Deja-Vu All Over Again: Still Killing Them Softly . . .

I originally wrote the post below on August 3, 2007. I have made only minor changes to the text to reflect the number of casualties and the location of the disaster, and to correct any anachronisms.

Today, 10 Sierra Leoneans drowned (many more are still missing) when their boat capsized on a sea journey from Shenge to Tombo, a village south of the capital, Freetown. Official sources claim the boat—which has not yet been recovered—was overloaded and did not contain lifejackets, in violation of the law. Many of the passengers were children. In spite of the shocking casualty figures, I am sure nobody will be held accountable for these disasters. People die, nobody answers for their deaths and nothing is done to prevent future deaths. In this way, Sierra Leone’s leaders continue to get away with murder.

Sure, the boat that collapsed today was—like all other means of motorized transport in Sierra Leone—old and rickety, overloaded with passengers and cargo. Sure, the water was rough where the Great Scarcies, swollen by recent rains, met the Atlantic. And sure, when God calls you, you can’t avoid it. Nonetheless, somebody should take responsibility for all this loss of life. Somebody should be held accountable. Somebody must be punished so that this sort of thing doesn’t happen again. But nobody will be.

Ultimately, no matter how this story is sliced or diced, one thing is certain. The government—the people who are supposed to be responsible for the welfare of the nation—bears responsibility for this catastrophe. But one question will not be asked: “Why were there so many people packed into a rickety, overloaded boat traveling up the Atlantic coast during the rainy season?” The answer is simple. They have no choice.

And why do they have no choice? Because the government has not bothered to try to make sure that people can travel from one part of the country to another without taking  their lives into their hands. And because there is virtually no public transportation network in Sierra Leone. Or in most of West Africa. The old colonial highways (and I use “highway” loosely because these roads are seldom wider than one lane in either direction) are in poor condition, unpaved, bumpy and barely navigable at speeds greater than 20 miles an hour. To go by land, would-be passengers have to cram themselves into . . . you guessed it . . . old, rickety, and overloaded minibuses. Secondly, there are no major roads that run from Freetown due north. Passengers would have to go towards the center of the country and transfer at one of the major junctions. Finally, the transportation system is a neoliberal freemarketeer’s wet dream come true. Drivers only go where there is demand, and the evidence of demand is a full vehicle. Passengers wait, sometimes longer than an hour, until the vehicle cannot hold another person or item of luggage. If you’re traveling from Freetown to another part of Sierra Leone, it doesn’t matter how you decide to get there. Traveling by sea or road is a costly, crowded, and uncomfortable experience. And you may not survive the trip.

Since independence, the country’s infrastructure has slowly been falling apart. Official corruption and public apathy—more accurately fatalism—have resulted in the literal and physical deterioration of every aspect of social life: housing, health care, education, transportation. Everything is falling apart. The recently ended civil war, which raged for a decade and a half, did nothing to improve the situation.

Now the war is over. It’s been over since 2003. And what has this meant for infrastructure in Sierra Leone? Not much, except that the international community has done a good job of rebuilding and refurbishing the main commercial and administrative buildings in the capital’s city center. When I was there last September, my guide pointed out all the buildings that had been rebuilt by the British, the French, the EU, the UN but I didn’t see a single building that had been rebuilt by the Sierra Leonean government.

“But,” I hear you say, “isn’t it a lot to ask of the fragile new administration of a post-conflict-country to invest huge sums of revenue into reconstruction?” Fair enough. But if they can’t or don’t spend money on rebuilding the country, what can or do they spend revenues on? Last time I checked, it was the duty of a government to provide for the wellbeing of its people. Certainly I’m not naive enough to believe that the government must do so out of altruism but the Sierra Leonean government is failing at performing its basic role even if we look at it from purely economic terms. How can the country progress economically without a reliable and comprehensive transportation system, a requirement for even the most primitive systems of trade and commerce?

Besides, not having enough money is no excuse. Isn’t it part of the government’s job to have money? Whether through loans or foreign aid or domestic revenue generation, it is up to the government to generate revenue, which can then be reinvested into the economy. Despite what we hear about the role of government in the US, this is actually how modern, industrialized and—dare I say it—civilized countries function. Sure there’s a role for the market and the entrepreneur and all that good stuff but even the most die-hard advocates of the free market would never claim that the market exists to serve the public good. Entrepreneurs will tell you that they are in the business of seeking profits, not serving the public good. So, if the market won’t do it, who should? I say the government should. Find me one modern, industrialized, civilized country in which the government does nothing to provide for the public good.

Which brings me to my greater point. The government of Sierra Leone does not give a sh*t about the people of Sierra Leone. Since indepencence—46 years ago—Sierra Leone’s leaders (like the leaders of much of the “developing” world) have been busy enriching themselves. Sure, colonialism left homogenous, un-diversified economies throughout sub-Saharan Africa that were dependent on European economies for their survival. And yes, structural adjustments took a grievous toll on social welfare programs in developing countries but the time has come to call a spade a spade. African leaders don’t care about their people. They have never cared about their people. In the ’60s and ’70s, Sierra Leone was a decent place to live, with passable roads, round-the-clock electricity, and running water in the capital (the “provinces” were always a different story).

On my recent trip, however, Freetown had become like the provinces. Roads in the once-affluent western suburbs were now rutted and potholed, the asphalt broken up by tank treads from the days of the war and the soil underneath washed away by rain. Where there were once sidewalks, I saw deep ravines and gullies where water had eroded the soil on the side of the road. In some places, so much of the road had been washed away that two cars traveling in opposite directions could not pass each other along the same narrow stretch of road. And the roads are just the most visible part of the decay. Schools, hospitals, homes are all in a deplorable state of disrepair. More and more people live in slums and shanties.

Not everyone lives in dilapidation, though. I saw the president’s house. It’s a mansion that sits on a hillside overlooking the capital. Paved driveway, fence, swimming pool. But this man presides over a country that is slipping further and further backwards. But here’s the rub. The very poverty of Sierra Leone is what keeps these people in business. Millions of dollars and euros in foreign and development aid are funnelled into Sierra Leone—and many other impoverished countries—but how much of that money gets to the people who really need it? Having seen the president’s mansion, I have to say, not much.

The government of Sierra Leone is parasitic, and that corrupting mentality trickles all the way down through the society as low-level civil servants, underpaid and undertrained, scrounge around for scraps—bribes and other forms of official theft. How many people get into government because they want to make a difference, to help lift their country out of poverty? Not many, I imagine. After all, why has it taken so long to make that difference, and why is the country so much worse than it was at independence? Yes I know, colonialism and the international financial institutions must bear some of the blame but let’s not forget, Africa was not the only colonized continent. Yet today, Africa is by far the most impoverished region in the world.

Why do so many Sierra Leoneans who have attained professional and financial success abroad give it all up to pursue a political career in Sierra Leone? Because that’s where the money is. Take the former ambassador to the US, who had been a successful attorney and businessman prior to his appointment. Why did he go to Sierra Leone to try to get involved in politics? Why not lecture at the university there? He has a law degree and legal experience after all. Why not find investors and open a factory or some other revenue-generating business? After all, he had worked in the private sector before. Because he was not interested in doing anything to make Sierra Leone a safer, cleaner, or more comfortable place for its citizens to live. But he’s not alone.

Post-independence administrations—from Siaka Stevens’ on—have demonstrated a stunning lack of vision and imagination. As the rest of the world has moved forwards, Sierra Leone has slipped backwards. Why has no post-independence government implemented any policies for sustainable development? No large-scale, industrialized agriculture; no modern land, sea, or river transportation network; no new schoolhouses; no new hospitals; no modern air- or seaport; nothing! Just a government that maintains form without function.

When the president travels abroad, he is treated with all the respect befitting a dignitary. But every day in Sierra Leone, and in much of Africa, how many people die daily from easily preventable accidents and diseases? How many lives could be saved if the government committed itself to improving road networks and making transportation a faster and less dangerous business? Would the president be treated with such respect if he had lined the casualties of today’s boat catastrophe up against a wall and shot them all in the head? Sierra Leone boasts the world’s highest rates of infant mortality, with measles and malaria respectively accounting for 48 and 33 percent of all under-five deaths. What if, instead of having succumbed to easily prevented diseases, all these children had been gassed to death on the orders of the present government? There would be an international outcry, that’s what! No member of the Sierra Leonean government could travel abroad as smugly and proudly as they do now.

However, these people are not dying from accidents and disease. They are dying because the people who were elected or appointed to provide the basic amenities that would prevent their deaths are failing to do their jobs. Not having enough money to fix roads, build hospitals, or educate children should no longer be an acceptable excuse! Finding the money is part of the job description. Using the money to improve the country for everyone is another part of the job. Failing to do either of these things is the same as failing in the job. And failing to do one’s job is negligence. Every day, in Sierra Leone and all around Africa, people are dying from government negligence. But because they are dying from negligence instead of deliberate government action, the world looks the other way. Nobody is held accountable. The negligence goes unpunished.

Today, as 50 people go to their watery graves, we have seen one more demonstration of this negligence. With elections around the corner, let’s hope the next government is better than the previous ones. Let’s hope the next government values the lives of Sierra Leoneans enough to actively attempt to prevent such catastrophic accidents.

But I’m not holding my breath.