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  • On Tuesday, January 16, 1996,

  • I walked into the office of the president

  • as head of state of the Republic of Sierra Leone.

  • I had not been elected.

  • Four years earlier,

  • I was one of 30 heavily armed military officers,

  • all in our 20s,

  • who had driven from the war front

  • into the capital city, Freetown.

  • We had only one objective:

  • to overthrow a corrupt, repressive and single-party dictatorship

  • that had kept itself in power for over 25 years.

  • But in the end, it wasn't a violent coup.

  • After we fired a few shots and seized the radio station,

  • hundreds of thousands of citizens jumped onto the streets

  • to welcome us as liberators.

  • If you are thinking this seems like a movie script, I'm with you.

  • I was part of the ruling military government,

  • and I served in several roles.

  • Our goal was always to return the country to democratic civilian rule.

  • But after four years,

  • those multiparty democratic elections had still not happened.

  • Citizens were beginning to lose faith in our promise.

  • But you know what?

  • I like to keep my promises.

  • Some of my comrades and I staged another military coup,

  • and this time, against our own head of state and commander.

  • Again, it was a bloodless coup.

  • That is how I became the new military head of state

  • on January 16, 1996.

  • I was still only 31 years old.

  • Of course, power was sweet.

  • I felt invulnerable.

  • I had thousands of heavily armed men

  • and aircraft at my command.

  • I was heavily protected,

  • and I lived in luxury.

  • But my obligations to my nation were always superior.

  • Millions of fellow citizens were either displaced

  • or fleeing the violence and pillage of war.

  • So I engaged in a series of diplomatic activities

  • right across the subregion

  • and convinced the reclusive rebel leader to initiate peace talks

  • for the very first time.

  • I also called a national consultative conference

  • of civil society organizations and stakeholders

  • to advise on the best way forward.

  • In both cases, I shared with them

  • what I believed in then and now:

  • that Sierra Leone is bigger than all of us,

  • and that Sierra Leone must be a secure, peaceful and just society

  • where every person can thrive

  • and contribute to national development.

  • And so, I initiated peace talks with the rebels.

  • I organized the first multiparty democratic elections in nearly 30 years.

  • (Applause)

  • I handed over power

  • to the newly elected president,

  • I retired from the army,

  • and I left my country for the United States of America

  • to study --

  • all in three months.

  • (Applause)

  • In many a long walk,

  • I wondered how we could get it right again as a nation.

  • More than 20 years later,

  • in April 2018,

  • with a few more wrinkles and grey hair,

  • I was again head of state.

  • But guess what?

  • This time I have been democratically elected.

  • (Applause)

  • At the polling stations last year,

  • my three-year-old daughter, Amina, was in my arm.

  • She insisted on holding on to my ballot paper with me.

  • She was intent and focused.

  • At that moment,

  • with my ballot papers in both our hands,

  • I fully understood the one priority for me

  • if I was elected president of the Republic of Sierra Leone;

  • that is: How could I make the lives of Amina

  • and millions of other young girls and boys

  • better in our country?

  • See, I believe that leadership is about creating possibilities that everyone,

  • especially the young people,

  • can believe in,

  • own,

  • work to actualize,

  • and which they can actively fight to protect.

  • The pathway to power and leadership

  • can be littered with impediments,

  • but more often, with funny questions that may seemingly defy answers:

  • How does one take on the unique challenges of a country like Sierra Leone?

  • We had mined mineral resources for over a hundred years,

  • but we still are poor.

  • We had collected foreign aid for 58 years, but we are still poor.

  • The secret to economic development is in nature's best resource:

  • skilled, healthy and productive human beings.

  • The secret to changing our country lay in enhancing and supporting

  • the limitless potential of the next generation

  • and challenging them to change our country.

  • Human capital development was the key to national development

  • in Sierra Leone.

  • As a candidate,

  • I met with and listened to many young men and women

  • right across the country

  • and in the diaspora

  • that were feeling disconnected from political leadership

  • and cared little about the future of our country.

  • How could we engage them

  • and make them believe that the answers to transforming our nation

  • was right in their hands?

  • Immediately after becoming president,

  • I appointed some of Sierra Leone's brightest young people as leaders,

  • with responsibility to realize our shared vision

  • of transforming Sierra Leone.

  • I am grateful many of them said yes.

  • Let me give you a few examples.

  • Corruption had been endemic in governance, institutions

  • and in public life in Sierra Leone,

  • undermining public trust

  • and the country's international reputation.

  • I appointed a young attorney as Commissioner

  • for the Anti-Corruption Commission.

  • In less than a year,

  • he had a hundred percent conviction rate

  • and recovered over 1.5 million dollars of stolen money.

  • That is seed money for building the country's first-ever

  • national medical diagnostic center in Sierra Leone.

  • (Applause)

  • The Millennium Challenge Corporation recently gave us a green scorecard

  • for the Control of Corruption indicator,

  • and multilateral development partners that had left Sierra Leone

  • are now beginning to return.

  • We are determined to break a culture of corruption

  • and the culture of impunity

  • that is associated with corruption.

  • Before I became president,

  • I met a skinny, dreadlocked MIT/Harvard-trained inventor

  • in London.

  • Over coffee, I challenged him to think and plan along with me

  • how innovation could help to drive national development

  • in the areas of governance, revenue mobilization, health care,

  • education, delivering public services

  • and supporting private sector growth.

  • How could Sierra Leone participate in the digital economy

  • and become an innovation hub?

  • Guess what?

  • He left his cozy job at IBM,

  • and he now leads a team of young men and women

  • within the newly established Directorate of Science, Technology and Innovation

  • in my own office.

  • (Applause)

  • That young man is right in here.

  • I challenged another young Sierra Leonean woman

  • to set up and lead the new Ministry of Planning and Economic Development.

  • She consulted widely with Sierra Leoneans and produced, in record time,

  • the medium-term national development plan,

  • titled, "Education For Development."

  • We now have our national development needs

  • in easily understandable clusters,

  • and we can now plan our budgets,

  • align development partner contributions

  • and measure our own progress.

  • But the story of my government's flagship program

  • is even more daring,

  • if I can call it that.

  • Today, three out of five adults in Sierra Leone cannot read or write.

  • Thousands of children were not able to go to school

  • or had dropped out of school

  • because their parents could just not afford the $20 school fees per year.

  • Women and girls, who constitute 51 percent of our population,

  • were not given equal opportunity to be educated.

  • So the obvious answer is to put in place free, quality education

  • for every Sierra Leonean child,

  • regardless of gender, ability or ethnicity.

  • (Applause)

  • Great idea you've clapped for.