By Isaac Massaquoi.
The jury is still out over the success or otherwise of the action taken by the Ghanaian government to destroy the biggest slum in that country in the last few weeks. It will take a little more time before any conclusive statement can be made because there’s just the odd chance that after all the media hype that accompanied the demolition of the shacks in which ninety thousand of the poorest Ghanaians lived, the government might just lose their political nerve and allow the people to gradually re-occupy the slum. I say so because I have witnessed in this country how attempts to deal with the problem of street trading in particular have failed because the traders have skillfully manipulated successive governments, even blackmailing them for votes, so that we still have Abacha Street firmly in their grips. Now the upper part of Rawdon Street is also gone. It would seem that no place is safe from people selling things on the streets, people who ought to have been convinced by the policies and actions of governments past and present that that life in rural Sierra Leone where the majority came from was much more decent and worthwhile than what we have in Kroo Bay. So in the case of the Ghanaian slum, called Sodom and Gomorrah – named after the biblical city, which according to the Bible was destroyed by God for unbridled wickedness and immorality – some of the slum dwellers might defy the government and stay put. I have to make this clear from the outset, that this piece is not just about Kroo Bay. Here, Kroo Bay represents all the physical slum dwellings around Freetown – from those in Aberdeen in the west all along the shoreline down to the far east of Freetown. Kroo Bay also represents all those thousands of Sierra Leoneans who live in slum mentality in Freetown’s many informal, even wild settlements on the hills overlooking the city. I am using Kroo Bay because every time we talk about abject poverty and deprivation in this country, the first place that comes to mind is Kroo Bay. Ghanaian media say Sodom and Gomorrah, which is identified as the 10th most polluted place in the world with huge deposits of digital waste, came into existence largely because people who fled bloody ethnic conflict between Konkomba and Nanumba people in the north of that country in the 1980s poured into Accra and settled there. And with time, they were joined by other family members. In 2015, we are talking about several generations of people for whom Sodom and Gomorrah is home. It’s a fact that Kroo Bay existed before that disgraceful RUF war ravaged Sierra Leone in the 1990s, but there’s no doubt, absolutely, that Freetown became a different city in terms of its demographics and life in general after the war. Many of our people who reluctantly came to Freetown have not returned and the natural place for many of them was Kroo Bay-like places, whether near the sea or those informal hillside settlements that are prone to being washed away by heavy rain every year. According to Ghanaian media reports, Sodom and Gomorrah had become synonymous with armed robberies, prostitution, drug dealing and the consumption of all the filth that is emptied into the city’s drainage system. Kroo Bay and all the slums in Freetown are not any different. Many years ago, Abdul Tejan Cole, who was head of the Anti-Corruption Commission, described Kroo Bay as “a scar on the conscience of this nation.” That description took me straight to the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s speech to his Labour Party conference in Brighton in October 2001 where, even with the world reeling from the September 11 attacks on the United States, he made this telling statement about our continent: “The state of Africa is a scar on the conscience of the world. But if the world as a community focused on it, we could heal it. And if we don’t, it will become deeper and angrier.” We may have Hollywood celebrity type houses springing up daily at IMATT and in the Freetown peninsular, creating the impression that life was changing in Sierra Leone. The reality, however, is that the scar that is Kroo Bay – (please, use my definition of Kroo Bay), is getting bigger and bigger. It’s even threatening to overrun the rest of our showpiece areas. As the saying goes, share your riches with the poor or they will share their poverty with you. When Ebola reached Freetown, it is the same slums that suffered badly. When cholera strikes, the same people suffer most. So why do we continue to allow them to live in those places? The Accra Metropolitan Assembly described Sodom and Gomorrah as “not fit for human settlement.” It would have been criminal for them not to have acted after that conclusion. I urge the Freetown City Council and indeed State House (it will eventually land on the desk of the president) to declare Kroo Bay and its cousins as places that are totally unfit for human settlement. That will be a good step from which we can talk about other issues. Those other issues would include producing a credible resettlement plan for the people living in slums and indeed what to do about all those areas. All half a dozen or more people I discussed this issue with before writing this piece were quick to point out that this government will never move against Kroo Bay and other such places because of political reasons. The argument is that any action to take out Kroo Bay, even after declaring it as unfit for human settlement like the Ghanaians did would result in massive loss of support for the government and with 2017 just over the horizon, it would be political suicide to do what John Mahama’s government has just done. I understand that. Politicians have just one calculation: how could they stay in office forever without any opposition. Unrealistic as that may be, it’s certainly the kind of thought that runs through their minds in their ceaseless search for votes. I believe that they lose more votes with that scar called Kroo Bay constantly on the conscience of the nation. The most recent display of our government’s inability to be tough when they really need to was when they allowed a squatter camp packed with our physically challenged brothers and sisters to be established along Pademba road, close to the correctional center. Day after day, the authorities drive past the squalor but they turn a blind eye to that most glaring example of how unequal a society Sierra Leone has become. Is that how our governments deliver on housing for the poor? They have conditioned otherwise decent people into believing that the only way to realise their potentials is to form their own small colonies, thus providing NGOs with enough raw materials for their project writing and so on and while they constantly beg on the streets. So dehumanising for people who clearly deserve better for simply being born in potentially rich Sierra Leone Surely, our governments past and present are not the only ones facing such accusations. Even in the Sodom and Gomorrah case, the governments in Ghana allowed the slum to grow from an emergency settlement for people fleeing conflict, a bit like the ones we had in Freetown in the closing stages of our civil war, to a settlement of 90, 000 people living in the midst of unbelievable mounds of digital waste with all the consequences of that. In the immediate period after this action against Sodom and Gomorrah, John Mahama’s government is facing a lot of criticism from their supporters in those slums, but the rest of the people of Ghana clearly understand the wisdom behind the destruction of the slum. It will be the same in Sierra Leone. A government must be strong when it must.
Credit: Politico Sl.