Many Rivers to Cross

16 November 2005 at 05:06 | 389 views

A critical look by Karamoh Kabba at some of the recent pronouncements of the fiery mayor of Freetown His Worship Winstanley Johnson. Karamoh also has something to say in this piece about local governments in Sierra Leone and municipal politics.

By Karamoh Kabbah

Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest. How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest-and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man.

Some are virtuous, and some are impetuous. The Holy Bible teaches us that “Therefore whosoever hears these sayings of mine, and does them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And everyone that hears these sayings of mine, and does not do them, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell; and great was the fall of it." (Matthew 7:24-27)

It is almost impossible to ask Sierra Leoneans to desist from the habit of commencing non-religious gatherings with religious rituals even in the Diaspora where we are often amongst non-religious participants. Based on our deep-seated spiritual nature, I am compelled to start this work with a back-to-back reference to The Scripture. Spirituality: Christianity, Islam or “Traditionalism” is a vital element of our existence and it is a good thing.

However, it is not good that we cannot often discern when simple logic is laced with spirituality. Thus, I am compelled to use The Scripture to speak in a spiritual language we seem to understand.

Systematically, many Sierra Leoneans have developed a lackadaisical attitude to circumstances that often need a little bit of action, and a spiritual attitude when they become spilled milk. Often, we turn to God, "God dey," when the situation actually is in need of a little action to overcome. We often fail to understand that spirituality is sometimes based on the best logical inferences that are available to humanity.

Thus, the scripture commands us to go to the ant and consider its ways based on the premise that it goes about preparing for hard times to without an overseer or ruler. It is not a fallacy that a good harvest, and thus a less stressful rainy season is a result of hard work during the dry season. The scripture did not command us to fold our hands or go to sleep and only pray over our difficulties, it says, “Go to the ant, you sluggard...”

Having grown up in Koidu, I know that the Koidu New Sembehun Town Council local government provided jobs for many young men and women who finished secondary school, but did not have either the grades or the financial support to go on to college. Local council’s misappropriation -prone method of collecting market dues in cash is not the best recommendation in a modern world, but the market due collector position provided employment for the youth and most of the revenue the municipality needed to run its affairs then.

Before I completed my secondary school education, there was only one man who was responsible for collecting town council market dues in Koidu, and I believe the revenue disappeared in the “money Bermuda triangle” that had been created before it reached the municipal fund. He had his own boys (rough necks) and they were not town council employees. Nonetheless, they went about harassing rural palm-wine tappers for money or its equivalence in palm-wine everyday. Drunk, they became spiteful tormentors of other petty traders in their daily struggle to overcome poverty-an uglier tormentor.

The enterprise that was a source of revenue and employment for local governments lost its effectiveness long before the war. It became a private enterprise, as in the preceding Koidu New Sembehun Town Council example, for the circle of municipal employees, friends and families-so it crumbled. Simply, the acts of corruption we see in Sierra Leone today are only the symptoms. There is the deep-seated psychological malady that needs clinical attention. The treatment has to start in the homes, in the classrooms at grade level and in the higher institutions. One such book that shows how we destroy our societies at grassroots level is “Morquee-A Political Drama of Wish over Wisdom,” by Karamoh Kabba and published by the Sierra Leone Writers Series.

The local chiefs at chiefdom level stopped being creative; they generated little or no funds besides court fines. It was not a surprise the local governments at all levels developed a cap-in-hand culture, a culture that had fully matured at national level, when the central government became heavily dependent on aid. The laissez-faire attitude of the central government towards generating income from investment became a malignant-psychological malady that attacked Sierra Leone and spread right in into its marrow at chiefdom level in the small towns and villages. This is the culture that would become worse during and after the war.

His Lordship Winstanley Bankole Johnson, the mayor of Freetown’s comments during his recent visit to the United States is one major demonstration of some of the impetuous rivers we would have to cross to prevent poverty from creeping on us “like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man.” He came with an array of inconsequential bellyaching. Moreover, the Editor of Cocorioko, the most read Sierra Leone online newspaper, would call the Mayor’s belly ache, “a stunning revelation", when he interviewed him.

According to Cocorioko, the mayor griped: “Unlike past holders of his office, he has no official car. The Minister of Local Government, Mr. Sidikie Brima, told me that all councils in the country were equal and that the Freetown City Council was no better than the others,” when he asked the minister for an official car for the mayor.
How could a mayor who is stuck with a dirty city be crying for an official car? A mayor concerned about the affairs of his city would argue that the ministers do not deserve those big cars in which they drive past the mounds of garbage in rolled-up windows, noticing nary the effluvium the street-side mounds of dumpsters produce, instead of the edacious desire he also demonstrated for his own big car to join the irresponsible behavior.

The Editor further writes: “The Mayor said that the government also diminishes him during public functions. He stated that when dignitaries at public functions were being introduced, he was always left at the bottom of the barrel. Principals of schools and religious leaders would be introduced before passing reference was made to him. At times, they make no reference to him at all, he explained. The Mayor condemned this cheap maneuver to make him look small and unimportant, a ploy being done deliberately to get at him. He said the government knew that in the hierarchy, it is the Speaker of Parliament first, then the Chief Justice and the Mayor.”

Before us is the paradox in leadership; flatly, the mayor is inconsequential, he runs one of the dirtiest cities in the world, yet wants to be recognized for doing so much about it. The mayor went on grumbling constantly about many other things that have nothing to do with the state of his dirty city even though he has received half of the money, Le462 million out of the Le900 million he needed to clean the city. At least we expect to see half of the garbage disappear and then complain.

In his own words according to Gibril Koroma of The Patriotic Vanguard, the mayor states: “Asked what he does with market dues and city rates, Johnson said: ‘the system of market dues collection in place when he took over was extremely lax and corrupt with the collectors enriching themselves by pocketing a lot of what they collect.’ He said modalities to correct that are now in place.” This only confirms my childhood anecdote and exposes the mayor’s incompetence. It simply means that the president must come to the city council office and control his source of revenue against his own employees.
On a good note though, here is the first public servant who according to him is not juicing the public funds, but actually taking a 1500 pounds loan to run the city. “Asked what he is doing with the little resources at his disposal, mayor
Johnson said he raised 1500 pounds sterling personal credit to buy spare
parts for the four garbage trucks the city is now using and that there
are many cases in which he had to use personal resources to do the work of
council including paying customs duties for the aforementioned spare parts.” With personal funds? What is puzzling though, the mayor is very adamant about the official vehicle from the government while using personal funds for public works.

What is more, the mayor’s moaning in the United States is entirely different from his earlier remarks when “The newly renovated offices of the Freetown City Council (FCC), was officially handed over to the Mayor of Freetown, His Worship Winston Bankole Thompson, in a grand ceremony held on Monday 17th October 2003, at the premises of the council,” according to a Freetown based newspaper reporter, Theophilus S. Gbenda. Mr. Gbenda further wrote:
“In his remarks, the Mayor, lauded the government through its World Bank’s Institutional Reform and Capacity Building Project (IRCBP), for the tremendous efforts the IRCBP has made to ensure that the council is up and running. He called on government to accelerate efforts to reconstruct the damaged City Hall, so as to provide a conducive working environment for officials of the council. He revealed plans by government to release the long awaited development grant to the council by end of this week, adding that in a bid to compliment government’s efforts, the council is embarking on a number of activities to ensure that things work out the way they should. Contributing, the Project Co-ordinator of the IRCBP, Mr. Peter M. Kaindaneh stated that the project entailed the rehabilitation of the Freetown City Council, pointing out that the project had its roots in the decision of the Freetown City Council to approach the IRCBP, requesting assistance to undertake the rehabilitation of the council’s offices.”

When, Freetown, one of the dirtiest cities in the world became an issue of a debate on Leonenet Listserv, John Simbo, a concerned Sierra Leonean pondered:

"Fair comment Karamoh, that bit about the City not generating funds to meet at least some of its needs. That touches on something that has often driven me to despair over our country. It is our dismal record of revenue collection. I rather suspect that the main reason we rely so heavily on donor support is that revenue collection both at local and national level is pretty lax. The poor lecturer, teacher, police officer etc pay their dues to the State because such people are on a PAYE system. But these are small fry. I wonder whether others, for example businesses or the landed gentry, also pay their fair share towards revenue. I guess not. Perhaps those in the know can educate us all here. To that end let me pose some sample questions, answers to which would be very instructive:

1.Apart from a Government subvention, what sources of revenue are available to the municipality and how seriously and effectively does it pursue the collection thereof? I presume that the levy of rates on land and property is one such, or is it?

2.A look around the stores and supermarkets of Freetown reveals an impressive assortment of goods, from South African wines to diverse electrical goods. Importation of such products must surely attract some import levies but do they?
3 It is common knowledge that our vast territorial waters are plundered on a daily basis by an array of vessels mostly foreign. To what extent does the country benefit from operators who ship their catches to foreign lands? Indeed, is any revenue earned for catches that are for home consumption?

Until we all realize that the State is not a charity, which can expect to live on donations for all time, that anyone within its borders generating wealth in any manner must pay for the privilege, only, and then shall the country embark on the road to development. As for me, I am close to giving up that we shall ever get there.

It is rather unfortunate that the mayor does not have much to say about generating revenue through self-determination. Normally, it would appear that the central government has done well subsidizing a city of a million people with half of the money. If a city of a million residents cannot generate income to total its own share of the burden to mend its own affairs, the mayor has no business being a mayor. Besides the city council market dues and business taxes, the city could generate Le200 million by enforcing a Le200 city residential permit, per head, per year. No one needs to have a job to afford Le200 per year to live in the city.

Instead, the mayor came off as a jealous and disgruntled city manager because he has been sidestepped by his fellow donor funds schemers, now wanting to come up smelling like a rose. Until we face our leaders with straight face critiques on corruption and laziness, Sierra Leone will forever stagnate in its present handicapped status. I will speak out against the local municipalities in the same way I speak out against the present government for corruption.
t is not a coincidence that the nation needs more than half of its total expenditure from donors. The trend has a ripple effect on the local governments; they all need about the same amount to run their affairs. It is time for every Sierra Leonean to “Go to the ant...; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest.”