New president calls on people to transform Sierra Leone

FREETOWN (Reuters) - Sierra Leone’s new President Julius Maada Bio on Saturday called on the public to help him transform the West African nation, which is struggling to recover from an economic downturn and a deadly Ebola epidemic.

FILE PHOTO: Sierra Leone's President Julius Maada Bio attends an interview in Freetown, Sierra Leone April 5, 2018. REUTERS/Olivia Acland/File Photo

Tens of thousands of supporters packed into a municipal stadium in the capital Freetown alongside regional dignitaries participating in the inauguration ceremony for Maada Bio, who won a presidential run-off April.

Though he was sworn in last month, just hours after his narrow victory was announced, Saturday’s ceremony marked the official transfer of power from outgoing President Ernest Bai Koroma.

Maada Bio’s campaign promise to revive the economy and fight poverty resonated with ordinary Sierra Leoneans, many of whom queued for hours to attend the inauguration. The former opposition leader faces an uphill struggle to overturn years of hardship.

“I am aware that we have been elected on a ticket for change which fuels immediate expectations to deliver not only on the basic administrative services but also to change the lives of the people of this country,” he said.

Sierra Leone is facing a years-long slump in commodities prices that has held up development of large-scale iron ore mining projects. And an Ebola crisis paralyzed and isolated the country in 2014 and 2015.

The economy contracted by more than 20 percent in 2015 and is yet to fully recover.

After a military band serenaded him with a rendition of “Happy Birthday”, Maada Bio, who turned 54 on Saturday, addressed the cheering crowd, pledging to serve all his compatriots no matter their ethnic or political background.

Dressed in flowing white robes, the former army officer, who briefly ruled Sierra Leone as head of a military junta in 1996, said he would wage a three-front war against indiscipline, corruption and poverty.

“The strategic objective of the policies and programs is to transform Sierra Leone into a country we can all be proud of,” he said.

“I cannot do it alone. So today I ask all of you to believe in your capacity as citizens that together we can change Sierra Leone,” he added.

The largely peaceful election process that brought Maada Bio to power came as a relief to Sierra Leone’s 7 million people, who in the 1990s endured a brutal civil war fueled by the diamond trade and notorious for its drug-addled child soldiers and punitive amputations.

Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Hugh Lawson