By Julius Spencer
I have not expressed my views on national events for quite a while, but today I cannot but say something.
For the past two days, I have been quite tearful. In other words I feel like crying a lot. I have not been directly affected by the disaster currently engulfing Sierra Leone in that none of my family members were affected and I don’t know anyone who died as a result of the landslide and flooding. I am therefore a bit puzzled as to why I keep feeling like crying whenever I watch reports of the situation or hear about the agony of those who lost loved ones and property. However, after thinking about it for a while, I have concluded that my reaction is due to a deeply felt anger, frustration and a feeling of helplessness as well as sympathy for those affected by the disaster.
My anger is due to the fact that this disaster had been predicted for a while now by myself and many others because it was so obvious. The deforestation, the unplanned constructions, the blocking of waterways, building in valleys at the foot of mountains, etc. Even as recently as a few months ago, warnings had been issued and people had been advised to move out of disaster prone areas. The Sierra Leone Institution of Engineers had written to government a number of times about the dangers posed by the kind of environmental degradation taking place. Unfortunately all these warnings were not heeded by those who built the houses in the disaster prone areas as well as the government itself.
Everyone knows that climate change is causing the weather to be more violent and in Sierra Leone, the environmental degradation is aggravating the situation. Well everyone except perhaps our government officials. As someone said in a social media post, everything in Sierra Leone is viewed from a political lens and so good advice is ignored and political considerations take precedence over common sense actions.
While we mourn the lives lost, we need to squarely face the reality of the situation we have found ourselves as a result of many years of inept governance and find solutions that will ensure this kind of disaster does not recur.
As recently as 2015 we had serious flooding taking place in Freetown resulting in houses being destroyed and hundreds of people being displaced. Displaced people were accommodated in the National Stadium for a while then relocation packages were given to them so they would not go back to the dangerous areas. However, many of them took the funds and went right back to the disaster prone areas.
This brings me to the point of this article, which is the responsibility of government to do what is right, even if it is not politically expedient. That to my mind fits in nicely with the image of “father of the nation” which our President is. Now, if we reflect on the role of a father, we realise that a good father provides food, shelter, clothing, etc for his children, provides guidance and direction and discipline. There are many times the children want to do something but the father prevents them from doing it and even punishes them when they step out of line. A government has to be like a father, ensuring that what is in the best interest of the citizens, like the children, is what gets done, whether the children like it or not. Just like a father will not allow his child to play with fire or play in a busy street, so a government should not allow its citizens to put their lives at risk.
I have heard some reports which claim that most of the buildings in these disaster prone areas were constructed illegally, but as far as I am concerned, even if that is true, that does not exonerate the government from blame because those building in these disaster prone areas should have been stopped.
We have an Environmental Protection Agency that spends funds on silly projects like beautifying Wilkinson Road with substandard flower pots instead of concentrating on protecting the environment, government officials selling government lands with reckless abandon and all kinds of activities that endanger the environment by those supposed to provide leadership because many people are only concerned with amassing personal wealth.
I remember sometime in 2003 or 4 when Celtel (now Airtel) did the first Win A House promotion. My company was PR consultant to Celtel at the time and I was asked to help secure land to build the house that had been won. I approached the Ministry of Lands and land was allocated at Regent. We sent people to go brush the land but they were stopped by Guma Valley workers who claimed the land belonged to the company. I then went to take a look at the land accompanied by a Ministry of Lands official and when we got there I saw that a water reservoir was in the middle of the allocated land. I was assured by the Ministry of Lands official that the reservoir was no longer in use and I should go talk to the General Manger of the Guma Valley Water Company who happened to be someone I knew. We then went to the GM and he did not even allow me to finish explaining. He got quite annoyed and told off the Ministry of Lands official who was with me. I can still remember what he said. He berated the Lands man telling him that the ministry had refused to allocate land for new reservoirs to be constructed and had sold the land without any regard to the need for water supply, now they want to sell existing reservoirs. I left that meeting and advised Celtel not to accept the land. Eventually Celtel bought land on Wilkinson road and built the house. Whenever I drive past the location in Regent, I look at the area where the reservoir was. It is full of houses now.
The current government certainly cannot take all the blame for the current landslide disaster because the causes of this disaster started a while ago. I remember while I was Minister of Information, sometime in 1998 or 2000, the issue of deforestation was raised in Cabinet by Dr. Sama Banya because we had noticed that whenever it rained, a lot of soil clogged the gutters and was costing quite a bit of money to remove. A committee was set up to address the problem and I was a member of that committee. We worked with the environmental department which I believe was in the Ministry of Agriculture at the time and came up with a plan to arrest the situation that included significant tree planting. The budget was quite significant and the fact that money was scarce in those days, coupled with the fact that President Kabbah seemed to have a phobia for spending money caused the plan to be stillborn and the environmental degradation has continued to this day.
So here we are in 2017 and an unprecedented disaster has occurred snuffing out the lives of hundreds of our compatriots in a few minutes. Bodies are still being recovered and will probably continue being recovered for several more days and no-one knows what the final death toll will be. Should we continue with business as usual? I guess we have a choice. We can either get serious with clear sighted government leadership and halt the environmental degradation, remove people from disaster prone areas and ensure proper land use and country planning, or carry on as usual and have many more people dying through landslides, mudslides and floods.
Let’s make no mistake, this disaster was predictable and if nothing is done to arrest the situation, many more will occur and things can only get worst with time. So our government should very soon establish, as the Bar Association has already suggested, a commission of enquiry to look into the causes of this disaster and what needs to be done to prevent a recurrence.
It is time for the government to play the role of a good father and our Father of the Nation needs to live up to his name.