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My Sierra Leone Minister of The Year 2016

By Umaru Fofana The war was raging. Hate for the rebels was at its peak. People were baying for Foday Sankoh’s blood. Negotiations were unwanted by many. If at all they were to happen, the public wanted no grounds given.  But no one could win. Only innocent civilians would continue to suffer. Then came the US civil rights campaigner, Jesse Jackson who said in Freetown all those years ago during those rebel war days that a good leader does not necessarily FOLLOW public opinion; rather they should MOULD such an opinion or an opinion of such an opinion. I say the “opinion of such an opinion” because often times leaders and their ventriloquists - and to be fair even critics - just assume that people assume in certain ways. Not based on any empirical evidence. I would add that so long what a leader does is conscionable to them - no pretence about it - and is for the good of society, then so be it. The analogy may be extreme but such is what our leaders these days think or believe, or pretend to think or pretend to believe the public wants, that they carry out some of the most anti-people policies or avoid  doing what is right. Now, at a time when many of our public officials are busy spending time bitching about - or even going into a fist fights with - each other and making a nuisance of themselves, it is time to single one out for dedication to duty. At a time when winning the next election is being put ahead of the rights and welfare of the people, it is time to praise one of them who seems not to care about the political war booty. I hardly praise political office holders in Sierra Leone especially the current crop. This is because many of them lack the adequate relevant education, experience, track record, or even mentality for the tasks they are “assigned” to do. Many are bereft of initiatives of their own and spend time eulogising the president whom they make us believe is the only person with ideas and time to do anything. And such is the concentration of power and authority and workload in the hands of a single man that you wonder what those on the bloated-sized government are paid to do, if all they do is to praise-sing the man who gave them a job - perhaps more aptly A LIVING. That said, there seems to be a breath of fresh air - literally and figuratively - in the central business district of Freetown and in the action of one man. And it is heartening to know that president Ernest Bai Koroma has not flexed his usually populist muscles if only for political - not welfare - reasons. Motorbikes have been put under control somewhat. That is good news! In January 2013, I was at State House, amid so much shouting and screaming and pump and pageantry about an initiative touted to be like one never seen before. The operation with the most whirlwind name would produce the most bizarre result. Name: Operation Waste Management, Improved Road Access and Decongestion (WID). Essence: To clear the central Freetown business district of street traders and reckless drivers and vehicle owners. Result: FAIL. The person put in charge of Operation WID was apparently clueless in leadership yet she would be made minister of health a few days or weeks later. And her lack of a knowhow could be held partly accountable for Ebola taking foothold as fast and virulently as it did. Operation WID, if ever it was and operation, started failing just a few days after its launch. The politicians started giving mixed signals and mixed instructions. In fact they even recanted some of the things they had publicly said were part of the campaign. All because of political survivability. So you have to admire the courage of the new Minister of Internal Affairs, Pallo Conteh, who has decided to face the bull by the horns. No one is saying that the current campaign to clear the arteries of Freetown of motorbike taxis is without hitches and challenges. Some of those challenges border on considerations that border on the very fact that the government has failed to provide jobs for the thousands of people riding motorbike taxis, and it has failed to have systems in place whereby motor-able roads will lead to every residential area. These are the two things that have made Okada to stay, cockily too, in our society. The cacophony and lawlessness that used to rule the streets of central Freetown cannot be said to have disappeared completely but they have clearly considerably waned. Certainly that which was caused by Okadas has gone. I cannot say for good, but definitely for now. Now you don't have to look east and west and north and south - and do so several times and over - before crossing a central business street. Driving is once again pleasurable in those areas where these Okadas have been removed. The last time I spoke to a friend who works at the Italian-run EMERGENCY HOSPITAL outside Freetown and the signs were very encouraging. Many - perhaps most - of the cases in that extraordinarily lifesaving hospital are road accident-related. Most of them Okada-caused. The friend told me that while they had yet not compiled the figures in detail, the number of cases has “markedly reduced”. They cited the relative control over the motorbike taxis as “definitely a possible reason”. Pallo Conteh has not achieved this feat without challenges. Vilification campaigns by people who have vested interests in the trade have been mounted. Others with political lenses have attempted to put spanner into the works. But he seems to have shrugged them off as it is prudent to do, and has soldiered on like the soldier he was. I saw him walking, determinedly, along Adelaide Street and Kroo Town Road. Looking for the little recalcitrant uncontrollable Okada riders. No one is saying they should not practice their trade. Far from it! They are only being goaded and guided so they do so in areas that will not affect the peace and tranquility of the city centre which already is overly congested. I am proud of Minister Pallo that he has doggedly pursued an operation he believed - and rightly so - was for the good of the public even if it had the proclivity of denting his and his party’s political popularity. I believe that is a flawed assumption - that angering Okada riders would have serious political ramifications. In fact just as I believe that ridding central Freetown of street traders would earn anyone who makes it happen more political points that will cost them, so does inducing some discipline into the heads of some outrageously lawless Okada riders. Sometime around 2004/5, I attended a press conference convened by Charles Margai at Paddy’s Nightclub and Restaurant. He explained how he had been frustrated by his boss, President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. Margai had just resigned as Minister of Internal Affairs, or was about to do so. He said that a cabinet subcommittee comprising himself, then Lands Minister Haja Affsatu Kabbah and a few others, had been undermined by the president. They were to rid Freetown’s central business district of street traders but that Kabbah had at best shown ambivalence. Agreed that Margai had some presidential ambition of his own which was why he so publicly and spectacularly fell out with his boss. But the fact remains that no one disputed his assertion that he was being undermined by the president from carrying out a task that had been assigned them. So I entreat Pallo Conteh to reign in on street traders in the central business district. Even though Operation WID failed so spectacularly, one thing remains: clamping of cars which park in certain areas they are not supposed to. Meanwhile the street traders have multiplied in their numbers and in their wares. In fact it was the president who asked some of them to take over parts of Rawdon Street - for a short while, we were told. That has now run into years. Please Pallo, shine your torch on them too - that is if political considerations will not take the wind off your sail. I hope you and your boss will also MOULD and not FOLLOW (perceived) public opinion in dealing with street traders. Until then, you remain my Minister of The year 2016. (C) Politico 21/06/16