IN 1992, JULIUS MAADA BIO WAS among a group of six young Sierra Leonean soldiers (that included Captain Valentine Strasser) who toppled President Joseph Momoh’s All People’s Congress government in a bloodless military coup.
Bio later led a palace coup in 1996, to overthrow Captain Strasser’s military government, following a division within the ruling Supreme Council of State over whether to introduce multi-party elections that year, and the conditions for participation of the junta members in the elections.
Bio’s “palace coup” returned the country to democracy. In 2005, he officially became a member of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) and last year won the party’s election to become its 2012 presidential candidate.
Q: What are the main challenges facing Sierra Leone today?
A: We have a highly polarised country and also a difficulty with the democratic process, in the sense that the transition of power from one government to another is problematic. When you have a smooth change from one government to another, it creates confidence. When there is a lack of it, it leads to problems.
We are also concerned with political violence. What is particularly worrying is that there is clear evidence that, going towards the elections, weapons like rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns, and sub-machine guns are being stockpiled by the government.
Q: So you don’t identify the root of the development problem to be simply that the government does not have adequate finance to roll out services to the people?
A: I wouldn’t confine it to that. The country has very low levels of savings so we definitely require large flows of foreign direct investment – and it will be the responsibility of my government to provide an environment conducive for this to take place. It is necessary for the investment community in our country to embark on crucial projects and business activities that will provide the revenue for development and give us a competitive edge with the international business community.
Our problem is not just limited to the lack of capital, but also the functioning of the government, the quality of leadership, and the sort of policies that will assure investors that their investment in Sierra Leone is safe, and that they can repatriate their profits. We must assure them that Sierra Leone respects the rule of law, and it is a country that protects investments.
Q: Have you identified particular sectors in Sierra Leone that are ripe for inward investment?
A: Yes. Most developed countries began growing their economies by first developing their agricultural sector. In our country, agriculture has not received adequate attention. Around 70% of our people are involved in agriculture in one way or another. It is my ardent belief that we should provide the necessary support to this sector. It will not only provide us with the food we need, but also allow us to export to the world and bring in foreign currency. So agriculture is one area.
We have also had some recent discoveries of rutile, bauxite, iron ore, gold, and diamond deposits, and of course the recently discovered off-shore oil. We have proposed to put in place an effective management system for the extractive industries. We have looked to the experience of other countries like Ghana that has just started lifting its oil, and we want to have a system in place to make sure that our oil becomes a blessing. We must have a fiscal and tax regime agreement that will provide for the country.
Q: You have a military background, don’t you?
A: Yes, I was part of the military government that came into power in 1992 after nearly 20 years of one-party rule in our country. Everybody had given up that we would ever have a democratic dispensation. We had had several elections before, but the members of the government in power just amassed wealth for themselves and kept everybody under control. So we decided to get them out in 1992 and have a new democratic dispensation.
Some people in our group, however, wanted to cling onto power, but I disagreed and said we only took power to put things right. I had to act a second time, in what was called a "palace coup", just to keep our promises. In early 1996, I took over the government and within three months, I was able to initiate a peace process. I kept to our programme of democratisation, conducted elections, and relinquished power after Ahmad Tejan Kabbah was elected president.
Q: Is the military still a political force in Sierra Leone?
A: Well, the military has been retrained – by the British army mainly -– and they have kept themselves in the barracks so far. But nobody can tell. Just look at what happened in Mali recently. That came as a surprise to everyone.
Q: Looking ahead to the November elections, what kind of policies are you running on? What are you offering the people?
A: Sierra Leone is considered one of the least developed countries in the world and we cannot afford to stay in that position. So our goal is to better develop the country and move it forward. I consider the human resources of our country as the foundation of this policy, and education as the cornerstone. We cannot develop if we don’t have quality education.
Education provides freedom and opportunities, and helps to break the circle of deprivation that can pass from one generation to another. So we want to build a firm foundation for future development. We want to look at technical training and also improve the quality of education from primary school to university level.
Q: Are you happy with the current syllabus in use? Do you think it is suitable for the needs of the country?
A: I think that it is obsolete. We are going to review it and make sure it suits the country's job market. We have courses or programmes that are really not related to our current situation.
We plan to provide free education to our people, at least up to secondary school level and maybe further so that we can have the human resources foundation essential for development.
Q: What will your government do about corruption?
A: Corruption poses a menace to any government and we, as a party, have started a process to ascertain how to deal with it. There is currently an anti-corruption commission and while it has the basic legal infrastructure to prosecute, what is lacking is the freedom and independence to act. So we need to give it the freedom to prosecute anybody, no matter what their connections might be. I believe there is a certain amount of political interference within the current system.
Q: How would you sum up the current situation in the country?
A: I would say that we have a government that has not performed at all well, and we are worried as they have imported arms and ammunition. These are offensive weapons, but they claim that they are for the armed forces and police to counter terrorism. It is worrying that they are bringing in arms at this point in time. It is a troubling development because we should be thinking about elections in a free atmosphere, not in the middle of a conflict.
The international community has invested in our country and the UK government has done quite a lot to bring peace to Sierra Leone and also promote post-conflict reconstruction, resettlement and development. We want to use this opportunity to appeal to the world to continue investing in Sierra Leone. We are not asking for favours for our party, but we do ask for an even playing field.
Q: If the international community were to grant you three wishes, what would they be?
A: The immediate problem is conducting a free and fair election, and we want the international community to be present to make sure that we don’t have armed police supervising the ballot. If we are to have armed police, they should be UN peacekeepers. We are a very small country and we need the world’s strongest countries to support our development. I want to provide the quality of leadership that instils confidence so that we can really kick-start our development.
Q: What are your views on the ICC, and the conviction of Charles Taylor by the Special Court for Sierra Leone?
A: It is important that the world’s leaders know that you cannot just treat people of another country with impunity, in any way you choose. But I would also like to say to the international community: Make sure that what is sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander.