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PMB Junction Fire: The SLPP's and APC's to Own

By Abdul Suhood Komeh,
London, UK.

Over a hundred fellow citizens, scorched to death when a petrol tanker crashed and exploded in Freetown, last Friday, 5th November 2021. By Monday (8th November), their charcoaled-remains are buried. Most of them without being identified by relatives - an immoral urgency, some might say. In truth, a pragmatic decision by the ‘government’. Conversely, the action speaks to how far behind the country is. We are challenged to safely hold mass bodies without causing even more problems.

Incidentally, Thursday marked the final day of national mourning. May the souls of those who perished rest in peace.

Many more have been left with gruesome burns. Some with injuries impossible to fathom a return to any modest dignity they once had. What can we say, but wish them good luck in what literally is the fight of their lives. Where possible, raising funds or making a donation for their recovery is a most patriotic and human gesture.

Hardly a guess. Most of the victims have spent entire lives in grotesque poverty. It’s awfully terrible they had to meet an even uglier fate. Unsurprisingly, the incident is the latest chapter in a national tragedy, written of course, by our political leaders. So unrelenting is this horror, our country only ever make global headlines for catastrophe.

By far, government negligence is Sierra Leone’s biggest disaster. Lack of foresight and political will by successive governments, is both fire and furnace that sets the country ablaze; incubates viruses; precipitates mudslides; engineers poverty and needless deaths, etc.

How is this for irony: last week, days before the blast, our ‘government’ and president, Maada Bio, were acting pompous. Spitting rage at one of the country’s primary funders of institutions and infrastructure, the European Union (EU).

Comfortable in painting dreamy pictures of its performance to captive audiences at the United Nations, our ‘government’ was shocked that away from its rhetoric, the EU took the time to consult with ordinary citizens. The feedback was as reasonable people would imagine. Institutions are in name-only, but empty shells that do not perform to function. As a result, the majority of people have zero confidence in them.

Asked how he was going to address EU findings against accusations of manipulating the (non-)systems for his advantage, the president told CNN the ‘findings were unfortunate’. That the police, army, judiciary, electoral commission and other institutions are working well, just as bequeathed. Which only begs the question: if every institution worked, what did Bio and the SLPP campaigned to fix?

Without favourable endorsements from citizens who interact with them, the president’s word means little. Him saying institutions work does not make them effective, or inviolable. Which is exactly why the EU informed him of their findings. A government cannot be judge, jury and defendant at the same time and expect to be taken seriously on impartiality.

And then came the fateful night of Friday 5th November. The President’s bluff is called. In a disaster of that proportion, and in Freetown, where the government had all its gear and ‘institutions’, not a single citizen was saved from injury or dying as a result of policy. No firefighters, safety Marshalls, police, army, health service - nothing.

The EU had its work cut out. Wellington was a graphic illustration of dystopia in a society without functioning institutions. Inevitably, a familiar picture is hung: dead bodies and the World Health Organisation, of which the EU is a member and major sponsor, is set-up in Freetown, intervening on our people’s behalf, yet again. What is government for?

It’s vital a sense of perspective is held here. This carnage isn’t exclusively on Bio and the SLPP. But Koroma’s and the APC’s too. And others before them in both parties. That the APC is silenced by the government’s mild demand to ‘not politicise’ a failure as political as lack of road safety provisions is telling. How can things change if the biggest opposition cannot criticise the government for a catastrophic failure? Simple answer: As before, both in government and out of it, the APC is just as deadly an alternative.

This has been said too many times. The biggest success of the SLPP and APC is co-opting the majority to a seizure of the country.

If we see ourselves less as party-loyalists, but citizens who demand justice for all, we become a countervailing force against the recklessness and tyranny of any governments. Only then can we stand a chance in the imperative that somebody is held accountable for the deaths of our people. But not us. Our undoing is this ritual in which supporters of the SLPP and APC highlight their rivals’ wrongs for political advantage. Only to downplay those committed by their side (see Miss Lara Taylor-Pearce), ensuring the country is trapped in a kind of hamster-wheel, going nowhere.

So what you get after a disaster like Wellington’s is never collective outrage at ‘government(s)’ for abandoning fellow citizens to their death. Instead, the chance of such a discourse maturing is disrupted by blaming the victims for being petty thieves and worse.

We now know, a good number of the victims were not fuel looters or idlers, but innocent people going about their business. They got trapped in busses and cars by the absence of the state/ government and the resulting confusion before the inferno.

There’s no evidence either, that without the looters the tanker may not have exploded. Petrol is as combustible a chemical as there is. In such a massive spill, heat from the tanker’s engine is enough to trigger an explosion. Also, in crowded open spaces with spilage trails, somebody - a smoker, or any conducive activity could effect a consequential spark. There are a number of possible scenarios to these things, all fatal. But without developing robust institutions that are well-funded, and responsive, we may never get definitive answers.

If you’re blaming the so-called petrol thieves, but not the government(s) that manufactured the dysfunction that led first and foremost to the tanker’s crash, and the desperate poverty of its victims, you’re wilfully or inadvertently providing cover for the government; you probably have never experienced serious poverty and hunger before. Therefore wouldn’t understand poverty’s coercive power to neutralise logic.

The name of the disaster sight, (SL)PMB Junction, is a profound metaphor for our rot. It’s the location for the headquarters of the years-ago defunct Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Board. The warehouses are probably still there but apparently Sierra Leone produces nothing these days. Instead, we roll-out leaders whose expertise is to look powerful by wasting and siphoning the little we have for their comfort.

The last president retired to a sprawling estate, half the size of its resident-city, Makeni. Imagine his less-than-thoughtful judgement in hosting the American ambassador and other foreign dignitaries, who have to drive through the most brutal poverty, en route to his opulence?

At the country’s expense, the current president honeymooned for a million dollars and hires jets for fun. On his return to Freetown after being told of the catastrophe, he waited in-flight, showed none of the urgency the tragedy demanded. Only stepping out after all the authoritarian protocol, including a red carpet, have been laid. But no, let’s blame drip-looters and pretend their culpability measures to that of those who took oaths of office to uphold the rule of law and order; protect the lives and property of the citizenry.

Without any serious productivity, our governments create wage structures that starve the provision of vital services for the people. By the time Koroma left office, the whole of Freetown, possibly a million people, there were only two fire hydrants - both, inherited. No knowledge here Bio has built any since his arrival some four years go. Making this disaster incontrovertibly the SLPP’s and the APC`s to own.

Any analyses that seek to shield them from blame, are disingenuous. Exactly why these things repeat themselves.