By Hassan I. Conteh
At Kissy Terminal in Freetown a large number of people gathered while waiting for a ferry to cross them over to Lungi Terminal. Almost every morning people from different backgrounds anxiously wait for the only ferry, M.V. Mahera that now plies between Freetown and Lungi.
The situation has caused great sufferings for many people. It has not only affected ordinary people, especially businessmen and women, office workers also face similar struggles. Under normal circumstances, two ferries namely: M.V. Freetown and M.V. Mahera usually transport people and goods to and from Lungi and Freetown.
But now, M.V. Freetown has been docked at Lungi’s terminal due to technical problem (s). At Freetown’s terminal, hundreds of awaiting passengers could be seen standing in groups while grumbling over the discomforting situation that they find themselves in.
“We’ve been standing here since seven this morning,” a woman told me. Their frustration could be attributed to the ferry’s late arrival at the terminal. The delay to pick them from either of the terminals has hugely affected the travellers, who are mostly office workers who usually arrive late for work.
Traders who are transporting commodities to and from the capital city, Freetown could not be spared from being stranded at terminal points. They also get delayed at various departing points before they could get their goods to the market. The situation forces others to seek alternative routes of travelling on the sea. Many board local boats known as “pampas” to cross them over to their various destinations. As a journalist, I had to embark on a wooden boat when I missed the Mahera ferry on Friday May 21.
Currently, M.V. Freetown is having serious technical problem (s) and is undergoing some repairs at Lungi Terminal. It’s not clear when the problem would be fixed. Owing to its lack of operation, crowds of people could now be seen gathering at takeoff points waiting for M.V. Mahera, the only working ferry.
Knowing the troubles it caused travellers a few months ago, a man who dropped off at Lungi Terminal told us the broken-down ferry often miss its direction while navigating passengers. He claimed: “We don’t rely on it for now. Sometimes ago, it mistakenly lost its way and veered right to Guinea with passengers.”
Such a scenario raises more fears, as trust in the ferry’s movements to and from the two regions is nonexistent. But incidents of such nature are only murmured by passengers who are left with no choice but to boycott the ferry. And authorities at the Transport and Aviation Ministry hardly carry out any vigilant operation to keep vessel owners on check to speedily address technical problems affecting their ferries.
At the Freetown Terminal, ticket collectors and terminal officers did not appear bothered by the ugly situation. On a daily basis, money is collected for tickets from potential passengers, whose protection is obviously not guaranteed.
The situation has gone on for weeks if not months, though authorities pretend not to notice it by speedily addressing it. At the time the woman was explaining to us, it had already past 8:00 am when the first trip of the ferry should have started.
The breakdown of the other ferry has led to drastic changes in the ferries’ regulated hours of arrival and departure.
Instead of us leaving for Lungi at 8:00 am, we only left at 11:35 am for Lungi Terminal, which was Mahera’s first trip from Freetown. Other scheduled movement of the ferry has also been re-adjusted, resulting to abrupt shifts.
For instance, on Friday 21 May 2021, Mahera left Lungi at around 1:30 p.m. Its last trip from Lungi is now 9:00 pm.
The changes to the schedule couldn’t be communicated to the public. Although a woman who was selling tabs attempted to announce the shift in the schedules, she failed to correctly inform us on our way to Lungi.
In other words, she missed out the timing of Mehera’s departure. The ferry hadn’t a crew who should have done what that trader opted to do. Neither did it have a strategic communications unit where information could be disseminated about the comings and goings of commercial cargo.
In fact, both Kissy Terminal and Lungi Terminal are disappointingly dysfunctional to a very large degree.
In conducting our investigations, we noticed that the terminal hasn’t sophisticated navigational devices to make the work a whole lot easier for sailors.
Both Lungi and Freetown share huge commonalities in terms of commerce. Lungi, which is found in Port Loko District, plays a pivotal role in Freetown’s economic activities and the economy of Sierra Leone in general.
For instance, most of the agricultural products brought from the countryside are produced in Port Loko District. Fruits such as mangoes, oranges, pineapples, and vegetables such as green leaves are cultivated in communities around Lungi.
The town also houses the national airport which largely contributes to the country’s revenue base. Lungi Airport serves as a gateway to high income countries around the world. The fact is that Lungi, which strongly helps in the growth of Sierra Leone’s economy through revenue mobilisation, has an enviable status among provincial towns in Sierra Leone.
Through the airport, the town is on record to have created lots of job opportunities for Sierra Leone’s youthful population including elderly people. But the community has seen repeated neglect by successive governments.
Since the said airport was built, past and present leaderships of Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) have done nothing toward developing the community. Promises made by the leadership of ex-President Kabbah and current President Maada Bio couldn’t change the situation for the people of Lungi.
Under the administration of Pa Kabba, he promised to construct a bridge between Freetown and Lungi. In one of his speeches, he said: “I wound explore the possibility of constricting a bridge between Lungi and Freetown…” However, media and communications experts considered the wording of the president’s speech as highly rhetorical in nature. The fact that he used the expression, “I would consider” and the word “possibility” made it an absolutely vague statement.
Since he made that speech, nothing on the ground has ever happened. The promises turned into a provocative slang by then opposition members of All People’s Congress (APC). Despite the huge role that Lungi community plays in boosting Sierra Leone’s economy, it is still grappling with many challenges.
The community still struggles with electricity supply, provision of water, good roads, recreational facilities, good health facilities among other things. And the suffering among the people still goes unabated in spite of lofty promises by the current New Direction government.
Upon assuming office, President Bio cancelled the Mamama Airport construction project already signed by his predecessor, Ernest Bai Koroma. He however promised to renovate Lungi International Airport instead. His administration justified the cancellation of the Mamama Airport initiative on the grounds that such project is too expensive for government to afford, making it a waste of resources.
They went ahead and pronounced two major projects centred around the Lungi community. The one is to renovate the Lungi Airport and the other is to construct the Lungi Bridge as previously promised by ex-President Kabbah.
But both projects remain unrealistic as nothing on the ground has happened. The government continues to utter rhetoric around the unfeasible project. In 2019, government announced that the construction of a 5 mile Lungi Bridge would cost a whopping $2 billion. Many Sierra Leoneans then saw it as ridiculous on the part of the sitting government to have cancelled the Mamama Airport Project which should have cost the state only $400 million. What seemed to have baffled many Sierra Leoneans was the striking difference between cost involved in constructing Mamama Airport and constructing the Lungi Bridge.
Others argue that government officials deliberately inflated the cost for the construction of the Lungi Bridge to explore means of siphoning state funds. Such a gigantic sum of money, they argued, could build at least four standard international airports in the country.
“Let’s me tell you, these guys have politicised the whole issue about Mamama Airport Project. It’s simply because it was an initiative left by the ex APC President Koroma. This is why this country never develops because everything is politics,” said Ibrahim Jalloh.
Despite the New Direction Government launched a bidding process for the bridge’s construction, no investor is said to have honoured the exorbitant construction project.
After one year silence on the issue, the project to construct a bridge linking Freetown and Lungi has surfaced again. In his State of the Nation address in parliament on May 18, 2021 President Bio announced for the second time that a reduction in the cost to construct the bridge has been reached after several considerations.
Instead, the $2 billion that was needed for the project has now been reduced to $1.2 billion. But the President tactically shifted the responsibility to members of parliament who will have to decide on whether to approve the project or not in the interest of the public.
However, critics have raised more questions about government’s tactical avoidance of constructing the bridge without waiting for parliamentary approval. “This government thinks we are fools; they undertake some projects without taking them to parliament. Why did they have to delay the Lungi Bridge construction if they really meant to do that?” Jalloh asked.
Agreeing with Jalloh, some analysts said the New Direction Government has been pushing to pass bills into laws that seem to meet their political interests over ordinary citizens’. He made mention of the Census Bill and Cybercrime Bill which, he said, government is ready to pass into law after they would have taken 21 days in parliament without parliamentary approval.
As people travelling between Lungi and Freetown suffer due to fewer ferries to take them across, the New Direction Government continues to deceive the people with the Lungi Bridge 2023 campaign rhetoric.