By Allieu Sahid Tunkara
The clock struck 6am; a team of Sierra Leonean journalists including my humble self were in a vehicle bound for Monrovia, Liberia’s capital for week-long media training.
The training focuses on reporting on Sierra Leone and Liberia’s extractive industries so that laws and policies that govern the sectors of the two countries could be reviewed.
The clock struck 5:30pm again, and we have arrived in Monrovia. The riding was smooth as the road from Sierra Leone to the Liberian border is being constructed. Approximately, 70 per cent of the Sierra Leone-Liberia high way has been tarred. Only the five checkpoints manned by immigration officers on the Liberian Side were the obstacles. But, it is security consciousness especially for a country that has experienced two civil wars.
The atmosphere in Monrovia is serene and accommodating. The city is sparsely populated compared to Freetown. It is no gainsaying that it is not as congested as Freetown. However, Traffic congestion closely resembles the one we usually encounter in Freetown. But, traders do not colonise the streets and sidewalks as Freetown traders do.
Duala market centre is attention-catching. It is full to the brim. Freetown atmosphere is very much prevalent there. The lyrics of a music titled: ‘ME NAR BORBOR PAIN’ done by a popular Sierra Leonean artist, Emmerson could be heard. The music portrays an undertone of ceaseless struggles and suffering for daily survival by men in the street. The music raises feelings of nostalgia for any Sierra Leonean visiting the Liberian capital.
Alpha Sesay is a Sierra Leonean trader selling footwear at the famous market. He speaks Krio well. He said he moved to Liberia few years after Sierra Leone civil war to seek the country’s economic fortune in the informal sector. “I am here to make money through trading as business is a bit better here compared to my country,” Sesay said. Despite the comfortable business environment, Sesay is poised to return home. “I have plans to go back to Sierra Leone after few years more,” he promised.
Another businesswoman, Isatu Jalloh also does business at the market. She sells cooked food and looks comfortable there. She said she hailed from Kenema district, eastern Sierra Leone. “I sell about a bag of rice per day and I am convenient with that,” she said. Isatu expressed no plans of returning home. She looks determined to stay in Liberia where, she says, business is comfortable for him.
Green is a popular colour for Liberians. Most important offices are painted green. The Free Port of Liberia bearing the inscription: ‘The Gate Way to Liberia’s Economy is painted green.’ But, the Freeport is all but name as it no longer operates on free-of-tax basis.
After few metres drive, we were ushered into the heartland of Monrovia where important government offices are situated. The Executive Mansion, the highest office in Liberia is there. It is the official place of any Liberian President. Currently, His Excellency, George Manneh Weah does not do business there. The office is being repaired after it has fallen into disrepairs for a number of years. Police headquarters and parliament is not too far from the Executive Mansion. The Judiciary, known in Liberia as ‘Temple of Justice,’ is also found in the heartland. In Sierra Leone, the law courts at Siaka Stevens Street are known as ‘Chambers of the Chief Justice’ of the Republic of Sierra Leone. However, the variation in nomenclatures is immaterial to the ordinary men of the two countries. It is the quality of justice delivered in the two judicial systems that matters.
Twelfth Street, not too far from Liberia’s heartland is our final destination and we were accommodated in a hotel located at the famous Atlantic Ocean, one of the physical features shared by the two countries. The ocean buzzes the rest of the night. It is also nostalgic.
Liberia’s social life is unique. Its uniqueness lies in its celebrated principle of equality. Society is classless, and government ministers do not hesitate to call an ordinary man ‘My MEH,’ meaning ‘colleague.’
It is the fourth day. The clock struck 7am. I and two Liberian journalists were in a vehicle bound for Sanequille in Nimba County. It was a five-hour drive. The road to Nimba County is sandwiched by age-old forest.
Recent history has it that, the 17-year Liberian civil war broke out in that part of the country. Gbarnga County where Charles Taylor’s rebels were stationed during the war was identified to me. According to sources, Gbarnga saw a bloodbath at the height of the war. However, the town is steadily enjoying an infrastructural facelift.
Liberia’s main sources of foreign earning are iron ore and rubber which she exports to other countries. Rubber is exploited by a company that entered into a 99-year lease agreement with the Liberian government. The lease ends in few years, and the rubber plantation soon goes to the Liberians although most Liberians say is the worst contract any government can go into.
Liberia and Sierra Leone share a lot in common to the extent that one would say both are one. The history, culture and governance models of the two countries are almost the same.
Liberia was founded for freed slaves by the Church Missionary Society in the United States in 1882 which manned its affairs. Upon their settlement in the colony, the slaves remarked that the love of freedom brought them there. Liberia did not stay long in trusteeship as it gained independence in 1847 being the first sovereign state in Africa.
Similarly, Sierra Leone was also a country founded for freed slaves in the 18th century for slaves known as the ‘Black Poor,’ the Nova Scotians and the Maroons. They settled in the colony called ‘Province of Freedom’ today known as Freetown.
The affairs of the colony were managed by a company of merchants known as the St. Georges Bay Company. The company rule of the colony was short-lived as it went into liquidation in 1808. The situation compelled the British government to directly take over the administration of the colony in the same year. However, Sierra Leone gained independence in April 1961.
To sum it all, the living standards of the two countries essentially remains the same. But, Liberia’s cost of living is a bit higher than Sierra Leone. A plate of cooked food stands at $400LD (Liberian Dollar) the equivalent of Le20, 000. This situation, according to some Liberians, is the widespread use of the United States dollars.
Liberia Braces up for Corona Virus, What about Sierra Leone?
Allieu Sahid Tunkara- The Watchpen
Hand washing and other health measures have been adopted in Liberia to prevent Corona Virus breaking out in the country.
In all important offices and other public places, veronica buckets with chlorinated water are placed at the entrances. No one is permitted to go into any of the offices without subjecting themselves to hand washing.
Upon gaining a foothold in the office, hand sanitizers are on the tables to be used by employees and visitors. Hand shaking is slowly shrinking. Health workers are disseminating messages about the virus. The media are doing the same. An editorial contained in one of the respected Liberian newspapers known as Front Page dated March 3, 2019 is mobilising government effort to intensify Corona Virus preventive measures. The headline reads: 2019 NOVEL CORONA VIRUS HAS NOW HIT CLOSER TO HOME: ARE WE READY JUST IN CASE?
New Narratives in Monrovia is a media capacity building office created to train journalists on investigative reporting in the mining sector. At the entrance of the office, a veronica bucket with chlorinated water is placed there for hand washing. It is a condition for entering the office. Employees and visitors wash their hands before getting into the office. Similarly, when one leaves the compound, they wash their hands upon return.
At the Ministry of Mines and Energy, a veronica bucket is also at the gate for hand washing. A security official keeps guard to ensure compliance. The guard is meticulous as he compels people to wash their hands without any form of compromise.
Veronica buckets are everywhere in the Liberia’s capital. At the Forestry Development Agency, hand washing is also compulsory upon entering the office.
The stiff measure embarked upon by Liberia is not unconnected to lessons learned during Ebola epidemic that devastated the economies of the Mano River Basin.
The deadly nature of Corona virus cannot be underestimated considering the death toll it has taken in China where it first broke out. Similarly, other countries are experiencing the outbreak. The virus has reportedly entered several African nations including Nigeria, Senegal among others.
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation in Africa and Front Page indicated that movements between Liberia and Nigeria, either by air or land are frequent. Although no Liberian has been diagnosed of the Corona Virus also known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, the government remains proactive.
Conversely, Sierra Leone, Liberia’s closest neighbour, has been declared a health alert state by medical authorities. But, the declaration remains a leap service. The country has not shown commitment to hand washing and other preventive measure of the Corona Virus. Veronica buckets and hand sanitizers are conspicuously absent in most offices.
The costly Ebola mistake is being repeated in Sierra Leone. The Ebola virus first reared its head in one of Sierra Leone’s neighbouring countries, Guinea, but the government then failed to design preventive measures to ward off the virus especially tightening the borders. Border security was sacrificed on the altar of geo-politics between the two countries, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
Dr Abu Bakarr Fofanah was the Deputy Minister of Health and sanitation and later became Minister of Health. He admitted during a press briefing at the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) Headquarters that the former government failed to take strict border measures owing to geo-political consideration. “If governments closed borders, trade and commerce would be disrupted,” he said at that time. As a result, the minister said, border measures were relaxed and the virus was let in.
It is no gainsaying that the Ebola epidemic was tragic in nature and devastating in consequence. Thousands of Sierra Leoneans as well as nurses and medical doctors including the country’s only virologist, Sheik Umar Khan succumbed to the virus. The country’s economy at the height of Ebola was nothing to write home about as it contracted from to 11.3 per cent to 3 per cent. Economists predicted, at that time, if government failed to take stiff measures, the economy would melt down to 0%.
Current trends indicate that the state is yet to show signs of learning a lesson from the Ebola outbreak. A nurse and public health officer at the Princess Christian Maternity Health Centre (PCMH) popularly called Cottage hospital seemed worried about the Corona Virus outbreak at the time she spoke to Nightwatch. Her worry lies in the seeming negligence by the state to come up with stiff measures to contain the virus in case of eventuality. “The country is under health alert, but the people are not doing what they are supposed to do especially hand washing,” she said. The health expert also spoke about the commonalities between Corona Virus and Ebola virus in terms of the incubation period and signs and symptoms associated with the two. She said Ebola Virus was very much akin to Corona Virus in most ways. “The incubation period for Corona Virus is 21 days and the same thing goes for Ebola virus,” she said. Contrastingly, some medics say the incubation period for the new Corona Virus is 14 days.
When Ebola virus subsided, the health official went on; many studies were done to let government know where it stumbled in the Ebola epidemic. The studies led to a design of health policies, programmes and actions to strengthen the health systems for the containment of viral epidemics. The failings and the successes of the Ebola Virus form one of the greatest experiential learning cycles (ELC) in Sierra Leone’s health sector.
A new virus is threatening the world and Africa and Sierra Leone is yet to apply the Ebola ELC at the time it is needed most.
The Sierra Leonean public anxiously wait to see hand washing in all offices in cities and urban towns, temperature testing, use of hand sanitizers among others. But, most importantly, Sierra Leoneans also wait to see simulation exercises to capitalise health workers in case an outbreak occurs.
By Allieu Sahid Tunkara