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Fixing Sierra Leone’s Problems: The Story of Maada Bio

On June 24, 2023, the people of Sierra Leone will decide whether to chart a new path of growth and development in their chequered democratic experience or continue with the incumbent Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) under the leadership of Dr Rtd Brigadier Julius Maada Bio.

About 13 candidates have been nominated and approved by the Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone. This is for the political showdown with the incumbent SLPP and the major opposition party led by Dr Samura Kamara of the All People’s Congress (APC), seen as the front runners of the election. However, Charles Francis Margai of the People’s Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC) is considered a strong third force. Margai was the Attorney General under Bio but served for three months.

Other candidates include Mohammed Sowa-Turay of the United Democratic Movement (UDM) and Prince Coker of the People’s Democratic Party (PDC).

The dynamics going into the 2023 elections fundamentally differ from the last election. The global economic meltdown triggered largely by the Covid-19 pandemic means the living conditions of the people of Sierra Leone have deteriorated. The stakes are exceedingly high, and the promises of the candidates to change the fortunes of the people of Sierra Leone are coming in thick and fast.  

As part of efforts to deepen the democratic credentials of Sierra Leone and to ensure the citizens make informed political decisions at the polls, DUBAWA has decided to profile the candidates ahead of the June 24 polls. We begin with the incumbent president.

Dr Retired Brigadier Julius Maada Vonie Bio is Sierra Leone’s fifth (5th) democratically elected President. He is no stranger to public office in Sierra Leone. A fierce military officer and a consummate politician, Rtd Brigadier Maadio Bio has been on the front line of Sierra Leone’s politics and governance in the last three decades, albeit under contrasting circumstances.

He ascended to the throne as Sierra Leone’s president on April 4, 2018, after a keenly contested run-off election on March 31, 2018. He defeated the then incumbent, who is now the main opposition leader, Dr Samura Matthew Wilson Kamara of the All People’s Congress (APC) party. He secured 51.8 per cent of the total votes cast, making him the democratically elected President from 2018 to 2023. But that was not his first taste of power. Born and bred in a position of power to Paramount Chief Charlie Vonie Bio, Maada Bio navigated a mix of traditional, military and democratic power in his young adult life, and he did it with some finesse.

Bio in uniform

A trained military officer, Bio was part of peacekeeping missions in West Africa. He played a significant role in the West African Peacekeeping Force (WAPF) and the ECOMOG during the civil conflict in neighbouring Liberia before the war cascaded into Sierra Leone in 1992. Brigadier Bio was called home to help combat the civil war which crossed the borders of Liberia into Sierra Leone. But he did far more than that. 

Maada Bio was part of a group of young soldiers led by Captain Valentine Strasser, who masterminded a successful military coup in 1992 to return the country to a democratic dispensation. At 25, Strasser toppled the one-party APC-led government under the leadership of President Joseph Saidu Momoh, who had been in power for 15 years. He made Maada Bio his second-in-command. Brigadier Maado Bio acted as Chief Secretary of State, Chief of Defence Staff, Minister of Information, and Minister of Marine Resources whilst still acting as the Deputy Head of State to Strasser. Whilst in power, plans, interests and aspirations collided. The Head of State, Valentine Strasser, held on to power longer than he had promised the people of Sierra Leone, which brought division and open rebellion among the top military leaders.

The division became irreconcilable, and after four years in power, there was a palace coup. Brigadier Maada Bio, deputising for the Head of State Valentine Strasser, took over power in January 1996 and ushered in a new civilian government three months after a quick election.

Value to power

After relinquishing power to Ahmad Tejan Kabah, who won the ensuing election in 1996, Maada Bio retired from the military and decided to pursue other interests, especially education. Having tasted traditional and military power at the highest level with all the regalia that comes with it, Maada Bio still had an eye to be a democratic leader where decisions are made, not from the sheer force of military power or traditional wisdom no one can contest, but in a marketplace of ideas where the superior one always wins. He needed something valuable to survive and make headway in the democratic enterprise.

He obtained a First Degree and a Master’s in International Affairs from the American University in Washington DC. He relocated to the United Kingdom to pursue higher education and acquired a Peace and Conflict Resolution Doctorate. Julius Maada Bio is married to Fatima Jabbe Maada Bio, an actress, screenwriter, and film producer from Sierra Leone, with whom he has a daughter. Julius and Jabbe had children in their previous relationships before getting married, bringing the total number of children to four.

Coup plotter to Democratic leader

Having added value to himself both in thought and vows, Rtd Brigadier Maada Bio had begun a smooth transition from a fearless military leader into a consummate politician and a Democrat. In 2005 he joined the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) to begin a new political journey. With his charisma and political adroitness, he would soon be made leader of the SLPP in 2012 and contested the presidential elections that same year. Democratic elections may not be as deadly as a military takeover, but it was not a walk on the path to political leadership either. Julius Maadio Bio lost to the incumbent Ernest Bai Koroma on his first attempt as a civilian president. But he was not a man to give up easily. He was a fighter. In 2018 came yet another opportunity to fight. 

Still, on the ticket of the SLPP, Maada Bio campaigned against political violence and promised the electorate better living conditions with an effective management system of the extractive industry. Sierra Leone is rich in rutile, bauxite, iron ore, gold and diamond deposits, with a decent amount of crude oil in commercial quantities. Still, the quality of life of the ordinary Sierra Leonean did not improve noticeably compared to these assets.

Maada Bio’s promises resonated with the people of Sierra Leone, who gave him a 51.8% majority vote. It has been five years already since he won the elections. 

The first term has not been rosy. What was expected to be a peaceful march in protest against what critics say is the high cost of living turned violent with deadly repercussions. At least 19 people were officially confirmed dead in the ensuing violence between the rampaging protesters and police officers. In a quick reaction, the government declared a state of emergency and announced a curfew to halt the violence.

Even though President Maada Bio had attributed the chaos to “faceless people” he suspected were part of the opposition APC, it was quite clear the twin impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russia/Ukraine War had taken its deadly economic toll. Living conditions in Sierra Leone became intolerably high as in other countries across the globe. Also, Sierra Leone is ranked 178 out of 188 countries on the Global Human Development Index, with two-thirds of the population earning a little less than  $1.25 daily. As if that is not frustrating enough, access to electricity has also been a challenge for the people of Sierra Leone, with only about 23% of the population said to be on the national grid in 2018 when President Maada Bio assumed office. 

There is also the fear of ethnopolitical tension in Sierra Leone, confirmed by the Afrobarometer survey ahead of the 2023 elections.

The challenges notwithstanding, the Maada Bio administration has made some giant strides in the democratic enterprise. According to the Afrobarometer report, 84% of Sierra Leoneans prefer democratic governance to any other form of government. In addition, the Bio administration is credited with offering free education at the primary and secondary levels to the people of Sierra Leone.  

The administration also ranks highly in women empowerment and infrastructure development, including a new terminal inaugurated at the Sierra Leone Airport with the hope of opening up Sierra Leone to more investment.

The Promise of 2023

With the pros and cons of the Bio administration jostling for attention, another opportunity will soon come for the people of Sierra Leone to make a choice based on the direct impact of the first term of Bio’s policies on their lives.

In his April 5, 2023 interview with, President Julius Maada Bio gave his administration high marks for prioritising human capital development. Describing the opposition APC as a ‘business as usual status quo’ with a track record of corruption, indiscipline and underdevelopment, Maado Bio is convinced the SLPP, with him in the driving seat as president, remains the most viable option to redeem the people of Sierra Leone from underperformance.

Whether the people of Sierra Leone will hold on to Bio’s chemistry of political growth or return to the opposition APC or any of the other minority parties, only June 24, 2023, will tell.

Keep reading DUBAWA Sierra Leone for the profile of other candidates.

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