September 24, 2020

BY Andrew Keili

This is a story of four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody. There was an important job to be done and everybody was sure somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry with that because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it. It ended that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done. To this date these four people are still arguing why Nobody did the job.

One good thing about Sierra Leone-things are consistent and predictable. Bridges have failed before, one failed last week and others are bound to follow. Even the recipe for these failures, which normally results in great distress to the travelling public and regrettable death, sometimes is consistent. Government functionaries and many government institutions step in often blaming everyone else but themselves and the government steps in like a knight in shining armour to spearhead the reconstruction of the bridge.

All of this makes the job of us writers on the socio-political scene so much easier. Indeed, I did write on the King Jimmy Bridge failure twice (the second one after someone mistook me for a bridge expert, whereas I may be considered more of an expert in blowing up bridges!)

I wrote at that time about what I saw at the King Jimmy bridge. On the human encroachment angle, I wrote:

“On either side of the bridge, almost underneath it were some old shacks that had housed people. There were still shanty house precariously close to the bridge and with appurtenances blocking whatever drainage there was. Vestiges of stalls that had been perched by the side of the bridge with some elements supported by the bridge could still be seen.”

I also commented on the effect of scouring as a major factor in bridge failures:

“Most bridge failures happen during floods. Flooding can collapse bridges in a far more insidious way — by gradually wearing away the earth around and underneath the bridge piers. This process is known to bridge engineers as scour.”

At that time, I commented in my second article (the one that portrayed me as an expert) on several issues, especially those relating to the complicity of various institutions after a panel discussion in which I participated. SLRA was being blamed for doing a poor job of checking bridges but they cited financial problems to fund their maintenance programmes as an excuse. They blamed the government of starving them and giving inordinate funds to the Road Maintenance Fund. The Freetown City council was blamed for not removing squatters and street traders from the bridge environs, but they blamed the Lands Ministry for non-cooperation. SLRSA was blamed for not enforcing vehicle axle load restrictions, but they blamed the Police for taking bribes from vehicle owners. The Road Maintenance Fund was blamed for not providing funds for bridge maintenance but their representative doubted if that was their mandate. The King Jimmy Market Traders’ Association blamed the City Council for not providing them a market but the City council accused them of not occupying readily available market space. The bridge residents (yes there are bridge residents in Sierra Leone, who live under bridges and do everything there including dumping foul smelling “number two bombs”, sometimes conveniently packaged in black plastic and tossed afar). One of them blamed the government for the steep rise in the price of “Djamba”, although I could not understand what this had to do with the bridge collapse.  The Police blamed everyone for being lawless and everyone else said “back to sender”. I, (the expert-even if for a day!) was the only one not blamed! When I got up to speak, I had the moral high ground to blame everybody else and advice about the virtues of good coordination.

It was obvious that Anybody could have done it but Nobody did it.  

Fast forward to now-this neglect of bridges and roads is still much too commonplace. Kudos to the Sierra Leone Institution of Engineers for enlightening us about how the Savage street bridge collapse came about. The joint Councils of the Sierra Leone Institution of Engineers (SLIE) and the Professional Engineers Registration Council (PERC) in their impressive report proffered reasons for the bridge failure and made good recommendations that should be mandatory reading for government. I will not even attempt to summarise their excellent report and “deprofessionalise” it. I will however cite some factors that reinforce the inimical role of encroachers, the general neglect of the bridge and the lackadaisical attitude of some regulatory agencies. The SLIE report cites Blocked weep holes, Diversion and restriction of channel flow, Exposed foundation on clay material which is also undermined by extensive clay mining, Foundation undermined by channel diversion – effect of the increased velocity of water causing scouring over time, Corroded steel girders, Construction of buildings encroaching on the watercourse amongst other factors.

The report states further- “It is obvious that traffic loading on the bridge in terms of volume and axle loads have increased significantly over time and have probably exceeded the load the bridge was designed to take; Encroachment into the riverbed has changed the course of the river, so that it no longer flows directly under the bridge opening.”

Of course, as would be expected Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody have been giving interviews and all have excuses, blaming everyone else. All the usual suspects cited earlier have said their piece. Government has again stepped in with its “Knight in shining armour role” promising to rebuild the bridge. Regrettably, lives have been lost (may their dear souls rest in peace).

It will however not stop at this, unless something is done. SLIE has given a similar verdict on the Old Railway Line Bridge, King Tom Bridge, Tengbeh town Bridge and the Pike street Bridge. There have also been reports of explosives being used close to the Aberdeen bridge

             I will not end this article if I don’t give a rudimentary lecture on road maintenance in general-especially for our politically inclined brethren. Road maintenance is politically unattractive – new road construction is more “visible” and produces greater political prestige hence the temptation is much too strong for any government to put an inordinate amount of attention on new roads and neglect old ones. Maintenance does not have the same status or does not give the same opportunity to stakeholders or decision makers to present themselves to the public. Politically, a new toad sells better than perching old roads. Yet even small budgets for maintenance make a difference with proper planning and the right priorities. The money which is saved in the maintenance budget by not maintaining the roads, is ultimately paid by the users and the society. It is often forgotten that building of roads is only a part of the total transport cost. While this total cost includes maintenance and building costs, it also includes the full cost of running vehicles on a road, an expense that climbs rapidly as the surface starts to deteriorate. As a road gets busier, maintenance costs increase. A new road is expensive and a two lane paved road could cost as much about 0.6 million US dollars per Kilometre on an average. Routine maintenance of such a road could cost about 10,000 US dollars per year per Kilometre. If the maintenance is neglected, it will cost five or six times as much to restore the road. Economically, it is an indefensible waste. Here ends the lesson!

On a general note, the debacle of the poor planning of Freetown is difficult to sort out with the population explosion putting pressure on services. However it would help greatly if State  Ministries and Institutions worked hand in gloves with the City Council in addressing the planning problems of Freetown. It is obvious that addressing such problems requires an inter-ministerial/institutional  approach and most of all the political will to make what may be considered unpalatable decisions. The issue of encroachers is a serious one and under no circumstances should the underneath of bridges be dwelling places

The funding of regulatory and enforcement institutions and ensuring that they function efficiently, meeting their mandate are important issues that the government must grapple with. The government should also be more prepared to fund road (and bridge) maintenance programmes- a stitch in time saves nine.

We must not sit by idly and allow another bridge collapse catastrophe to happen. Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody should work together. It has not helped that Everybody keeps blaming Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.

Ponder my thoughts