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Sierra Leone: Leading a nation at political crossroads

In the colonial era, Sierra Leone was widely regarded as the centre of modern education in West Africa and provided a substantial proportion of the…

In the colonial era, Sierra Leone was widely regarded as the centre of modern education in West Africa and provided a substantial proportion of the African membership of the civil service of the British West African colonies. The country was considered to be the sanctuary of correct administrative procedures and as such when it became independent in 1961, it was expected to be the sinecure of stable independent administration in the region.

Unfortunately, the nation’s record of governance did not live up to expectations in the first three decades of independence. Instead, it descended into total political dysfunction and one of the most brutal civil wars that the world has ever witnessed anywhere. Although young army officers tried to reverse the decline by taking power at the height of the downturn in the credibility of the first generation of leaders, that experiment was eventually aborted by the intervention of one of the insiders of the military establishment who led a palace coup to restore representative democratic government to Sierra Leone. Then a young brigadier general, Julius Maada Bio who led the transformative revolt against the continuation of military rule is now the President of Sierra Leone.

Tasked with the mandate to ensure that the nation inherits lasting representative government as the legacy of his tenure, recent events in the country might have disappointed him. It should not surprise anyone however that the President, whose candour and passion for reform has astonished both supporters and opponents since he took office in 2018, has taken a stand in favour of correct political conduct as the nation progresses towards the next round of political contestation.

Evidence of his penchant for supporting continued transformative attitudes abounds especially in response to recent political circumstances of a critical nature. He has been called upon to react to very irregular events ever since he won a substantial victory for a second term in a hotly contested election. In November last year only a few months after his second tenure was inaugurated the country woke to a disturbing attack on major military installations and parts of the Presidential residence by armed insurgents. The attack was repelled by the security establishment but it proved to be a very destabilising incident as investigations led to the suggestion that some members of the main opposition party were aware of the conspiracy ahead of its actual implementation.

When this allegation led to the indictment of the former President Ernest Bai Koroma, President Bio surprised several people as he stood firmly on behalf of the principle of separation of authority when the ex-leader’s legal team sought permission for him to undergo medical care in a foreign country and thus be excused from facing trial in Sierra Leone’s courts.

In a speech broadcast to the nation in mid-January President Bio asserted that the decision to grant his predecessor a medical excuse was a consequence of his administration’s adherence to the principle of separation of powers. In that same speech, he promoted the corrective agenda of political dialogue and adherence to the sentiments of unity and avoidance of hostile differences in political discourse in society.

It emerged that President Bio’s vision of leadership is profoundly challenged by the dangers of the historic deficiencies that led to the earlier failure of statehood in his nation. His approach to leadership is based on a profound determination to avoid a repeat of the experience of administrative failure. As a result, his major objective as civilian president has been to prevent a breakdown of political stability and civil order while preserving the viability of public commentary and critical opinion of affairs of state in the society.

To this end as President Bio negotiates the trajectory of his final term in office the transformative complexion of his administration is reflected in some landmark decisions as well as in some very unusual events. Notable among the latter is the outspokenness of his wife, Hajia Fatima Bio, whose popularity on social media platforms is extraordinary. In one of her most widely followed postings, she openly criticised the investment policy of the government in the mining sector and questioned the efficacy of official policies of service delivery, especially in electricity supply for the average citizen.

What this unusually candid expression of personal disenchantment with official policies coming from someone who is close to the Head of State suggests is that his own viewpoint is influenced by the need for change.

It is particularly symbolic of his vision for the nation’s future that in his first term he oversaw the introduction of free education and a far-reaching reform of the legal system that excised the death penalty from the nation’s penal code. The remainder of President Bio’s constitutional tenure will be shaped by the extent to which he can install change and preserve representative veracity in the polity. His success or failure will be judged by the extent to which he can deliver a successfully transformed political system to whoever succeeds him in office.


Barrett resides in Abuja


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