Freetown flood exposes governance failure


September 21, 2015 By Abu-Bakarr Sheriff

For millions of Freetown’s residents, Wednesday, 16 September, 2015 was no ordinary day, although the day started like any other. The weather was bright and sunny in the early hours, but the heavens soon opened their doors to a thunderstorm, unprecedented, at least during my two decades stay in the city.

By the time the water levels receded late in the evening, a reported seven people had been killed while hundreds had to relocate to the national stadium to seek shelter. Many lost their lives savings as slums in both the east and west of the capital suffered the most of the brunt of what may seem like a one-off disaster, but which in fact had been beckoning for a long time.

The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) has been airing jingles about Sierra Leone being among three vulnerable countries to the uncertainties of natural disaster due to climate change. But apart from the usual talking nothing was done by way of proactive measures to remedy another catastrophe for an already Ebola hit populace.

The Office of National Security (ONS) has a disaster preparedness directorate and folks there would tell you they have been engaging slum dwellers and people living in dangerous terrains to move, but to no avail. Yet, the plain truth is that the directorate is a misnomer, and was quite unprepared for anything of that magnitude we experienced on Wednesday.

Just before this calamity befell Freetown, some parts of Bo and Kenema districts experienced flooding, with hundreds of villagers losing houses and properties. Apart from few individual donations to those people, nothing was heard from the government or its institutions by way of relief to those Sierra Leoneans. By failing to come to the rescue of those poor people in Bo and Kenema districts, the government demonstrated another failure in its social contract imperative with the people. But if such was bad, their failure to plan ahead of this latest loss of Sierra Leonean lives encapsulates an even greater failure of governance and by the government.

Just before this disaster, international news television stations like Aljazeera kept warning about torrential rains in parts of West Africa, including Sierra Leone. But as evidence shows, no one listened.

Where is the meteorological department? Why is it that they cannot predict the weather? The answer is that the department is in a state of collapse. The department lacks modern equipment, while staff are poorly trained and de-motivated.

It is no denying the fact ours is no quick fix situation, due to years of neglect and endemic corruption by successive governments, including the current one, on a mega scale. But because we are talking about the present and more concern with acting now in anticipation of our future collective prosperity, the current government should be ready to act decisively and not just bamboozle the illiterate majority with projects that will have little or nothing to change their lives from poverty to prosperity. In a heated debate with J.J. Saffa, erstwhile scribe of the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (then in power), our current vice president, Victor Foh, who was secretary-general of the then opposition, said: “The people care more about bread and butter issues.” In other words, livelihoods matter. So too the living standards of the people.

For a government and party that prides itself of being pro-people and pro-poor, after thirty-two years in governance, poor people should be proud owners of houses or being able to rent decent affordable houses, have access to good state hospitals and schools. Otherwise, any talk of being there for the people at all times is mere ruse.

The current humanitarian disaster which the flood has brought upon thousands of our compatriots is further evidence of a deliberate omission by government to act in the interest of the people. It also indicates that despite talks that the government cares, the contrary is rather factual, as prima facie they are reticent to walk the path of relocating those people in their own best interest, thus preventing another humanitarian disaster in future.

For years now, people living in slum communities have been told to leave. Or so we are told. But the question is what can government not do, not least when the president has “supreme executive authority” and “powers” enshrined in the 1991 Constitution to relocate those people for their own good and safety?

Ghana did similar relocation recently and the heavens did not fall! So what is keeping the leadership from acting decisively and reasonably in the interest of the people? Don’t tell me it is politics, as where any government truly cares, they will rather ruffle few feathers and do the right thing than allow their people to suffer like the way things have turned out for thousands at the national stadium and thousands more at homes.

Instead of going to ‘sympathise’ with victims when such catastrophes occur or mobilise the army and police, at very high cost, the current government and successive regimes ought to know that their inaction is tantamount to a callous neglect and feeling for the poor and vulnerable, and that as the looming danger persists year-in and year-out, it only points to one thing: failure, a monumental one at that, by the government and our governance structures to ensure the safety and security of the citizenry and to adequately provide their social-economic means.

Otherwise, what explanation would anyone proffer, if not negligence, for the age-old decision to leave people to live a perilous life in Kroo Bay, Susan’s Bay, et al? Just recently, houses were destroyed at the Aberdeen creek by the Ministry of Tourism and the Tourist Board. This action was justified both for the beautification and transformation of the area to attract tourists and for the safety and security of thousands who called the place home. So, why not Kroo Bay, Susan’s Bay or Mabella?

If the country and government really cares, low-cost houses would have been built over time for those people. Kenya did it for slum dwellers in Nairobi; South Africa is doing it for thousands of homeless black squatters, albeit with millions more still homeless or living rough. But the fact is, they are making some progress. Ethiopia and Ghana are all building homes poor people. So why not Sierra Leone?

If the government cares, why are we not protecting catchment areas in the Western Area? Why do we still fell trees and leave our hills bare and populated by big mansions instead of trees?

It is my hope though that this latest disaster will awaken in this government and ruling party a real sense of care and love for the people, to act and act decisively, with determination and will power. And instead of prioritising high capital projects like the new Mamamah airport, embark on pro-people projects like building affordable houses so that poor people will relocate and move out of harm’s way.

That is the way to an agenda for change and prosperity.