Women in Leadership

The Challenge of the Sierra Leone Presidency

Kenday S. Kamara asked:

Just as great Sierra Leonean heroes courageously steered political environments in the 1800s, today’s Sierra Leonean leaders have the challenge of leading their country into new unmapped outposts in the global race for national self-preservation and greatness.

Imagine the experiences of great Sierra Leonean heroes such as Alimamy Suluku, the Limba King warrior and diplomat; or Bai Sherbro Kpana Lewis, the Sherbro Chief and opponent of colonial rule; as they set out to make their territories wealthy and orderly through trade and effective police protection, and maintained their independence as long as possible through brilliant and brave political maneuvering—they had no western education, no scientific leadership models to follow, and no reliable means of transportation and technology. In many ways, Sierra Leone’s modern political milieu is just as dangerous, filled with a brutal culture of corruption, endless seas of political patronage, confusing development paradigms, and unknown frontiers of technology.

The great difference, however, is that only a few great and courageous leaders were needed in the days of Alimamy Suluku or Bai Sherbro. Once the territories and their subjects were demarcated, the coordinates didn’t change. In contrast, the contradictions of today’s national politics are not static; they change. Consequently, national politics today requires our leaders to have the resolve and courage of our past heroes as well as to be diligent explorers, guided by uncompromising determination and excited by the opportunity to raise the living standards of their subjects to flourishing and prosperous communities populated by honest people, living in safety and peace, enjoying the fruits of their productive and reproductive labor, without worries about where the next meal will come from, with an absence of disease and with justice for all.

Contrary to standards of qualitative measurement based on most people’s understanding of a good life or a good quality of life, very similar to how all people around the globe understand it, a World Bank country brief last updated August 2006, gave a favorable report on Sierra Leone—that the country has sustained a strong economic recovery: 4.3 percent Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth in 2002, 9.3 percent in 2003, and 7.4 percent in 2004. Ostensibly, it is misleading to provide such a sanguine outlook about the economy when issues of extreme poverty based on a lack of basic needs and services are not adequately addressed by the country’s leadership. This is what David Lamb candidly complained about in his book, The Africans; that often times “westerners, particularly scholars, write timidly, even romantically, about Africa, and African governments go on doing pretty much what they want to with their own people.”

The true picture that is well represented in the Telegraph less than two years ago is that, “having survived a brutal war, Sierra Leone’s long-suffering people must inhabit one of the poorest and most backward countries on earth, where one child in four will not see the age of five.” Even Western diplomats are said to have expressed their deep disappointment over president Kabbah’s performance. The president, although not personally implicated in corruption, has never shaken off a reputation for being weak and indecisive.  Critics accuse him of failing to act against dishonest ministers and officials. “The president has not got the political will,” said Zainab Bangura, director of the National Accountability Group, an anti-corruption body. “Corruption has become institutionalized.  Millions of Sierra Leoneans suffer the consequences. Teachers routinely go without their salaries for months because officials steal the money set aside for them.  A government report found the health ministry failed to distribute 95 per cent of the medicine and equipment intended for public hospitals.  This huge quantity of desperately needed material simply disappears, presumably stolen by officials and sold for personal gain.”

It is clear, therefore, that the development indicators especially associated to the living standards of the population in the face of a brutal culture of corruption requires not just the leadership resolve of past heroes but the quality of tough leadership needed to drive today’s political and economic environment.  Financial resources should not be the problem. The country has the natural resources to be a dominant economic powerhouse and global player. What the country truly needs is a presidency that delivers, an executive branch that seeks and retains competent and perceptive public service personnel with the leadership competencies of accountability, anticipation, predictability, credibility, and decisiveness to make public institutions work.  As the country strives to address issues of social and economic development, its presidency, as the most powerful arm of government, must exhibit character; and most important, inquisitiveness.


Personal character involves two components: emotionally connecting with the people of Sierra Leone from various ethnic backgrounds and exhibiting uncompromising integrity. What Sierra Leone needs at this time is a head of state who exhibits genuine emotional connection with people throughout the country. This is a function of nurturing a sincere interest in the lives of people and the work of the various departments of government that serve the people. Fundamentally, emotional connection is important because it leads to goodwill. And in national governance, with webs of interrelated departments that must cooperate and coordinate to meet public needs, clear lines of command and control—rather than kissing kin—is what a head of state must inspire to achieve national initiatives.

Effective government action to solve serious and life threatening problems is needed. Both departmental and national standards have been systematically and substantially compromised over generations of government that need to change. “Siaka Stevens, for instance, president from 1968 to 1985 inaugurated ‘kleptocracy’ – a reign of thieves. His Cabinet Ministers looted their respective departments, selling off official assets and passing the lion’s share up to Stevens. The government gradually destroyed its own capacity to function, and by the time Joseph Momoh was president in the late 1980s, it could no longer pay civil servants and teachers, or even print its own money. By the 1990s, Sierra Leone’s political leaders had lost the very habit of popular government, and Kabbah never came to grips with his country’s many problems” since he became the dominant power player in 1996.  For the cabinet ministers and senior public service personnel in these generations of government, since they are far removed from presidential and vice presidential oversight, they have been consistently acting irresponsibly and incapable of appealing to ethical values and demands. The onus, therefore, is on an effective head of state to have checks and balances in place to ensure that ministers and senior public personnel invariably maintain the highest ethical standards in personal and departmental matters. Integrity increases the overall levels of trust throughout any institution. When dealing with the public, trust is an essential, irreplaceable ingredient for effective execution. And quite often the difference between good and bad governance is great execution, not great strategy; and for great execution, a head of state needs public servants’ trust and commitment.  High level of presidential and vice presidential inquisitiveness will actually facilitate public personnel’s ability to maintain ethical integrity. The president and vice president should champion the enactment of definitions of allowable ethical behavior with
the option to probe even further, deep into ministers and senior public officials’ private and public ethical values. In Sierra Leo
ne, for instance, as in other places where endless war has broken down normal social constraints, innocence is robbed with impunity, and unrelenting poverty and desperation make women out of young girls. The phenomenon of ‘sugar daddies,’ that is, older men entrapping young girls by offering gifts, treats, food, clothes, or money in exchange for enduring sexual relationships, that is reportedly widespread among public officials in Sierra Leone has to be outlawed. The presidency should be responsible for making sure that its ministers and other senior departmental personnel who violate what should be a national code of conduct which includes the improvident misuse of public funds on sexual relationships with young girls, are shamed and removed from public office.

Towering Inquisitiveness

While all leaders have substantial intelligence, all are not necessarily inquisitive. Constantly overwhelmed by all shades of corruption, friends and family pressures, makes the political environment in Sierra Leone complex and uncertain. As a consequence, constant learning is required for success. Political business is physically taxing on national leaders, especially for the head of state and his vice president. Sycophancy and expectation of friends and family members can be tiring. These aspects are just too overwhelming today for President Kabbah and Vice President Berewa and are not invigorated by them.

A perceptive leader needs develop characteristics of adventure, curiosity, or open-mindedness. Inquisitiveness is key to success for the president and the vice. Inquisitiveness is the fuel for increasing their national savvy, enhancing their ability to understand people and maintain integrity, and augmenting their capacity for dealing with uncertainty and managing incidence of corruption in the various ministries of government. Inquisitiveness enables a head of state and his vice president to not only develop the characteristics of character, but also build a complex understanding of how to embrace duality by managing uncertainty, essentially knowing when to act and when to gather more information, and balancing tensions, understanding what needs to change and what needs to stay the same. Inquisitiveness also enables a head of state to be politically savvy. Political savvy enables a head of state to better take advantage of national opportunities. An effective president must understand performing departments. He must know the sources and location of comparative advantage, department-specific conditions, the nation’s political and financial stability, and so on.

Cultivating Great Cabinet Ministers and Departmental Directors

A government seeking to pursue national development initiatives need look no further than their own indigenous experts at home and abroad to determine if their efforts will succeed or fail. Does the government have competent public service leaders? If not, it must ask if its leaders are chosen or made. The consensus has to be that these leaders should be guardedly chosen through nonpolitical assessment of talent, and then made through a developmental process.

Assessing Talent: Cabinet ministers and senior public service officials, like great musicians or athletes, need superior talent, abundant opportunity, and excellent education and training to succeed; therefore, a presidency serious about managing public institutions that work must know how to hire candidates who have already demonstrated such characteristics and capabilities. It should intentionally hire Sierra Leoneans who are not career politicians and who have lived or worked abroad, or can demonstrate their preexisting aptitude for national development initiatives.

The Development Process: How are senior public service officials made as leaders? The basic mental process for development is to understand what drives development. For most Sierra Leoneans, that requires both some rearranging and stretching of their mind-sets. And considering the chronically destructive culture of corruption that has dominated the country over generations of leadership, it would take a pretty hard blow to the head and some real tugging before Sierra Leoneans could rearrange and stretch their minds enough to encompass the meaning of patriotism.

Sierra Leone’s public officials need to expand their minds to recognize development opportunities and to marshal national resources. They need to emotionally connect with the people they serve and engender their goodwill. They need to understand people of different ethics and demonstrate integrity in a way that inspires trust. They need to embrace the constant dualities and tensions of national political demands. One reason that inquisitiveness differentiates between a successful head of state and those who struggle with departmental responsibilities is that it ignites and fuels the motivation to go through this mind-altering process.

One great strategy with the potential of developing dedicated public servants is unannounced presidential or vice presidential visits to various departments and parastatals. Such unannounced visits put the president and the vice in the middle of the country, its culture, economy, political system, market, and so on; as they are also released from the sequestered security-tight cocoon of a state house office, presidential motorcade and choreographed itinerary. This approach helps the president and vice president see firsthand how these departments are run. Successful leaders are consistently understood to enhance the developmental potential of their ministers and public servants when they are known to take detours. Often the greatest contrasts and opportunities for stretching and rearranging minds are found off the beaten path. When they also get wet, they identify themselves with the development needs of their country. If only the president and the vice president can dive into the shops, markets, schools, and homes unannounced, to find out what local life is really like, will make these leaders icons of excellence dedicated to the wellbeing of the nation they have taken an oath to serve.


Like the great Sierra Leonean heroes of old, today’s presidency faces an even more turbulent uncharted seas and destructive waves of corruption and unethical behaviors. While the characteristics these leaders must possess could clearly benefit cabinet ministers and heads of departments and parastatals, the difference is that the president and vice president cannot succeed without them. Today’s government of president Kabbah and vice president Berewa does clearly need the quantity and quality of ministerial leadership and departmental directorship necessary to fix the management gap that has defined generations of government. The responsibility of doing what is right for the country lies squarely with the Sierra Leone presidency to apply concrete change beyond the rhetoric of mere reflection. The great advantage Sierra Leone as a nation has, as Joe Opala wrote in 2001, is that “unlike some other collapsed states in Africa, Sierra Leone is clearly fixable. Somalia and Rwanda suffer from civil wars that, as we have learned, are difficult for outsiders to address, but Sierra Leone’s ethnic groups are not in conflict. … Sierra Leone has not fallen apart as a country—its government has fallen apart.” In other words, Sierra Leone simply needs leadership—strong, effective and imaginative leadership willing to take the lead, commit the political capital and the time needed to make institutions work. Sierra Leone thus hankers for a presidency set on pursuing a comprehensive nation-building agenda with perception and strength supported by a government of accountable public service personnel whose mindsets are rearranged to pursue excellence.

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