Julius Maada Bio ran an election campaign of improving education for Sierra Leone’s near 8m citizens. Now eleven months into office, the president discussed his achievements so far at the Global Education & Skills Forum in Dubai.
Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Bio rose to power last April on a platform which promised to tackle endemic corruption and provide free secondary education for all.
In a country with a reputation for a devastating 11-year civil war ending in 2002, economic recovery and reform has been sluggish since then.
Aiming to distance himself from previous administrations, Bio wasted no time in working to implement his promises – taking his oath into office just half an hour after victory was declared.
Many anticipate a new period of growth under his leadership and hail the former general as “progressive.”
His ambitious promise to provide free education took shape at the beginning of the 2018 school year with opportunities for 1.5m primary and secondary students to access free education.
“The most important resource in our country is the human being,” he says.
“And the best way to improve quality is to invest in education.”
The country itself is rich in a number of resources including bauxite, gold and diamonds.
While these assets have been put to little use in the past, Bio hopes to drive their worth into the three main pillars of human capital: health security, food security and education.
“We want to see the resources as a means to developing human capital,” he says.
However, in the context of widespread corruption and limited funds some doubt his ability to make these reforms wholesale.
The latest development document, anchored on the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party’s ‘New Direction’ manifesto, puts emphasis on eight key areas with a particular focus on human capital and infrastructural development, promotion of good governance and protection of the vulnerable.
Bio reveals he is especially proud of his government having consulted two million Sierra Leoneans – almost a quarter of the total population – to draft the document.
This, he believes, has a drawn a consensus around the development path like no administration before.
“With that level of consultation – what we can really do is legislate,” he comments.
The five-year development plan is billed at a total of $8bn yet with only $6.5bn in the kitty the president has begun appealing to the international community for the rest.
The community itself is tired of pumping millions of dollars into the economy and seeing little change in return.
According to analysts, an estimated $10bn was poured into Sierra Leone between 2002 and 2007 alone.
Bio’s confidence in raising the funds, however, has not been diminished.
“I am sure we are going to be able to meet that target,” he asserts.
A key determinant is Bio’s ability to convince donors that his government is successfully cracking down on corruption.
Describing graft as a “threat to national security which chokes off development” his plan to transform rhetoric into reality involves granting greater investigation and prosecution powers to anti-corruption organisations.
If sustained these positive steps should boost Sierra Leone’s capacity to attract capital which will benefit education overall.
The president, in fact, believes poor education in his country was partly responsible for the horrific civil war which left some 70,000 people dead.
Education helps to break down socially-constructed differences between opposing groups which in the absence of dialogue can lead to violence, he explains.
“Most of the challenges that we’ve had in the past which lead to violent conflict are due to lack of proper knowledge,” he says.
“When you are educated you see that you can live side by side with anybody around the world.”
Education, as a mode of inclusive development, will also help tackle Sierra Leone’s 70% youth unemployment rate which was another factor behind the civil war.
In such a manner, Bio believes his role is to inspire and lead a young generation of Sierra Leoneans into a new era of growth and stability.
“The function of leadership is to inspire and give hope,” he states.
“You have to infect your whole country – you have to let them know that you are not doing this for votes.”
You have to let them know you are not doing it for yourself.”
By delivering free education we are making sure we are going somewhere.”