JULIUS MAADA BIO wasted no time before being sworn in as president of Sierra Leone. Just an hour and a half after his narrow election victory was announced on April 4th, Mr Bio took the oath of office, forgoing the state house for a dimly lit room at the Radisson Blu hotel. The unusual circumstances were prompted by security concerns. During a long and tense campaign Mr Bio had accused the All People’s Congress (APC), the party of his opponent, Samura Kamara, of trying to assassinate him. Mr Kamara, for his part, said the vote was rigged.
The election was Sierra Leone’s fourth since its civil war ended in 2002. Memories of the brutal 11-year conflict still linger. Tensions based on ethnic, political and regional divisions simmered throughout the campaign, then boiled over when the result was announced. Supporters of Mr Bio’s Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) attacked followers of the APC, which previously held the presidency. Much of the violence has taken place in the SLPP’s southern strongholds. But more than 100 people have also fled Kono, a volatile swing state in the east.
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Mr Bio, a former general who participated in two coups in the 1990s, and who briefly took power himself in 1996, has tried to calm things down. “No Sierra Leonean should feel threatened by my ascension to power,” he has said, even promising to let APC supporters stay in their government jobs. He has called on Sierra Leone’s 7m people to reject tribalism and regionalism, which have poisoned the country’s politics. He has set a good example himself, reaching out to Mr Kamara (who still plans to challenge the result of the election). The president will need to work with the APC, which has a majority in parliament.
Though it has huge mineral and diamond deposits, Sierra Leone faces big economic challenges. It is still recovering from an outbreak of Ebola in 2014, which killed 4,000 people and scared away investors. A slump in global commodity prices in 2015 deepened its woes. And the APC did not help matters. During its decade-long hold on power, the party looted the country’s coffers. A government audit recently revealed that much of the money earmarked for fighting Ebola during the crisis is unaccounted for.
To the delight of voters, Mr Bio pledged to tackle corruption by launching a commission to investigate past crimes and creating a special division in the country’s high court to focus on cases of graft. All government revenues will flow into a single pot, he says, making the country’s finances easier to audit.
Education is another problem. Three out of five adults in Sierra Leone are unable to read or write. Though primary schools are free in theory, parents often cannot afford the books and uniforms. Mr Bio vows to provide all that, and free secondary education, with money saved by “reducing leakages”. That may be unrealistic, given the state of government finances. His transition team is taking stock of the situation. Rumours abound that the kitty is empty.
So Mr Bio must convince foreign donors, such as the IMF, to trust him with their aid, much of which has been suspended or restricted because of the previous government’s failure to implement economic reforms. Funds from a $224m loan package negotiated last summer with the IMF were withheld over the APC’s failure to achieve stricter enforcement of import taxes and collection of market-rate royalties on mineral exports. Mr Bio has already made progress in both of these areas.
Most Sierra Leoneans are hopeful that Mr Bio will make good on his campaign slogan, “Salone foh betteh” (Sierra Leone must improve), which continues to be heard on the streets of Freetown, the capital. If he can curb corruption a bit, then Sierra Leone may indeed get better.