t give to us, we can’t eat.

    Look at the nations you’re begging from, examine their history. Look at the atrocities they have committed in this world and especially toward your people even unto this day. Do you see them admitting to what they have done and are still doing? Look at how your brothers and sisters are treated in their nations, do you not see or do you not care? Do you see them show any remorse? But yet, they come to the continent, smile to you, take not just our minerals but also rubbing us of our able bodies young men and women. With all they have done and are doing, killing, stealing, and manipulating, no one dare accuse them of wrong doing. How astounding.

    I’m not saying we should not engage with the conceptual West but we should engage with them diplomatically. This idea of sweeping our history with them under the rug, it’s what’s going to destroy us. As they says “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.

    Have we not learned? Have we lost our pride as people? Have we now become beggars? When are we going to focus on internal growth? Growth that can be sustained to the next generation. This type of leadership is nothing more than building a house on a sand and there’s nothing new about it.

    One government comes in power and does it a bit differently than their predecessor so what. It won’t stand the test of time. It never has and never will. We’re so fixated on what others can do for us rather than what we can do for ourselves. For this we’ll stop at nothing just so we can get handouts.

    We’re opening the door of our house, our sanctuary wide, letting all sort of spirits to delve in not considering the consequences. I hope you (Mr President) know what you’re doing.

    Ecclesiasticus 12:10-18 (Apocrypha): “Never trust thine enemy: for like as iron rusteth, so is his wickedness. Though he humble himself, and go crouching, yet take good heed and beware of him, and thou shalt be unto him as if thou hadst wiped a looking-glass, and thou shalt know that his rust hath not been altogether wiped away.

    “Set him not by thee, lest, when he hath overthrown thee, he stand up in thy place; neither let him sit at thy right hand, lest he seek to take thy seat, and thou at the last remember my words, and be pricked therewith. Who will pity a charmer that is bitten with a serpent, or any such as come nigh wild beasts? So one that goeth to a sinner, and is defiled with him in his sins, who will pity?

    “For a while he will abide with thee, but if thou begin to fall, he will not tarry. An enemy speaketh sweetly with his lips, but in his heart he imagineth how to throw thee into a pit: he will weep with his eyes, but if he find opportunity, he will not be satisfied with blood. If adversity come upon thee, thou shalt find him there first; and though he pretend to help thee, yet shall he undermine thee. He will shake his head, and clap his hands, and whisper much, and change his countenance.”

    • What a powerful and sincere comment by davoice. I was going to comment on this article but there is no longer any need – davoice has summed up my feelings. The only thing davoice forget to mention was that the emblem of our begging bowl is now a chimpanzee!

      How are our young Sierra Leonean football talents going to survive in Europe or the West? Before I read this comment, I was chatting to two Romanian guys and one of them emphatically said that, “I am not prejudiced to black people, but I hate black Africans”.
      So, I asked involuntarily, “Why?” He said in the same tonation, “Because they are STUPID – they come from the richest continent on earth, but they fight each other, give us their wealth in order for us to recognise them as equals.”

      I was deflated, and managed to change the subject … though I was still thinking about our diamonds, gold, iron, bauxite …

  5. What a powerful and typical TED speech by President Bio. I don’t see or imagine how anyone will criticise this speech. The speech was not only powerful, but met all the standards of TED speech writing and editing. To be honest, President Bio really excelled and scored the highest possible points.

    I was looking for any weak points the president might have made in his speech, but could find nothing. Just returned bare handed. What I believe in, is always to look for the weak points and say it or put it out there, so that people will know their weaknesses and improve. But this time, I found nothing and the President won. He knew his audience and just did what he should do.

    The speech started by the president saying what he believes in and in very simple English with no big words. Also, it was personal and inspirational. Moreover there were pictures to help put his message across. You must be very clever to find out why the president would want to talk about his political autobiography publicly. Again typical TED guide lines.

    This very powerful speech could be a trap for anyone who just wants to attack the president’s performance for attack sake or political reasons. Be very careful with your comments on this speech. My advice is, it was a very GOOD, POSITIVE and POWERFUL SPEECH that deserves PRAISE.

    Finally, the Speech ended with a clear goal and challenge to act on. I don’t have any challenge to act on for now Mr. President. May be later down the road.

    What I am now interested to hear from this trip, are the engagements Mayor Aki Sawyer if any, had with city officials in Canada. I reckon, she might have engaged in some discussions that will benefit her municipality. So, let’s wait and see.
    Well drone Mr. President and God bless you and the entire delegation. AMEN AND AMEN.

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