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TURAD SENESIE’S CHARM OFFENSIVE AND LANDS HONEYMOON

March 12, 2021

BY Andrew Keili

New Lands Minister, Dr. Turad Senesie has surprised sceptics with his new charm offensive. It would seem most people with land palaver wanted to wallow in celebrations first for the ouster of Dr. Dennis Sandy before training their guns on the “new kid on the block”. He came into the job with veritable Paopa credentials. With a long history of pro Paopa rallying of lecturers against the APC, he was propelled to the Deputy Minister position at the Higher Education Ministry by President Bio. The “rebel” was now forced to pacify his old colleagues who were still up in arms with disenchantment over several issues related to their benefits. Then came the recent reshuffle which sent him to Lands.

Just when people were getting ready for a new post Sandy fight, Turad has surprised everyone. His “Prince of Peace’ posture has kept possible detractors quiet. The Krio Descendants Association (KDU), whose women thankfully did not make good on their threat to march naked on the streets of Freetown to protest their land problems were effusive with praise after meeting him recently. His initial utterances at Press conferences have been so conciliatory that one wonders whether it is not an atonement of sorts over the Lenten period. He dropped one bombshell which is the most astonishing statement that any Lands Minister in recent history has made:

“I believe there has to be a change of approach in the discharge of our duties as a Ministry. The government will now focus on Country Planning and Affordable Housing as a priority while Land Allocation will be a secondary issue.”

His words were music to the ears of the KDU and all those who have been aggrieved over land over the past three years.

“President Bio’s government values and places human dignity and development above any other consideration………the problems in the land sector can only be addressed with all hands on deck with a sincerity of purpose……the time to find a lasting solution to land issues, especially in the Western Area, without resorting to litigation is now”, he has remarked.

It would appear the KDU was on the verge of dragging the Government to the ECOWAS Court. The threat of litigation however turned to prayers for Turad—-“You will remain in our prayers and receive unflinching support from us to ensure land justice in Sierra Leone”, the KDU representatives prayed, probably with one eye open!

The setting up of a Committee to look into land grievances since 2018 is certainly a welcome step in the right direction. Turad is right to bring Housing and country planning to the fore. Most of us are victims of housing and country planning problems. From those who live in narrow streets caused by people building too close to the road, to shanty houses and “pan bodies” in upscale neighbourhoods, to new Churches and Mosques with loudspeakers cheek by jowl with residential areas, to five storey buildings blocking the view of single storey ones to building in inaccessible areas which would not have access for vehicles, to living in areas that are not serviced by water and electricity, to building in water catchment areas-the list is endless!

These are for the more fortunate folks. Freetown has become so crowded it is now home to over seventy official slums, with homes perched precariously and subject to major hazards. The squalor in these areas and the effect on people’s health is alarming.  And who told you it is only Freetown? Though not as bad, other cities also face similar planning problems and even villages are not spared. I have never understood why villagers like building so close to streets, obviously causing themselves so much potential harm.

Planning laws exist for Freetown but are outdated and lack clear enforcement provisions for effective application. Unplanned and uncontrolled urban expansion has generated low-density development and urban growth onto unsuitable land (for example, floodplains, steep slopes, and coastal lines). Additional factors associated with increasing urbanization in Sierra Leone which have led to increased natural hazard-risk include deforestation, lack of zoning and city, lack of building regulations and poor enforcement and inadequate provision of services. The expansion and proliferation of high density informal settlements, without access to social infrastructure and services implies that a large proportion of citizens face everyday risks such as poor health caused by waterborne diseases (malaria, cholera, typhoid, etc). Inefficient waste management and drainage systems intensify the impact of these risks by spreading diseases rapidly among larger portions of the population. Zoning of the city is not being enforced and land registration and building permit systems have weak compliance.

One element of caution though is that Turad should be aware of the complimentary roles of the local councils in housing and country planning and work closely with them. The Ministry of Lands, Housing and Country Planning has traditionally been responsible for planning activities in Sierra Leone and building permits. The Local Government Act of 2004 accords councils powers for strategic local planning, preparation of land-use plans, and issuance of building permits amongst other responsibilities. Sadly these functions however are yet to be transferred, despite a recent proclamation by the Vice President to do so.

There are benefits of working together. Admittedly both the Ministry and the councils need to revamp their capacities but this can be done with the right resolve. If councils are given control of building permits they could determine how land can be used (e.g., commercial, high or low density residential, industrial), restrict development in certain areas for environmental and safety reasons,  improve on existing infrastructure to achieve better urban planning with a focus on water and utility, incorporate regulations for construction, building safety, and materials, set minimum technical standards for acceptable buildings and monitor construction to ensure that structures are safe and in compliance with building codes.

I rather like Turad’s statements about housing when he says:

“The Directorate of Housing on the other hand, will be working with partners to build affordable housing around the country for low and middle income earners, envision the modernization of towns and cities, replace derelict and shanty communities, encourage the setting up of home finance institutions, encourage large scale production of local building materials, work with the Sierra Leone Housing Corporation to improve on service delivery.”

Spot on, but Turad clearly has work to do!

The land problems however still remain unresolved and we cannot forget about them altogether. Minister Turad has rightly talked about modernising the sector and implementing the provisions of the Lands Policy of 2015. The policy introduces a Lands Commission and committees.  A Land Commission Bill is being finalised. The cadaster systems in the country are however outdated and inaccurate. Surveying quality is also inadequate due to lack of trained surveyors in modern electronic surveying and mapping techniques, and a shortage of equipment.  These problems would still need to be addressed by his Ministry.

Minister Turad certainly has his work cut out. A word of caution however came from his new found friends in the KDU who prayed for him (now we know why one eye was open!). They advised the Minister to rid the ministry of what they described as ‘bad apples’. I am sure this advice will also come from several other quarters. He needs to modernise his Ministry to respond to the changes required. He also needs the cooperation Government and other MDAs to achieve his objectives. This includes but is not limited to the Police, Infrastructure MDAs, Environment Ministry and others.

The Councils must however be allowed and encouraged to carry out their mandate in terms of issuing building permits and we should not see the internecine warfare that normally exists between government and councils on such issues. Lastly, he needs the support of government and funding agencies if his housing objectives are to be realised. This may have to be done in concert with other Ministries as well. A social housing and a youth jobs and employment scheme may for example need to go hand in hand and launched in various Districts. This may involve placing skilled youths in the housing construction industry into companies by trade (block making, mason, carpentry, steel works, etc.). Providing fair and affordable access to decent housing to the citizenry either through public or private investments needs the cooperation of financial institutions as Turad quite rightly notes.

Good luck to Minister Turad, but the Government may want to ponder this poignant observation by a keen observer of the political scene:

“If after three years a new Minister decides to set up a commission to undo the suspected misdeeds of his predecessor and also decides he will finally get to work on neglected areas of his ministerial mandate, does that not signal three wasted years and an overall failure of government to meet its espoused commitment to the people of Sierra Leone for this Ministry’s work?”

I am still pondering this!

Anyway what matters for now is that Minister Turad is on his Lands Honeymoon. It behoves us all to give him the support he requires until he comes back from his honeymoon (Please hold your fire for now!).

Ponder my thoughts.

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