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54 years of independence amidst abject poverty

May 1, 2015 By Alusine Sesay

Sierra Leone celebrated its 54th independence birthday on 27 April, 2015. The country gained its independence from the British colonialist on April 27, 1961. For the ordinary human being, 54 years does not mean 54 seconds, minutes, hours or days, but five bloody decades of existence; so one must count some personal achievements having stayed on earth for so long a period.

The frequently asked questions whenever Sierra Leone celebrates its independence are: Was it ripe enough for the country to have gained independence in 1961? Is the country really practically independent? What is there to celebrate? This is so because there is little to smile about when the masses continue to wallow in abject poverty, needs and wants.

In Sierra Leone, after 54 years, people still go to bed with needs and wake up with wants on a daily basis. As Joseph Hill once said, “Each and every day, time is getting harder. You think about the greedy, they do nothing for the needy. They go to bed with wants and they wake up their needs.” This is true about Sierra Leone where things continue to get worse on a daily basis with few individuals living in affluence while the majority swims in abject poverty. The country is moving at a very slow pace with most basic amenities like water, electricity and education being luxury.

The country’s prison is congested because its facilities are tied to pre-colonial times. The Pademba Road prison, now Male Correctional Centre, which was established during pre-colonial era in 1914 to house 220 inmates, is now holding over 2000 inmates, hence overcrowded and exposed to so many infectious diseases. The government has failed woefully to extend the facility beyond what was established in the pre-colonial era. Despite the fact that the facility now has a new nomenclature as a correctional centre, its structure still remains the same with nothing added to match with the trend of trend.

As we celebrate 54 years of independence, the country is still grappling with the provision of basic social amenities. People celebrated the day in absolute need of water! The Guma Valley Water Company was established in 1961 to provide safe drinking water for residents in Freetown and its immediate environs but the company has not been able to fulfill that mandate since its establishment.

According to a 2012 World Bank report on water and sanitation, Guma Valley supplies 18 million gallons of water a day to Freetown residents as opposed to 35 million gallons required by the population on a daily basis. The report further states that between 2004 and 2011, 25,000 people had access to improved water sources in the Freetown urban areas, compared to 167,000 people in the rural areas.

In 2007, the government sought help from the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) to formulate a national policy on water supply and sanitation facilities, but the modernization of water and sanitation services has been hampered by lack of proper coordination.

In 2011, Parliament created the Sierra Leone Water Company (SALWACO) to provide improved water facilities to certain towns in the provinces. Also, the government of Ernest Bai Koroma in 2012 established the Ministry of Water Resources, a ministry headed by a young and dynamic minister, Momodu Maligie, but access to safe drinking water still remains a key challenge in Freetown and its immediate environs.

So what is there to celebrate about 54 years of independence?

In November 2002, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted General Comment No. 15 on the right to water. Article I.1 states that: “The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.” Comment No. 15 also defined the right to water as the right of everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable and physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses.

In July 2010, through Resolution 64/292, the United Nations General Assembly explicitly recognized the human right to water and sanitation and acknowledged that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realization of all human rights. The Resolution calls upon States and international organizations to provide financial resources to help in capacity-building and technology transfer to help countries, in particular developing countries, to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all.

Despite huge funds received from donor partners, the issue of providing water to citizens still remains a problem.

Furthermore, the provision of electricity across the country remains a huge challenge. The National Power Authority was established by an Act of Parliament in 1982 to provide electricity across the country, but the Authority had failed woefully to fulfill its mandate since its establishment. Due to its incapacity to provide sufficient electricity supply to the country, it was in January 2015 unbundled, thus giving birth to the Electricity Distribution and Supply Agency (EDSA) and the Electricity Generation and Transmission Company (EGTC).

Minister of Energy, Ambassador Henry Macauley, says the unbundling of NPA was contingent on the fact that Sierra Leone’s energy sector has constantly experienced epileptic and unreliable power supply, thus creating a harsh environment for economic development, and most especially foreign investment.

Despite this new innovation, the provision of electricity still remains a herculean challenge. It is like placing old wine in new bottle, with the structure being the visible change, while the system and personality remains the same. No change! Erratic power supply continues to be the norm. At age 54, the country and its people sleep in darkness.

Celebrating 54 years of independence, the country is still grappling with the provision of sufficient food for its people. No food on the table! In the Agenda for Change, the government of Ernest Bai Koroma placed more premium on agriculture and increased the sector’s budget from 1.7% in 2007 to 9.9% in 2010. Despite the increased budgetary allocation, the Ministry of Agriculture has woefully failed to ensure food sufficiency in the country. The ‘tractorization programme’ initiated by the ministry has failed because the wrong approach was used in distributing the said tractors. According to National Secretary General of the Sierra Leone Farmers Federation, 60% of the tractors are grounded due to the lack of spare parts and maintenance officers.

Also, the Smallholder Commercialization Programme, which was geared towards assisting smallholder farmers move from subsistence to commercialized farming, has failed to provide any dividend. All the Agricultural Business Centres (ABCs) established under the Smallholder Commercialization Programme are now white elephants.

Thus, it is ridiculous celebrating 54 years of independence amid hunger and starvation. A cup of rice which is the staple food in Sierra Leone goes for a thousand Leones, while the price per bag is sold beyond the earning of many across the country.

At age 54, the country’s population is still rated at 60% illiterate. Fourah Bay College, established by the colonialist, now only basks in its former grandeur as even the infrastructure is in ruin. The sad state of literacy or illiteracy has been compounded by the outbreak of the Ebola virus disease which has left children, especially girls, dropping out of school. Over 600 pupils were not allowed to sit the Basic Education Certificate Examination because they got pregnant during the enforced closure due to the Ebola virus disease.

The country’s poor health infrastructure was exposed to the barest minimum. The President had to cry out for international help to arrest the situation as the country had a single lab to diagnose Lassa fever in Kenema. Many of our health personnel died as a result of the poor state of the health sector as most of them were not trained to handle an emergency of such nature. However, the Ebola outbreak could be said to be a blessing in disguise for the country as many hands have helped boost the country’s health sector.

Finally, we could celebrate as a nation because independence is a relative dictum, but celebrating it amid wants and abject poverty sends a signal of a society bereft of basic needs and amenities, a feat blamed on unbridled corruption.

The country would be truly independent when it is free from the claws of corrupt politicians who are only bent on enriching themselves at the expense of the masses, many of whom suffer daily. For the country to move forward and celebrate its independence in dignity, the government must stand tall and weed out all corruption, a bane to attaining sustainable development.