A bad reputation is easy to make and hard to break, Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Bio said as he took to the stage of the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at Harvard Kennedy School on Thursday.

Sierra Leone has been struggling with that reputation for a long time. In the popular imagination, as Bio said, Sierra Leone has long been a place of “drugged, marauding teenagers with AK-47s,” afflicted by an “orgy of violence over blood diamonds,” and populated by “irrational warlords,” “corrupt, repressive regimes,” and served by “multiple international charities.”

“This evening I want to stay away from the many Sierra Leones imagined, constructed, and contested,” Bio said. “I want to talk about my Sierra Leone.”

He wanted to talk, he said, about a country that has seen “peaceful elections and seamless transfers of power over the last 23 years.”

He also wanted to talk about a country that is basing a new strategic approach on good governance, better planning of development priorities, investment in human capital, and new models of engagement with the world and development partners.

“Good governance involves institutionalizing best practices into norms that make our democracy resilient,” Bio said. “So, when we clamp down on corruption with abuse and fraud or when we strictly apply anti-corruption laws without fear or favor or institute commissions of inquiry ... we are fostering the culture of deterrence and accountability.”

Bio, elected in 2018, also pointed to other steps undertaken by his government, including declaring a national emergency on rape and sexual violence, following a more than doubling of reported cases of rape and assault from 2017 to 2018.

“My government is working on ensuring social protection and safety for every Sierra Leonean, especially women and girls,” he said.

He also pointed to his desire to see Africa, the world’s second most populous continent, gain its “rightful place in the global governance system,” including on the UN Security Council.

“Our vision of the new Sierra Leone is one that is developed on the principles of democratic governance and accountability; one that makes informed choices through inclusive consultative processes about and drives its own development priorities; one that continues to escalate investment in human capital development and innovation; one that protects and provides equal opportunity to the vulnerable population; one that develops its own economy around private sector growth and trade and not aid; and one that continues to provide regional leadership,” Bio said. “This is the new Sierra Leone we are building. Our mission is to develop a Sierra Leone whose reputation is hard to destroy.”

The event, sponsored by Harvard University’s Center for African Studies, was hosted by Zoe Marks, a Kennedy School lecturer in public policy and expert in African politics and Sierra Leone’s recent history.

Get smart & reliable public policy insights right in your inbox.