July 21, 2015 By Gabriel Benjamin
“I’m fed up! Are the government buses not working today?” asked Mariama, a student of the Annie Walsh Memorial Secondary School, Eastern Freetown, as we stood under the rain last Thursday at the Lumley bus stop waiting for the government buses.
“Haven’t you read the press release from the Sierra Leone Road Transport Corporation (SLRTC) that the buses will be out of service till 20th July?” Conteh, a Circular Road commuter asked.
“Who told you?” asked Abdullah, an Eastern Police commuter.”
“Very true! What he [Conteh] is saying is correct. I also heard it,” replied Mariama, another commuter who works with an NGO at Kissy Road. She continued, “They are all business people as far as I am concern. Corruption has spoiled this country.”
“Tell them!” Conteh said, deadpan.
In down town, a young man who identified himself as Ibrahim Turay says, “I want to believe the government is telling us the truth about the new 100 buses.”
Soon, a bus arrived – not the government bus. Suddenly, everyone scrambled to get on it. “Sister, shift, this seat is for four people,” said a passenger, as he squeezed himself through the window into the small middle seat of the white Nissan Coaster bus heading for Eastern police. Eventually, he moved to the back seat as he held on tight to a black plastic bag.
Two weeks ago, President Ernest Bai Koroma commissioned the new 100 buses that arrived from China. Purchased with a loan, the buses are to ameliorate the plight of commuters in the country, especially in Freetown.
Ordinarily, the arrival of the buses should put smiles on commuters’ faces. But it has elicited mixed emotions. Their arrival has not raised people’s spirits.
“We are praying that the situation in the country becomes better. There is so much deceit in the land. We are unable to earn reasonable income, yet the government has so much to spend on 100 buses,” says Daniel, who lives on Goderich Street.
Santos, an Allen Town commuter who was stranded at Eastern Police last week, tells of his displeasure over the false hope given to Sierra Leoneans by the Minister of Transport and Aviation, Mr. Logus Koroma, that there was going to be a free ride on 13 July.
“The false hope given by the minister last week made my day miserable, as I had hoped to have a free ride,” he says, as the bus he was in drove through Kissy Road to Wellington, Eastern Freetown.
Forty-five-year-old Mohamed of Calaba Town says that, bus drivers took full advantage of the situation on Monday. “They were provoking us with statement like: “continue waiting for the government buses”. Mohamed says that: “The arrival of the 100 buses only partially addresses the issue of transportation in the country; it does not solve our problem.”
Although the minister later announced a new date for the free ride, for Santos and Mohamed, it was too little, too late.
On the other hand, parents and students are happy with the arrival of the 100 buses. “Pupils and students suffer when they are late for classes and there are no vehicles available to convey them to school. This puts them under undue pressure. We hope with the arrival of the buses, this will be a thing of the past,” Fatima, a mother of three school-going children, says.
“I am concerned about the maintenance culture in this country. The sense that they are government buses leaves me with some anxiety and doubt. I pray and hope it won’t be business as usual, like the Gaddafi buses,” says Mansaray, a student of the Institute of Public Administration and Management (IPAM).
Titi Kamara, another student from Fourah Bay College, says, “Government should have provided sidewalks and put traffic lights at all junctions. For example, when it was raining this morning we were all standing in the rain. But this government decided to buy buses. Anyway, we must now make sure that no money is stolen. I will be happy if they can do that.”
“Traffic occurs when a vehicle impedes the mobility of another, due to electrical or mechanical failure, and this accounts for between 20 and 30% of road traffic,” says Kadiatu, a traffic police officer, who lives at Shell in Eastern Freetown. “The government should now focus on construction and expansion of roads across the country,” she added.
Saidu Bangura of Salvage Street shares Kadiatu’s view, but pleaded with the government to tackle the traffic situation in Freetown. “The arrival of the 100 buses will likely create more gridlocks, as some of them [the buses] have started breaking down in this area. Tell the government to do something about it,” he says.
There are far more serious questions to be asked, about how the government arrived at the decision to spend $12 million on the 100 buses, each costing $120,000.
“At such a difficult time for the country, why would the government spend $12 million on 100 buses?” queried Abdulrahman Sesay, a former Loan Officer with Pro-Credit Bank. “We must start learning how to set our priorities right, if we want our post-Ebola recovery plan to be taken seriously by the international community.”
Mr. Sesay’s concerns might be genuine because even President Koroma said at the 10 July High-Level Ebola Recovery Pledging Conference at the United Nations headquarters in New York that Sierra Leone needed support to rebuild its health sector.
The debate is likely to continue over the merits of procuring 100 buses at $120,000 per bus, the quality of the buses and whether they were in fact a priority at this critical time. For the moment, Freetown commuters are ridding the buses.
Analysts believe that the debate may end when the buses achieve their intended purpose of alleviating commuters’ plight or, as the doomsayers predict, when they breakdown and worsen an already bad situation. The jury is still out.