By: Winstanley. R. Bankole. Johnson
Last Friday “Freetonians” witnessed yet another major bridge collapse mid-city, along the Savage Street thoroughfare. The damage occurred right at the undulated area of the bridge which school going children of our era aptly called “Bottom Belleh”, because of its butterfly effects on our stomachs each time buses bounced over it.
The incident occurred around the 5PM rush hour for commuters breaking away from their various avocations. The fact that casualty figure was low when it occurred (one soul lost) on a stretch with a daily high volume of pedestrian and vehicular commuters between Noon and 3PM and between 5PM and 6:30PM meant God as usual, as in absolute control. Barely an hour to the bridge collapse, Traffic Police personnel had allegedly begun their sweep in expectation of the convoy of our Vice President. Considering the speed at which those convoys cruise, you will appreciate what I meant that: “God as usual was in absolute control”.
As is now customary among a perennially disgruntled citizenry, and reminiscent of the Peters Brooke/King Jimmy Bridge collapse, the Savage Street Bridge collapse brought with it its own version of blame game as to which, between the past and present government ought to have pro-actively forestalled such a calamity. One mustn’t forget that this very Savage Street Bridge had collapsed and been rehabilitated before under former President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah.
When the Peters Brooke/ Jimmy Bridge collapsed, the then opposition SLPP mimicked Ernest Bai Koroma “……who had promised…..to lay his life for the youths…..” exhaustively. A Politico article captioned “The Lamentations of Umaru Fofanah”, described the deaths of six youths as “early, untimely and avoidable”. It was also another opportunity for them to add yet another “forename” to earlier ones already bestowed on the APC Party Leader such as “Tolongbo, Toll-Gate, Panbody, Ebola, Mudslide” – Bai Koroma. By then Ernest Bai Koroma was past six years in power, but he neither considered them incendiary, nor provocative nor hate speeches to have warranted the arrest and incarceration of anyone. Instead like the tolerant and democratically committed President he was, he took everything in his stride.
In this country because of our loathing for one another across the political divide, we tend to forget that disasters – whether manmade or natural – are like problems. They affect only living things: mortals in particular. But the way we gloat when calamities befall our perceived enemies, or even attempt to lay blame on others totally unconnected with them clearly portrays that we do not fully understand that concept. For example eyewitnesses allegedly overheard the Deputy Minister of Works Philip Tondoneh partly blaming the newly constructed Mallika Hotel for the collapse of the Savage Street Bridge. As far as they/he is concerned that structure, like everything else of splendour constructed under the previous dispensation reeks of corruptly earned proceeds and must be destroyed.
It is that kind of malevolence and permanent existential threat for revenge and destruction that discourages foreign direct investments and makes one appreciate why, no matter how many MDAs are replicated there, indigenes do not bother to improve on private properties in their provincial cities and districts. The Mallika Hotel complex has not been taken down yet as allegedly threatened, but its operations stands severely constrained as the Police cordon have been strategically located at the intersections of Savage Street at St. John and Berwick Street as if to deliberately discourage patronage. Ideally they could have simply cordoned off the area from the Berwick Street/Savage Street intersections to have allowed the Hotel to continue its operations and help it recoup costs. And out of sheer respect and concerns for area residents, clear temporary directional signs ought also to have been installed by the Sierra Leone Roads Safety Authority (SLRSA) allowing traffic flows both ways between Berwick Street and St John to ease congestion.
When the Peters Brooke /King Jimmy Bridge collapsed, the mudslides occurred, and APC government woes became compounded by the twin shocks of the Ebola and massive slump in the global pricing for iron ore exports, the opposition SLPP Tabloids were in full gear tweaking their ultimate negative cumulative effects on our socio-economic performances as ineptitude on the part of the APC/EBK administration. And even up to this day, some would spare no effort to lavishly snide on the past APC regime by blaming some of the omissions of this present SLPP administration as defects inherited from that era.
A clear three years and counting, calamities whether manmade or natural have continued to recur. The only way to address or even forestall them is to treat each as an issue of national concerns impacting on, and inseparable from our private, tribal, regional interests instead of politicizing them as pro or anti- particular political parties. In other words for this nation to begin to progress, we need to de-politicize our psyche, and to start putting the interest of our country above all else.
Many have attributed the occasional collapse of physical structures (bridges) to an absence of “maintenance culture” in our Sierra Leonean mentality. For me that could well be a fraction of our woes. The major part of it is our propensity to take over administrations and governance with such vexatious spirits and loathing as would vilify and demonize our precursors at every change of political dispensation, with or without any iota evidence. Even at the Executive Presidential level, the sublime and accountable corporate culture of documenting “Handing Over Notes” to guarantee seamless transitions from the old to a continuation of development trajectories by the new is now discouraged. Thus every aspect of governance and administration have to be re-invented. The National Public Procurement Authority is a perfect example of that.
So what we see is that in their first two years in post they are basically groping in darkness, apart from basking in the enjoyment of their office ambience and the perks that come with them. And by the time they wake up to the realities another election cycle is here to send them packing in the same manner they dispatched their precursors – without their exit benefits if God forbid they lose, and irrespective of their statuses. This tit-for-tat practice has got to stop because a greater danger exist when it becomes the norm in any country to be overhauling key functionaries and entire Boards unceremoniously at every change of political dispensation – from the sublime level of a Central Bank Governor to the that of Local Court Messengers – purely because of their perceived political allegiances.
The aftermaths of the Savage Street bridge collapse reflects some similarities with the Peters Brooke/King Jimmy Bridge collapse. We were already contemplating the 2018 General Elections when the latter occurred, leaving six dead in its wake. We are another two and half years away from the 2023 General Elections when the former collapsed last Friday. The APC went on to lose those 2018 elections. Now if the SLPP should also lose the forthcoming elections, could it be right to safely conclude that any prominent bridge collapse represents an ominous sign for a sitting government? I’m no clairvoyant, but I have been reliably informed that in the spiritual realm, such major bridge link collapse represent broken links of trust and confidence between the government and the governed, no matter how many more bridges they build or rehabilitated.
Another similarity is seen in the same contractor mysteriously appearing promptly on the scene at each calamity – “Gento”. He was the only private contractor to have provided an earth moving equipment to the disaster scene. Back then 2013 he was a newly converted APC zealot from the SLPP. We were to learn from depositions at the recently concluded Commissions of Inquiries (COIs) that the Peters Brooke/King Jimmy bridge was completed at exorbitant budgetary overlays for which the SLPP cried foul and graft This time round it is the same Gento that materialized at the broken Savage Street Bridge site with the only earth moving machine – again. Like the proverbial chicken he has since returned home to the SLPP roost after the APC lost the 2018 elections. As was speculated after the King Jimmy/Peters Brooke Bridge repairs, pundits predict the eventual cost of reconstructing the Savage Street bridge will now leave him substantial surpluses that will enable him to finally address the trunk roads he promised his Thonko Limba kinsfolk some two years ago whist campaigning for the SLPP in a Local Government Ward Bye-Election seat in Kambia district.
If anything now remains, it is to implore government to please assist surviving victims of the Savage Street Bridge disaster with their hospital and medical needs. A young man in crucial pains with broken jaw bones and teeth desperately needs help. Come to think of it if God was not in absolute control and that convoy had been caught up as the bridge collapsed, nearly all of the casualties would have been dispatched overseas for medicals.
The commoners are citizens too.