A national culture of neglect is holding back Sierra Leone’s development

The Sierra Leone Telegraph: 23 August 2013

Cotton Tree - FreetownSierra Leone’s development and progress has been invariably held back by its dilapidated and unfit for purpose infrastructure, many of which are relics of a bygone age.

But the fact that some of them were built over a century ago is not at issue. What is in question is the alarming neglect that have been shown in preserving such heritage, adding to the environmental blight that is clearly evident across the country.

So what is the problem? Why are so many of our national treasures and infrastructures left in such terrible state of disrepair?

There is an argument, which states that successive governments simply have not been able to find the cash to maintain them. But this argument is tenuous. Surely, from an economics point of view, it would be far more cost-effective in the long-run to spend money on maintenance, than to abandon and replace later at a much higher cost.

What is clear though is that all credible evidence suggest that the lack of national maintenance culture is responsible for this mindset, as Zainab Tunkara Clarkson explains:

Like most other African countries or indeed developing nations, Sierra Leone has a very poor maintenance culture, which is responsible for the terrible state of many of our national monuments today.

Once served as the administrative headquarters for West Africa by the British Colonialist and a Mecca for western higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa, Sierra Leone is endowed with several historical monuments.

There are Victorian administrative buildings, college infrastructures, such as the S.B. Thomas Agricultural College – also known as Mabang College built in 1912.

zee 1The Annie Walsh Memorial School – my alma mater was built in 1849. The old Fourah Bay College building in Cline Town was built in the 1800s. (Photo: Zainab Clarkson).

State House, the Houses of Parliament, and other recently built public structures like the Youyi Building and the National Stadium donated by the Chinese in the 1970s, are all part of the national treasure trove.

Today, many of these structures are not only in horrendous state of disrepair, but some have even become danger to public health.

With elevators not working, plumbing and toilet systems producing strong unbearable offensive smell that is hazardous to health; some roads – full of potholes, posing serious risk of accidental deaths, the culture of neglect is pervasive.

The soil erosion experienced just a few days ago in downtown Freetown, causing the King Jimmy bridge to collapse and the Mabang railway bridge also collapsing, taking with it innocent lives, need not happen.

Unfortunately, this is a trend that would continue until we agree to do something about it, so as to avoid losing more innocent lives.

Every infrastructure has an economic lifetime, but can be preserved by investing in regular maintenance.

The deterioration of buildings and other fixed assets, such as equipment and machinery is avoidable; hence it is but prudent for government to formulate a national policy on maintenance, aimed at preserving public assets. It makes a lot of economic sense to do so.

Preventive maintenance reduces or potentially eliminates the need for major repairs and even the need for investing in building new structures.

President Ernest Bai Koroma has outlined a roadmap contained in his government’s Agenda for Prosperity, which includes infrastructure development.

Huge sums of public funds would be committed to this grand plan in building roads and new public structures, as we’ve seen over the recent years. But where is the national plan and or national policy to ensure regular maintenance?

While it is absolutely necessary and very much over due for us to improve on our infrastructural development, we should not do so at the expense of maintaining the structures we already have.

The entire focus on infrastructural development would make no sense, if only to abandon them and cause them to fall into decay a few years later.

Is the state of disrepair so pervasive because of the lack of expertise, funding or both?

I believe it is neither due to lack of funds or expertise, but merely the absence of a culture of maintenance and irresponsible leadership. I hope President Koroma would include in his agenda for prosperity, a plan for national asset maintenance.

However, I must hasten to note that, whatever the government’s intention, it is important that the public plays its part.

Our people are more likely to abuse a property if they think it is public property, and this include government vehicles, road signs, bridge rails, public buses and many more. We cannot blame it all on government

We need to ensure that these structures bequeathed to us by our forefathers, are valued and cared for; ensure they serve their purpose and be useful for the next generation.

We are all stakeholders in national development, and the success of the country in meeting the needs and aspirations of her people, largely depends on the public’s collective commitment, responsibility, loyalty and ambition.

Taking a panoramic view of developed countries like the US, UK and Italy, maintenance is not only part and parcel of their culture, but each successive administration strives to build on the achievement of their predecessors, whereas, it is the exact opposite when it comes to Sierra Leone.

Therefore, you would agree with me that part of the problem has to do with politicians believing in the construction of new projects during their administration, intentionally abandoning existing ones, put in place by previous regimes.

This is usually done either to belittle the achievements of their predecessors or to prove that they too have initiative.

This is totally wrong, and it is a detrimental to the socio-economic development goals over the long term, wasting needed resources for more pressing needs.

Maintenance is not a short-term programme and should be seen as something that is expected to span several regimes and administration, hence the need for a national policy.

National monuments like the Old Guard House, the Wharf Steps, the Gateway to the Old Kings Yard, the National Railway Museum, Bruce Island, the Montello Tower and the three Old City Boundary Guns are all rotting away as we speak.

We have to ask ourselves why similar structures of the same age in Europe are in pristine state, attracting millions of tourists a year.

Sierra Leone’s historical role in Africa’s development should make her a prime tourist destination, attracting millions of visitors a year. If we can get historical monuments back to their former state of glory, they might just prove to be the catalyst the Sierra Leone tourism industry has been crying out for.

There is an old African saying that “Old houses mended, cost a little less than new.”

Across Europe, these wise words hold sway, which is why buildings like Canterbury Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace, are still standing strong.

Many of our colleagues in other developing nations like India, have latched on to this too, which is why the Taj Mahal is the tourist monument it is today.

Even in Africa, the message is gradually getting across too, which is why Nigeria is trying to revive its 1912-built railway network and is looking to privatise its National Theatre in Lagos.

Hopefully, President Koroma’s programme entails such foresight and is aimed at restoring Sierra Leone’s dilapidated structures to their former glory. We all wait with baited breath to see if he lives up to his promise over the next four years.

About the author:

Zainab is the CEO of Community Health Initiative Empowerment Foundation- CHIEF and a Founding partner of VOSL. She has a BA degree in Business and Marketing and a postgraduate MSc in International Development Management.

Zainab has worked extensively in private, public and voluntary sector areas across UK in Senior Management position (non-profit sector). Zainab currently serves as a Chairlady and Trustee on the Board of the Greenwich Inclusion Project, as well as AFRUCA – Africans Unite against Child Abuse (UK).

She is also a Board Member of Teach For Sierra Leone and Greenwich Black and Minority Ethnic Forum. Furthermore Zainab is the Director of Marketing and Gender/ Children Editor for Voices from the Diaspora Radio Show.