From the Editor’s Keyboard

Freetown is the Best City in West Africa!

10 August 2011 at 03:13 | 3730 views

By Oswald Hanciles, Guest Writer, Freetown, Sierra Leone.

In the three-storey tastefully designed yellowish gated building that house the international headquarters of the architectural and engineering firm, IDEAS Partnership, in New England, Freetown, the straight-talking Abel Onomake raved about the topography of Freetown:

“Freetown is an architect’s dream….because it is has undulating hills that are close to beautiful beaches and the Atlantic Ocean. In Freetown, when you put up a beautiful building on the hills, it can be seen far and wide, thus, the architect’s design can be fully appreciated; unlike in Lagos, which is at sea level, and no matter how beautiful a building is, one can only see the rooftop from the outside….Freetown is like other beautiful places like Monte Carlo, Switzerland and Los Angeles…Indisputably, Freetown is the best and most beautiful city in West Africa…”.

As Abel Onomake spoke to me, he stirred my vision as I saw great potential for ‘African Unity’; opportunities for the rebranding of Sierra Leone; and challenge to kindle those variables that would make more kinetic the still largely latent wealth of Sierra Leone.

Freetown’s Paradox: Slums in Most Scenic Locations

Swinging in a black swivel executive chair behind a starkly white desk in a white-walled room with white window curtains, the 52 year old Delta State, Nigerian-born, Abel Onomake, challenged Sierra Leoneans to come up with a Grand Plan of “urban renewal” to transform the slums of Freetown into exquisitely beautiful infrastructural spots. (“The paradox is that some of the best real estate in Freetown with the best seafront views have the worst slums – like Mabela and Kroo Bay”). Abel Onomake said that in 2003, “the Scramble for Hill Station” after the war led to dangerously unplanned domestic buildings.

That was when IDEAS Partnership and TEDA (Tropical Environmental Associates on Wellington Street in Freetown; owned by Architect Tejan Jalloh and Alpha Gibril Koroma) presented a ‘Freetown Master Plan’ for “urban renewal” to the Government of Sierra Leone (GoSL). It was snubbed by the GoSL. Onomake deplored the general “lack of confidence” among Sierra Leoneans, their failure to “think big”, and almost always snuffing out good ideas because of worry about huge ‘costs’. Onomake applauded the bold confidence of President Ernest Bai Koroma in his razing down some homes to construct the Wilkinson Road-Lumley and Juba-Wilberforce: “There are a lot of funds out there in the world that this beautiful country can attract. We can’t continue to restrict ourselves about fear of spending huge sums of money. And, the unplanned buildings on the mountains of Freetown could lead to horrendous ecological damage that will cause serious fatalities….”, Abel ‘preached’.

$200 Million ‘Secret’: HUMILITY!!

There was this aura of ‘pure Christianity’ hovering around Abel Onomake who was born in a Baptist home in Nigeria; who now considers himself a United Methodist (because he got married to Sierra Leonean, Alice Conteh-Morgan in the King Memorial United Methodist Church on Goderich Street in Freetown in 1994), but, now mostly attends the Flaming Bible Church in Kingtom, Freetown. When I asked him one of the ‘secrets’ of his company, IDEAS Partnership, founded in 1991 by Onomake and a Sierra Leonean architect, Seray Timbo (in twenty years, IDEAS have handled accounts “over $200,000,000” [two hundred million dollars!!), he told me it has been “humility”. I found this strange! I probed!

Abel Onomake said that “both Seray and myself are humble people; maybe, because we both came from large traditional families”. Abel said his father, a retired director in the Delta State Government, is presently a chief from Olumu Kingdom, in Delta State, in Nigeria. With a preacher-like tone, he said, “We are like our brother’s keeper” here. He said that every year he and his partner would attend dozens of marriage, funeral, ‘pull-nar-doe’ ceremonies of friends, acquaintances, business associates, clients - to which they would donate generously. “A lot of professionals ask us to do designs for them for their domestic homes as they are climbing up the professional ladder; and, we do it for them at low cost, or, even for free. Sooner than later, these people climb up the social ladder..”

“Freetown is Peaceful. No Armed Robberies. No Kidnappings…”

Abel, married in Sierra Leone (to nee Alice Conteh-Morgan, presently the Managing Director of Reliance Insurance Company on Percival Street in Freetown), with both his girls attending the International School in New England (Rukevwe, 11 years; Bevughe, 9 years), said he has stayed in Sierra Leone for about three decades - since he was recruited in Nigeria by Jarrett Yaskey & Co. in 1987 - “because Freetown is peaceful. There are almost no armed robberies here. There are absolutely no kidnappings. One can walk on the streets alone late at night without fear of being attacked…”.

Abel Onomake said he has also loved the “challenge” of relocating and climbing up the professional ladder in a country away from home. Abel is proud of his ‘second home’, Sierra Leone; and preens that his IDEAS company “is the only company he knows of originating from Sierra Leone with its headquarters in Freetown that has branches in Nigeria today…It is usually the reverse…”. (IDEAS recently designed the Air Force Base of the Federal Government of Nigeria based in Warri, Delta State; and is a permanent architectural consultant for the Delta State government).

IDEAS Partnership, is the consulting architects for “all the Nigerian banks in Sierra Leone” (the reflective beautifully-designed buildings of these banks in Freetown - Guaranty Trust; Access, Ecobank, UTB, etc. – have given Freetown emerging from its devastating ten years war a refreshing facelift); and also was responsible for the Standard Chartered Bank’s renovation; and designing of the Special Court of Sierra Leone building, among others. The strength of the company, Onomake said, includes the ‘hands-on-approach’ by its two senior partners who would always be on the site of buildings they have designed. “This seems to please our clients enormously, seeing the managing directors themselves closely involved with their projects…I designed the Nigerian High Commission building at Hill Cot Road myself”, Onomake said. There is need to use the ‘people element’ of professionals like Abel Onamake to help rebrand Sierra Leone.

Abel Onomake Can Help to Rebrand Sierra Leone

There is need for African countries like Sierra Leone to escape from the ‘halo effect’ perception that Europe/America especially has of Africa. Africa is generally perceived as the ‘continent of disease, poverty, political instability, crazy wars’. So much so that, most people out of Africa cannot tell the difference between Liberia and Guinea, Nigeria and D.R. Congo or Sierra Leone – all are lumped together as ‘Africa’. There is need for conscious and imaginative effort to bring out the differential marketing advantage of countries like Sierra Leone – and this can best be done not only by projecting Sierra Leone as the land of the best jewelry diamonds in the world, one of the best iron ore in the world, best rutile, some of the best shrimps in the world; but, through people like Abel Onomake, Sierra Leone can be marketed as the place where all Africans (indeed, all people) can migrate to, and grow up, and prosper: ‘The African Land of Opportunity…the Peace Land that is The America in Africa…’.

For nation rebranding to work, governments must extend the idea of good governance to the realm of country branding and marketing, and establish relevant ministries (or, institutions; not as we have done, to diffuse ‘nation branding’ among too many institutions) that will focus and coordinate this activity within the government bureaucracy. South Africa and Kenya have taken positive steps in this direction, establishing the International Marketing Council. Kenya has gone further, with an institutional “Kenya Brand Union”. These bodies, however imperfect, illustrate how country branding cannot be successful if it is conceived in isolation and doesn’t have an organizational structure within which it can be managed and grow over time. Nation branding shouldn’t be a trendy, one-off activity, but rather a function embedded in the country’s bureaucratic DNA. While leadership and strategy may evolve over time, the key is to keep the structure for communicating a nation brand in tact so that messaging to the outside world remains as consistent and clear as possible.

Branding in the realm of countries is not only about telling a happy story. It can also include telling a compelling and accurate stories in ways that are tailored to specific development goals, regardless of what they are. By gaining focus internally, even when it’s about difficult and seemingly intractable problems, country brands are positioned to receive greater outside support which over the longer term may reveal even greater development possibilities. So, when a man of the professional standing of Abel Onomake, a Nigerian, told me that “the head start” Sierra Leone had about a century ago meant that the first ever civil servants in colonial Nigeria, the first judges and lawyers, the first railway operators…were all Sierra Leoneans”, we have a ‘compelling story’ to go out in search of these ‘firsts’ who created the modern foundation for the greatest black African nation today. Through professionals like Abel Onomake African Unity can move from abstraction and morphs into soul significance.

Abel Onomake said when the firm of Jarret Yaskey went to Nigeria in the 1987 to recruit an architect, they wanted someone who was not married. Onomake was picked up due to a reference of his college mate at the University of Ife, in Osun State, Nigeria (where he bagged his bachelors and masters degrees between 1979 and 1987), a Sierra Leonean, Boyehga Moses, who was studying mass communication. (Boyehga is the brother of prominent Freetown lawyer, Chad Moses; Boyehga has made Nigeria his permanent home, inasmuch as Onomake has made Sierra Leone his permanent home).

No doubt, the essence of IDEAS Partnership is hatching and nurturing bold ideas: so, today, as President of the Nigeria Association in Sierra Leone, Abel Onomake is working on not only smoothening relationships between Nigerians and Sierra Leoneans, but, guiding Nigerian businesses in Sierra Leone to only minimally have Nigerian directors/managers in their companies, and where they exist, to have “express succession plans” where Sierra Leoneans would take over these companies which have Nigerian capital in them. Abel has bolder ideas in working on the rebranding of Sierra Leone and making it a magnet for billions of dollars of investment that would lead to hundreds of thousands of jobs. Abel dreams of transforming the slum areas on the sea front of Freetown in architectural masterpieces that you find in Hong Kong, New York, and Singapore….- earning for Freetown, with modern infrastructure, the laurel nature has endowed it, the kudos that the effervescent and peace loving people of Freetown have carved out for themselves, ‘The Best and Most Beautiful City in West Africa’.