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On The Road to Kenema

August 20, 2015 By Abu-bakarr Sheriff

I happen to travel the more than 200 kilometres route from Freetown to Kenema last weekend to attend the first death anniversary of a relative who had died last year during the worst spell in the current Ebola outbreak.

When Pa Joseph Pius Mbawa (Rest in Peace) died last year, though not of Ebola, the family could not give him the kind of funeral he deserved as a consummate former teacher and respected community elder in the township. Thanks to God he was given a befitting burial in his home village, Lemeh, few miles from Blama in the Small Bo Chiefdom.

So for his family, friends, and parishioners, Sunday, 16 August, was the time to accord him that last respect posthumously at his former church – Holy Spirit – in Kenema.

But the date could not have come at a bad time for yours truly: for the umpteenth time since we started this journey from change to prosperity, the entire country was yet again gripped by fuel shortage!

What that failure by our administrators to prevent long queues at fuel stations across the country meant was that I couldn’t travel on a private vehicle (not mine). Hence I had to brave the rain that Saturday morning, 15 August, to catch one of the hundred buses (is it eighty-five?) that Minister of Transport and Aviation, Leonard Balugun Koroma, procured from Chine, courtesy of a special presidential executive order! And by sole sourcing!

It was my maiden encounter aboard any of the new buses, made famous or infamous by the garrulous transport minister, who often times reminds me of Professor Okong in Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah.

Let me confess though that the journey was smooth and enjoyable, thanks to the air condition and television screen. To reiterate what I had written in a previous piece, the idea of buying hundred buses was great for the shambolic public transport system in our country. In fact the country needs more public buses to take people within and to towns and cities. But the timeliness and prudence of procuring the buses have been superseded, unfortunately, by a bad and flawed procurement process, in my view. Like many, if not most procurement processes in the public service and private organisations, personal aggrandizement is what drives the process, with the attendant bad products that are often festooned for the public to see. The dire prize the public pays for this is the short life span of the badly flawed procured items. I hope the hundred buses will serve us for three years – warranty period – and beyond until we repay the whooping US$12 loan.

So, as I rode in the bus that day, lots of questions kept occupying my mind: what if the procurement process was more transparent and the appropriate buses procured to serve the country? No doubt Logus would have won himself several more awards than he already has! As I struggled to come to terms with the unfortunate ‘busgate’ saga, the superfluous checkpoints along the route caused me more displeasure than I had envisaged. A journey which will normally take four to five hours took an extra two hours because of the ‘Ebola checkpoints’. We had to go through five, yes five such checkpoints, mainly in the Western Area Rural District and the North. We were waved to go at checkpoints in the south-east.

Even as we remain vigilant, lest we suffer a relapse of the virus, I think some of the checkpoints are a little too many and should be dismantled as they cause commuters (at least some) great hardship on the way. I say some because I observed passengers on some vehicles, not least overloaded commercial buses, didn’t have to disembark. I was told the drivers ‘settle’ the officers at the checkpoints.

If that is true, then it is a serious breach of the much trumpeted safety measures put in place to contain the virus. But again, my question is: How many Ebola patients have been caught at those checkpoints? And since the president has removed key restrictions, is it not redundant that we still have too many checkpoints between Newton and Moyamba Junction, with passengers going through the same routine of washing hands and having their temperature checked? Some times less than few kilometers apart!

By the time we arrived in Kenema it was late noon. The kind of spectacle which greets passengers as they enter the eastern provincial headquarters, a city according to official sources, is not one to behold lately. The town has been literally taken over by potholes, a poor shadow of the early ‘60s and ‘70s when it played host to a booming diamond trade in the region and could boast of tarred roads and regular running taps. Not anymore!

Today, not only the central government should share the blame for employing a policy of distributive injustice in the allocation of ‘prosperity’ funds to towns and cities across the country, local leaders, not least the city council and mayor, are equally blameworthy for inertia towards development projects, the Ebola outbreak notwithstanding.

Perhaps the only good thing is that the ‘city’ and its stoic residents are beginning to enjoy night life once again, as was evident at Total and Kamboi night club. Yet awareness about the deadly virus is still high among residents. Not surprisingly, as hundreds died last year because the government made the fatal decision to travel with sick Ebola patients to Kenema for treatment.

By Monday, 17 August, it was time to return to Freetown. We started at 6:30 am but we couldn’t reach our destination until 4 pm because one of Logus’ buses – AKU 046 – failed a critical mechanical test at Newton. The rate at which the buses are breaking down, less than a month after they arrived, is worrisome to say the least.

And, until we get to the root of how those buses were procured, we may have done the right thing badly, for the benefit of few people, while the masses will have to contend with the burden of paying the loan over a long period of time. So much of that dream prosperity!

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