Sierra Leone conjures images of blood diamonds, child soldiers and Ebola. Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr wants us to remember a different time in her country’s history. “We were known as the ‘Athens of West Africa,’ ” she says. “Future heads of government from throughout Africa studied here, at Fourah Bay College.”
Aki-Sawyerr will soon have the chance to implement her vision. In March 2018, the people of Freetown elected her mayor by a near-30-point margin.
Standing under 5′3″ and invariably dressed in a tailored Africana dress, the 50-year-old plans to bring a radical transformation in governance to the capital of the world’s 16th poorest country. If successful, her model of line-by-line project management and community-driven accountability could be a case study for government leaders across the developing world.
The daughter of a university professor and the director of a Christian NGO, Aki-Sawyerr is a product of her country’s intellectual history. She attended a 150-year-old secondary school, St. Joseph’s Convent, and graduated from Fourah Bay College, sub-Saharan Africa’s oldest institute of higher learning.
In a tradition familiar to nationals of the former British colony, Aki-Sawyerr traveled to the U.K. for her master’s degree. She stayed, launching her career in the private sector, first at accounting firm Arthur Andersen and then in real estate.
Although largely U.K.-based in the 1990s and 2000s with her husband and two children, Aki-Sawyerr never lost sight of the need to support her home country. “Every conversation with [my husband] Keith and me included the words Sierra Leone,” she recalls.
AN IMPORTANT STUMBLING BLOCK FOR MANY POLITICIANS IN THIS CONTEXT IS BEING TOO AMBITIOUS IN THEIR PROMISES.
DR. LUISA ENRIA, LECTURER AT THE UNIVERSITY OF BATH
In 1999, Aki-Sawyerr co-founded the Sierra Leone War Trust to help victims of the country’s decade-long civil war. Five years later, her husband co-founded the Sierra Leone–focused real estate and infrastructure development firm IDEA UK, which Aki-Sawyerr joined in 2009.
However, it took the shock of the 2014–15 West Africa Ebola crisis to bring about a more permanent return for Aki-Sawyerr. In the epidemic’s early months, she worked abroad to raise funds and support, but in October 2014, with the disease spreading faster, she took her fight to the front lines.
The National Ebola Response Committee put her to work expanding treatment bed usage and capacity. She was so effective that in January 2015, NERC CEO Palo Conteh appointed her the director of planning, a position she held until the official end of the crisis in November 2015.
With the crisis over, Aki-Sawyerr thought she would rejoin the private sector, but duty called. The president of Sierra Leone asked her to lead the President’s Delivery Team (PDT), the implementation arm of the national post-Ebola recovery effort. The $840 million program worked through government ministries to deliver on 13 “Key Result Areas” (KRAs), which spanned disease preparedness systems, sanitation and job creation.
At the PDT, Aki-Sawyerr tested the project management and data-driven accountability system that she plans to implement as mayor. Every planning cycle, she personally led line-by-line reviews of implementation plans and, to keep the ministries honest, she partnered with Sierra Leone’s 149 Paramount Chiefs, indigenous local leaders, to ensure that services were reaching targeted beneficiaries.
This exacting accountability system marked a significant departure from business as usual. “Her attention to detail is definitely unique — it is also needed,” says Emily Stanger-Sfeile, who worked closely with Aki-Sawyerr at the PDT and is currently Sierra Leone country lead at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.
Her dedication also won her the respect of Sierra Leoneans. As part of the sanitation initiative, Operation Clean Freetown (OCF), Aki-Sawyerr worked side-by-side with youth groups to clean the sewage-laced trash that lines Freetown’s thoroughfares. “Seeing Yvonne work with wards to clean up the city seemed to really resonate with residents,” notes Dr. Luisa Enria, a lecturer at the University of Bath whose research examines experiences of citizenship among those living in Sierra Leone’s slums.
Aki-Sawyerr’s success with OCF prompted calls for her to run for mayor. As she tells it, “At first, I laughed and told them I was going back to the private sector — but then I kept on returning to the idea. On my daily commute across Freetown, I would look around and think, ‘Oh, I’ll fix that!’ ”
Now mayor-elect of the one million-strong city, Aki-Sawyerr has already informed the Freetown City Council (FCC) that she will review every government process and has committed to working neighborhood by neighborhood to develop locally driven transformation plans. FCC members have already witnessed the force that she will bring to the mayor’s office. In one meeting that Aki-Sawyerr attended as PDT Lead, “Everyone in the room was yelling at each other,” recounts Dr. Yakama Jones, who served with Aki-Sawyerr at the PDT. “Yvonne took off her shoes, stood on top of the table and shouted, ‘Can everyone be quiet!’ It worked.”
Aki-Sawyerr’s track record has generated high expectations for her four-year term — and she will need to deliver results. “An important stumbling block for many politicians in this context is being too ambitious in their promises,” cautions Enria.
Many factors are out of her control. In the past 30 years, Freetown has witnessed a civil war, an Ebola epidemic and, most recently, mudslides that killed more than 1,000 people. Her political party, the APC, lost the presidential election, meaning she will need to coordinate her plans with a potentially antagonistic central government.
As she confronts these challenges, she will do so separated from her husband and two children, who remain in the U.K. Admitting the pain of separation, Aki-Sawyerr draws on her conviction: “If by God’s grace we succeed in transforming Freetown and improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, especially children, the sacrifice would have been worth it.”