On Tuesday, September 12, 2023, Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Bio arrived in New York, United States for the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA 78). 

Under the theme, “Rebuilding Trust and Reigniting Global Solidarity: Accelerating Action on the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals towards Peace, Prosperity, Progress and Sustainability for All”, the President is expected to proactively engage his colleague Heads of State, Government officials attending UNGA, Heads of International Financial Institutions, Philanthropic Organisations and the media.

Bio will also showcase Sierra Leone’s development strides and highlight his government’s vision for sustainable transformation for the next five years. He will further engage with key stakeholders before the commencement of Sierra Leone’s tenure as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for the term 2024-2025.

The President’s arrival to the United States comes just two weeks, after the U.S. Secretary of State, Antony J. Blinken, announced the implementation of a stringent visa restriction policy targeting individuals involved in undermining the democratic process in Sierra Leone.

The announcement follows a disputed presidential election in June which saw incumbent President Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) re-elected, defeating Dr Samura Kamara of the main opposition All People’s Congress (APC) Party.

Kamara and the APC have refused to accept the result, describing it as a “daylight robbery”. Many international election observers also highlighted problems with transparency in the tallying process of the election results. National Election Watch (NEW), an election monitoring group that deployed observers in all polling stations across the country also said that the results declared by the ECSL show there are inconsistencies.

According to Blinken, the United States will actively pursue visa restrictions for those deemed responsible for acts that undermine democracy in Sierra Leone. Such acts include manipulating or rigging the electoral process, employing intimidation tactics to deter voters, election observers, or civil society entities through threats or physical violence, as well as violating human rights principles associated with the democratic process in Sierra Leone.

Although details of the individuals targeted by the US visa sanction weren’t immediately made public in the statement issued by the State Department, it is strongly believed that government officials who participated in electoral malpractice in the 2023 general elections might have been included.

Since the announcement of the visa restriction policy, there has been widespread curiosity among Sierra Leoneans about the identities of these individuals. With their names not made public, there is only one way to find out – their ability to travel to the United States.

Earlier this week, a former Minister of Social Welfare, Sylvia Blyden travelled to Washington DC to prove that she is not under a VISA ban. Although Blyden is a member of the opposition APC, she is believed to have strong ties with the First Lady, Fatima Bio and has on several occasions defended the ruling government and its policies.

Upon President Bio’s New York arrival, several government officials were spotted in his delegation, including First Lady, Fatima Bio; Chief Minister, David Moinina Sengeh; Foreign Affairs Minister, Timothy Kabba; Presidential Spokesperson, Alpha Kanu; and the Information and Civic Education Minister, Chernor Bah.

The presence of these officials in the U.S. prompts questions: Are they exempt from visa restrictions, or do they benefit from diplomatic exceptions? According to the U.S. immigrations laws, diplomats and other foreign government officials are eligible to travel to the United States using an A-1 or A-2 visa to engage solely in official duties or activities on behalf of their national government.

Furthermore, there’s no questioning about Maada Bio’s eligibility to travel to the United States as President of Sierra Leone. Under the U.S. immigration laws, the Head of State or Government of any country qualifies for an A visa regardless of the purpose of travel.  Based on the foregoing, it can be concluded that the President and officials of the Sierra Leone government are eligible to travel to the United States and immune from visa restrictions until they vacate their position in government.