Opinion

Natin Pass Advantage

10 November 2010 at 03:03 | 1304 views

By Paul Conton, Freetown, Sierra Leone.

The wholesale destruction visited by the government upon Wilkinson Rd leaves one, at times, dumbfounded. Even during the darkest days of the AFRC what we witnessed then in terms of property damage within a limited area was child’s play compared with the havoc the APC government has wrought. The images before us are of an extended disaster zone, perhaps an earthquake of magnitude 8.5 or 9.0 Richter. I have lived on the same compound off Wilkinson Road for the last forty five years, and the first time I ever heard mention of a Wilkinson Road widening project was in a discussion with one of the affected residents in April or May this year.

During my extended stay in this area there has been, from time to time, public discussion of many other road projects to ease traffic congestion in the West end, most notably a coastal road project which has been talked about for decades. As far as one can tell this particular project, the widening of Wilkinson Road, appears to have been hastily conceived by President Ernest Bai Koroma and his advisers, perhaps in response to the impending 50th Independence anniversary celebrations. In its eagerness to gain credit for improving Freetown the government has not hesitated to bulldoze the properties of honest, tax-paying, law-abiding, citizens, while blithely ignoring the numerous illegal, unplanned and dangerous shanty towns that are springing up every day around the peninsula. Doubtless, tribal, regional and political considerations play a part in this biased and discriminatory treatment.

Questionable project

This brutality has been inflicted in the name of a project of questionable merit, and I say this in the knowledge that many of my compatriots appear to support it. It was enlightening to listen to the Minister of Works, Honourable Allimamy Koroma on a talk show on Universal Radio last weekend. The minister cited numerous other ongoing road projects, but the Wilkinson Rd project stood out as fundamentally different from them all and perhaps from any other major road project undertaken in this country. Wilkinson Rd. is an intra-city road. The vast majority of major road projects have been inter-city roads. The requirements and specifications for the two types are drastically different. The economic justifications are also wildly different. Wilkinson Rd is long and heavily urbanized.

Property owners have clear, uncontested title, in some cases dating back more than one hundred years. Many of the structures are substantial and they were built with the blessing and approval of all the relevant government ministries and departments. There are already serious, unaddressed environmental issues from the hills overlooking the road. There were numerous opportunities for lay-bys and parking areas to alleviate traffic delays along this road that went unaddressed for years by SLRA, which has to be one of the most hopeless, helpless arms of government. One was dumbfounded morning after morning to see traffic held up at Methodist Girls High School and Government Technical for vehicles to discharge schoolchildren, even though there is ample room there to create an extensive waiting area. Many other opportunities exist for bypass routes that would have substantially reduced traffic delays but these have all been happily ignored by SLRA

Regular users of Wilkinson Rd. will readily tell you that the vast majority of the traffic delays are caused by three intersecting roads – Aberdeen Rd., Murray Town and Congo Cross. The very long stretch of Wilkinson Rd. from Aberdeen Rd. junction to Lumley has no bottlenecks – the problems here being the very poor maintenance, the lack of drainage to channel the huge amounts of water coming down from the hills and the failure by the SLRA to properly demarcate the numerous opportunities along the road for parking and waiting. To lump these two sections – Congo Cross Bridge to Aberdeen Road junction and Aberdeen Road junction to Lumley – together and treat them as one is a big mistake and will lead to huge, unnecessary expenditures by a perennially cash-strapped government.

In developed and even developing countries traffic planning and management is an advanced science. Accurate traffic statistics and projections are essential for this science – one regularly sees traffic monitoring devices on the roads; I have yet to see one on Sierra Leone’s roads. In serious road projects environmental impact assessments and public consultations are mandatory. Before embarking on a multi-million dollar four-lane highway that will affect the lives of millions, in one way or another over the next fifty years, a few other studies – cost/benefit analysis, alternative route assessment, safety assessment - are all very desirable. If this had been a donor-funded project all these and more would have been done, and competent consultants would have been employed. The project would not have seen the light of day in its present form. But this is a government-funded project in Africa. Only in third-world banana republics can a president wake up one morning and say, “I want a four-lane highway from my village to the city!” (The honourable minister confirmed as much in his radio programme). And then a short while later, send in the bulldozers!

APC’s 99 tactics

The manner in which the project was started last week revives all the old memories of the APC’s 99 tactics, with threats and intimidation being the key words. The government positioned a bull dozer at one end of the road and gave residents the option of demolishing their walls and other structures or having the machine do it for them, with some vague promise of perhaps rebuilding walls on whatever was left of the people’s land at some later date. And once structures are demolished there is nothing physical left to show what was there or where the boundary was. Compensation becomes even more uncertain.

Are we thinking of the children?

As far as one can tell the safety issues associated with this project have not entered the minds of SLRA and the politicians. A number of major schools straddle the road, not to talk of hundreds of residences, and inevitably schoolchildren and others trying to cross a four lane highway would be at a substantially greater risk than at present. This is even more so because taxis, poda-podas and okadas, already given free rein by the police and the government, will be driving at greater speeds. (2) The government is trying to avoid paying compensation, and this means that many structures will find themselves only a few feet away from a major highway. Any major accident that occurs on this highway (and you can be sure there will be major accidents on a four-lane highway) could readily result in disaster for nearby buildings and their occupants. Think of the number of disasters and fatalities there have been in the last few years on the short, two-hundred-yard length of the Congo Cross Bridge. Now multiply this a hundred-fold. This is what we face with this ill-advised highway. Apart from death and destruction, the road will bring hazardous levels of noise and smoke pollution to those ill-fated to be living and working only a few feet from it. To decide, virtually on a whim, at a political level, without serious public discussion or professional planning that all this is of no consequence, smacks of arrogance at its highest.

Development or bankruptcy?

Development can mean different things to different people. For some, development is primarily a question of building minds and attitudes and sound organisations. For others, development is all about bricks and mortar. There can be no question the APC fits into this second category. When he first came to power the late Siaka Stevens did some good work. One thinks of the Congo Cross bridge and Aberdeen Bridge, monuments that have stood the test of time. But as the APC got madder and madder during its 24-year rule it increasingly turned to grandiose projects the country could not afford rather than real people-based development, culminating in the most disastrous prestige project of all: the hosting of the OAU Heads of State Conference, which bankrupted us and set the stage for the war and our 30-year malaise. Siaka Stevens was hailed and glorified at the time for bringing ‘development’ to Sierra Leone. When one thinks about all the ‘developments’ that were initiated for the OAU conference one can only shake one’s head: the new hotels, Bintumani and Mammy Yoko, and the expansion of Cape Sierra have only seen a decline in tourist numbers. The Lumley approaches, with the huge new roundabout that was supposed to welcome visitors to Freetown’s glittering crown jewel, can now best be described as Aberdeen fakai.

The big, new ferries that were bought to bring the visitors across from Lunghi are rusting carcasses and the Sierra Leone Ports Authority has been unable to replace them. The specially installed street and traffic lights were abandoned soon after the conference ended. Parts of the Heads of State village lie in ruins. The Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service, outfitted with brand new broadcast-quality colour equipment, later collapsed completely and does not now have anything near the professionalism it had then. The list goes on and on. All were large-scale ‘developments’ that turned out to be unsustainable. In short, they were not developments. One might say, “This is a road. Roads are different. Look at the Waterloo New Road. Was that not a good thing?” Yes, certainly inter-city (as opposed to intra-city) four-lane highways greatly facilitate the movement of people and goods over long distances. But even here there is a downside. The rise of the road system, including the Waterloo New Road, coincided with the demise of the railway, which many to this day consider our most serious economic mistake. And one only needs to walk a few hundred yards to the old Waterloo Rd to see the squalor in which residents now live and work on what was once a proud thoroughfare. So this ‘development’ did not come for everyone.

Budding megalomaniacs

Which brings to mind the point that Siaka Stevens, for all his one-party rule and violent political tactics, seldom used force majeure to dispossess citizens of their property for the purposes of implementing his ‘developments’, and even more rarely was this done without compensation. Much of the Waterloo New Road was laid out on virgin land, causing minimal damage to existing structures on the old road. All the Freetown projects I can think of, The National Stadium, the Youyi Building, the bridges, the hotels, Heads of State village etc were all implemented on uncontested land.

Daylight robbery

The destruction is a fait accompli. Nothing can now be done about it. There is still an opportunity for the politicians to look again at the road design. The government has embarked on this reckless gamble, spending millions of dollars from the nation’s meager coffers, a significant percentage of the annual budget, on this one, poorly-thought-out, intra-city road in Freetown, and yet politicians have taken a decision not to compensate landowners for the land seized in this exercise. This is an outrage, an abomination. This precedent would give government the right to seize anything, anywhere. This is a mass human rights violation inflicted upon peaceful, law-abiding citizens. These poor property-owners are in effect being asked to subsidize the politicians’ political ambitions, for, make no mistake, as much as ‘development, 2011 and 2012 are prime motivators for this grandiose project. One of the fundamental rights afforded to citizens by our constitution is protection from deprivation of property without reasonable compensation. The politicians should put their money where their collective mouth is. If the government and the country can afford this project then the government should pay market-price compensation for the land seized from property owners. Once they do that, people who, like me, are skeptical about this project can only hope that the benefits will outweigh the numerous disadvantages. If the governemt can’t afford to pay compensation for this land then it can’t afford this project at this time, and it should set its sights on more sustainable development.

Photo: Part of Wilkinson Road, Freetown.

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