Sierra Leone: ‘I’ve cleaned up our image and I am investing in education’ – President Madaa Bio 

By Tom Collins, in Freetown
Posted on Friday, 16 December 2022 15:12

Julius Maada Bio, President of Sierra Leone, in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain, November 2, 2021. REUTERS/Hannah McKay/Pool

In 2018, Sierra Leone's President Julius Maada Bio introduced bold reforms to revolutionise the country's education sector. The 'radical inclusion policy' sought to provide free education for all, including pregnant girls and disabled children. The government claims that more than one million children have signed up for schools in just four years since the policy was launched.

The Africa Report sat down with Maada Bio in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, to talk about his education drive and whether it would help him win another term in office during next year’s national elections.

Why you have made education a main focus of your first term in office?

President Julius Maada Bio: I come from a very humble background and for me to come to this level of leadership, I believe that education has played a very critical role in that journey. I started school without even shoes to walk to school; I had to walk barefoot. I didn’t have access to reading materials.

[However], today I’m here. I’ve seen enormous changes in my life. It [boils] down to education, and I would like to share that with the rest of the country. We cannot develop as a nation without education. We cannot undertake development without improving the human resources of our country. We want to be part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution; if we do not make the necessary investment in human capital we will miss out.

It is an existential issue and that’s why I don’t talk about education, but fit for purpose education. We need to prepare our kids not for today, but for tomorrow. There are many issues that we are facing at the moment, but we are throwing all our energy, all our resources into an education revolution.

Your government allocated 22% of its budget to education this year – one of the highest allocations in the world. Which sectors are you spending less money on in order to carve out this space for education?

We’ve had to pinch from all sectors, [but] that it is existential. Human capital is about developing education, food security and health. These are the three pillars of human capital. We have paid a premium to all three. An educated population that is healthy and has food security creates resilience.

We will be able to survive the external shocks that are happening all around the world and I don’t think we are out of the woods yet. The IMF tells us that things are going to be extremely difficult for the next year. I believe that an educated population will be able to think critically and solve the basic problems of any society.

Moving into the 2023 election, are you worried that five years in office is not enough to prove that education is the most important sector to invest in? Especially when Sierra Leone is facing a serious cost-of-living crisis? Which other sectors might have needed more investment during this time?

I think we need to tell our story correctly. The worry is that people will not understand what we have done, so it is definitely a risk for a politician. [However], as much as I am a politician, I’m more of a development person. It’s not just about winning an election. I am not here to pay lip service to development.

[Even so], in the midst of all the problems, we have done extremely well. Anecdotal results are beginning to show that […] we got it right. I chose education as my flagship pillar. This year, I was chosen to be the co-chair of the UN’s Transforming Education Summit. That means that the effort here is being recognised around the world.

That is because of the effort we have made in the past four years alone. The kids are beginning to pass exams now in huge numbers. All this is because of our policy of radical inclusion where we offered free education to everyone in 2018, including pregnant schoolgirls and disabled people.

I’m putting money back into the pockets of parents who no longer have to pay school fees.

The women folk have benefited massively from this. They’ve been kept at the back for a very long time. This year, the two kids that got the best grades were girls.

[…] don’t forget that the 22% is actually saving people money; I’m putting money back into the pockets of parents who no longer have to pay school fees. They don’t have to pay; so they can spend their disposable income on other things. In most cases, we are providing two core textbooks, we are paying the teachers and we have provided limited transportation for them in most towns and cities. This has been very popular with many people. I […] thought it was going to be difficult to show people the results of education in five years, but it is beginning to speak for itself.

[…] we have had many challenges. We’ve had Ebola, we’ve had corruption; it was rampant here, and we are trying to change that narrative too. That was all we were known before, but now that is changing. We’ve also opened up the political space. We have taken the death penalty out of our books. We had a seditious libel law, which was hanging over the heads of those who practise journalism for years, and it was used to clamp down on divergent views. We have taken all of that out. 

If you have put more than one million children through school since 2018, will that not also put pressure on tertiary education facilities and the job market? How do you plan to deal with the knock-on effects from your radical inclusion policy?

Definitely, that’s a natural part of the projection trajectory that we are on. If you educate more people there are going to be more educated people who need jobs. We are fighting on several fronts by expanding the economy.

We are known for our natural resources. We are trying to clean up that space, to sanitise it and make it more attractive. We are trying to change our investment legislation and make Sierra Leone a more favourable destination for foreign direct investment. While we are busy with education, we are also opening up the economy so we can create more employment.

I’ve said it before, education is a difficult vote winner, but I am more interested in developing the foundations. This vicious cycle of poverty, we can put a stop to it. I am going to lay the foundations so that every other leader who sits here in the future has something to build on.

Would you say that you have restored donor confidence since it was largely eroded in the Ebola years as millions of dollars went missing?

In fact, at the time we took over, most of the donors had left; not even the IMF was here. We were able to clean things up and quickly establish credibility with the IMF; and of course, once the IMF is working with us, others are working with us again.

In the education sector, we have seen money pouring in. We are working with the Global Partnership for Education and other international partners. We have established credibility and people know that we mean business. The past four years have been really busy; [we have been] doing some of the basic things to clean up our image.

[…] we are part of a global community,[so] if you want to be respected, if you want investment , if you want to have meaningful partnerships then you must be trusted; and that is what we have accomplished in the last four years. 

In terms of support from the population, you’ve tried to introduce some progressive policies like decriminalising abortion, radical inclusion and stopping female genital mutilation. Are you seeing any pushback on these policies? Are you worried that people will say you are adopting a western agenda? Will that affect your chances for re-election?

Most of what I do is out of conviction, but of course you have constraints on what you can do and what you cannot do. The constitution […] exist[s], but you lead through your value system and when you see something that is not good – I think you must stand up [against] that. As politicians we tend to go more for votes.

[Even so], I think you are a much better leader if you can use your own value system. By virtue of where I sit, I have enormous power and I think I should use it to make sure we change society. I try to convince people about the wisdom and usefulness of some of these things that I propose, which normally traditional leaders would not accept.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options