WE SALONE TIDAY
It was nice reading Pede's account of his stay in Freetown. A lot of what he described is consistent with my experience in Freetown for five weeks recently. I maintained a fairly low profile until the last two weekends when I participated in a program on SLBC.
I was in Freetown in February as well and was keen to return at the end of April. I love Freetown and make it a point to visit even when I am around West Africa attending meetings. My most recent visit, however was special. I was mainly interacting with people considered to be ordinary folks -- non-politicians, poda poda riders, traders etc. I did that deliberately because I wanted to have a feel for what was going on in the country from the perspective of ordinary citizens. During this trip, I did not travel as I do usually outside of the capital. Freetown is buzzing with all kinds of activities. The city unfortunately has lost what I consider to be the "character" of the city in which I was born and raised. In short, "class" as I knew it and lived it in Freetown when growing up no longer exists. However, aspects of it's past could be seen among a few people -- families that strive hard to make sure that it does not disappear completely.
The disappearance of "class" is largely associated with the transformation that occurred over the past twelve or so years. My reference to class MUST NOT be associated with ethnicity. Rather it MUST be associated with a way of life: lifestyle that was marked by discipline, close attention to sanitation and hygiene and basic adherence to the rule of law. Freetown stinks -- literally. Huge heaps of garbage in the city; uncontrollable street vendors who could get very aggressive when one tries to painfully avoid their wares spread all over the place. Because of the over-crowded conditions one finds in the city, filth prevails and many traders who roam the streets or have their "makit" spread all over the place do not a give a hoot about sanitation and hygiene. There are unsightly places that should shock any concerned citizen. Kingtom Cemetry, for example is desecrated by piles of garbage heaped on graves in some sections of the cemetery. The gutters of the city stink and where visible, contents in the gutters are nauseating. Yet there are many folks who sit by these pungent gutters having a hearty meal.
Besides the casual manner in which some citizens of the city treat filth, there are a number of what a friend of mine refers to as "gutter bars." Here one would find some elites having a ball starting around 4:30 p.m. until about 8:30 p.m., with some engaging in binge drinking. There are a few of these bars that are well maintained -- sanitary-wise -- and are meeting places for business people, Diaspora folks on vacation and politicians. One such is a huge favorite spot at Guy Street where one would always find people from all walks of life. There is another bar along Siaka Stevens Street that attracts Sierra Leoneans living abroad as well as local residents. I am told there are a couple of other spots in the city with similar clientele. In the outskirts (I am more familiar with places west of Lumley) one does not see gutter bars. Folks in those bars could spend time up till about 11:00 p.m. consuming alcohol as if prohibition was going to be declared the next morning. In the same vicinity -- the outskirts, notably Lumley beach area, some young girls, and I am told some young gay men as well prostitute themselves.
A major component of the disappearance of "class" in Freetown is the all pervasive lawlessnessthat is THE norm. The city seems to be operating as if there are no laws to guide the conduct of its citizens. The police are overwhelmed, and some blame them as being the very culprits who contribute to the acute lawlessness that one experiences not just in the police hierarchy and below, but in governance as a whole. So-called important people all dressed up flout the laws of the roads. One of the most dangerous, yet reportedly lawful practice, is the overwhelming use of right-hand driven vehicles. They are not only used by private folks, but by poda poda and taxi operators. Driving behind right-hand driven poda podas and taxis is a constant nightmare. The drivers stop suddenly and passengers alight on the path of vehicles behind these poda podas and taxis. Of course the okadas are above the law. They obey absolutely no traffic laws and the majority of them do not heed the police when told to stop during traffic regulation. The combination of lawlessness by drivers -- not just poda poda, taxi, and okada riders, combined with the cancerous spread of street vendors all over downtown Freetown creates an ugly, unhealthy and annoying scene. Couple the above with rudeness and you would have the perfect recipe for high blood pressure and other other hazards.
Moving away from the above, I had a wonderful time talking with ordinary folks as I mentioned above. We talked mainly about politics and their personal well-being. One thing that remained consistent was the manner in which they talked about the president, fondly called "Earnest." I give him a lot of credit for having successfully reached the man/woman on the ground -- a lot of them -- with a positive message. They like him. They see him as someone trying hard to do well but being frustrated by some of the people with whom he is working. Not that he is considered blameless, the fact is that a lot of the folks with whom I interacted suffer economic hardship, but they believe that he has excellent intentions, followed by some concrete actions mainly seen in the many impressive road construction going on in Freetown as well as certain parts of the country. In short, what I discerned was not so much credit given to the All People's Congress party, but to President Koroma. He has a huge goodwill capital with the people and my frustration is on how such a fantastic capital is not used to tackle the vexing and pervasive lawlessness and corruption in the country across the board. I believe, however, that if the elections were to be held today, President Koroma would win hands down. This is the anomaly that is glaring: a lawless nation; a population suffering from dire economic hardship at the ground/grassroots level; a population aware about the gross level of corruption by public officials; a population suffering from lack of access to basic necessities such as water. Against all of those problems, president Koroma stands to win a second term.
How did I try to understand the anomaly above? Well, I talked with ordinary folks about that in my search for answers. The dominant explanation was that the alternative to president Koroma was not quite the answer. There is a belief among some of the folks with whom I spoke that president Koroma must be given a second term, and that he would clean house and address all the difficulties mentioned above. All of this falls within the observation I made earlier, that he has a significant degree of support based in part on what people are seeing: for example, the development of infrastructure. Some may argue, as quite a few people do in the country, that one does not eat infrastructure. The fact is, however, infrastructural development in the sectors within which it is taking place creates employment, gives people hope and indeed ascertains a future that would be far more comfortable than what obtains presently.
To conclude, from what I gather, based on all of the above, the Sierra Leone People's Party and their flag bearer Julius Maada Bio are faced with an uphill task. President Koroma has the clear advantage of incumbency. It is not just an incumbency based on the occupation of the office of the president. It is one based on pragmatic reality: people are seeing the road construction going on for example. It is an incumbency that has successfully created in the minds of many ordinary folks that president Koroma as a person is well-meaning. It is going to be a herculean task to damage that image. His weakest spots are pervasive lawlessness and economic hardship. Of course ugly corruption is endemic. But people unfortunately seem to associate that with politicians, and the SLPP flag bearer is not exempt from that perception, given what even former president Ahmed Tejan Kabba said about him regarding corruption.
Nothing, however, in politics is impossible. I do not know what is going to happen between now and November that may gravely damage the chances of the incumbent to secure a second term. That is to say, one could not completely rule out a possible upset, given Julius Maada Bio's well- documented record of over-coming huge obstacles, including the much discussed extra-judicial executions -- discussions mainly in diaspora fora, and among some key journalists on the ground. He has his following as well -- significant to a degree. When the campaign starts full swing Sierra Leoneans may be treated to discussions on proposed development programs from both sides, and leadership issues that would make for a very interesting November elections. The people will decide and I hope and pray that the politicians will respect the will of the people regardless of the outcome.