Sierra Leone Telegraph: 18 August 2017
This article was first published by the Sierra Leone Telegraph exactly five years ago, on the 16th of August 2012 to be precise. Here we are on the 18th of August 2017, mourning the death of over 350 people after a massive landslide on the Sugar Loaf Mountain, caused by heavy rainfall in the capital Freetown.
There is no denying the fact that the roots of this disaster can be traced to the uncontrolled migration of people from the hinterland into the capital since the 1970s, and the pressure posed by overpopulation on the city.
Freetown is the only region in Sierra Leone the creoles have known as their homeland, since the abolition of slave trade.
But since Sierra Leone gained independence in 1961, many creoles believe that their power base and political strength in Freetown – the capital city, have systematically been eroded and taken away by politicians, whose sole objective was to change the balance of power in the capital, as they embark on the path to social and political engineering.
The marginalisation and disenfranchisement of the creoles in Sierra Leone by successive governments, is an issue most politicians in the country are fully aware of, but few are prepared and willing to openly discuss.
There is widespread perception among many in Sierra Leone that the uncontrolled urban sprawl, overcrowding, deforestation, environmental blight and economic decline that have grotesquely changed the character of the city today, is a product of a failed migration policy that is designed to marginalise and disenfranchise the creoles in the last 50 years.
Freetown is a city designed to house a population of no more than 100,000. Today it is grossly over-populated with a population of over 2 million and counting. The city’s infrastructures – water supply, roads, electricity, drainage, housing, education, healthcare, have experienced massive decline that is not fitting of a modern city. To what extent has the marginalisation of the creoles contributed to this catastrophic decline?
A debate – a real and honest debate has begun. Questions are being asked as to how the city got to the appalling condition it is today, and how this unsustainable trend can be reversed.
On Saturday, 4th of August, 2012, a meeting organised by the former Mayor of Freetown – Winstanley Bankole-Johnson and other concerned citizens, was held in Freetown to discuss the way forward.
Speaking at the meeting, social and economic policy analyst and Freetown socialite – Paul Conton, presented a paper – titled; ‘Freetown and the Provinces’. This is what he said:
I know that most of you, probably all, are very concerned about rampant street trading in Freetown, squatting on public land and encroachment on to private land, with all the attendant ills of litter, filth, poor sanitation, unhealthy and unsafe environments, etc.
Looking at Sierra Leone as a whole, the national consequences of overcrowding in Freetown are huge; importation of foodstuffs and other items, large trade deficits and weakness in the national currency. Why are all these people moving to Freetown?
What drives them to uproot themselves only to come and settle in squalid conditions in an unfamiliar environment?
The underlying problem, in my view, is the dual land tenure system. All these petty traders you see roaming the streets of Freetown with scanty trays of trifles on their heads, these are landless people.
The market women, crowding onto Freetown’s streets, obstructing traffic and spreading litter, 95% of provincial origin, these are landless people.
The slum dwellers; in Kroo bay, Mabella and all the others – 95% of provincial origin, these are landless people. The ‘dreg man dem’, waiting in the streets for opportunity of any kind – 95% of provincial origin, these are landless people.
We hear about the provincials based in Freetown, who when they die are given a memorial service here in Freetown before being conveyed to their home towns for burial. These are the well-to-dos, the exceptions.
All these others, all of provincial origin, are simply given a quiet funeral in Freetown and their offspring try to pick up the pieces of their lives here in Freetown, without the benefit of inheriting that small patch of land that they can call their own, a benefit that many of us have enjoyed. It’s not that there is no land where they come from.
There is abundant land, but the system is such that this land is collectivized, not individualized.
Nobody is prepared to sacrifice to develop the land, because ultimately it does not belong to one individual. It cannot be ‘monetized’. Banks would not lend money against it. Its value cannot be maximized.
Ultimately, underneath all the other problems, this is what is driving people to Freetown. These landless people are as much victims of the system as we the people of Freetown are.
The solution to Freetown’s problems lies within our grasp. And fortuitously, the solution to Freetown’s problems is also the solution to the national problem. The national interest coincides with our own interest as Freetonians and Creoles.
If government were to fully sanction and enforce the freehold of land in the provinces, requiring, not just allowing banks to accept conveyances as collateral for credit, the entire national economic equation would change.
Ultimately, billions of Leones would be injected through the banking system into the provinces. People always follow money and thousands, tens of thousands would follow this money trail back to the provinces or be persuaded by it to stay in the provinces.
Freetown would get some relief from its ever-growing problem of overcrowding. If the investment is properly channelled, agricultural production would rise and once more Sierra Leone might be able to feed itself.
From day one, Freetown’s founding fathers understood and respected the principle of the private ownership of land. When Thomas Peters and his group of Nova Scotians made plans to come to Africa, they were promised at least 30 acres of land per family (20 for a man, 10 for his wife and 5 for each child).
These were poor ex-slaves, who had not owned anything of consequence in their entire lives. Indeed they themselves had been ‘owned’ by their masters. Even their children were the property of their masters.
So this promise of acres of land, which they could call their own, must have been irresistible. Sadly the promise was never fulfilled in its entirety, and this caused much bitterness among the early settlers.
The larger point, however, is that Freetown, from its very founding, was predicated on the premise of private ownership of property. This was the rock upon which Freetown grew and prospered, outshining all the other communities in Sierra Leone and West Africa.
And then, at Independence, this economic system was joined with a system in which private ownership of property was virtually forbidden. Wise heads at the time warned that it would never work.
When Bankole Bright said, “Freetown is Freetown and the Protectorate is the Protectorate and never the twain shall meet”, it was this issue as much as any other that he was referring to.
Experience, common sense and economic theory all tell us that when you operate two economic systems within one country, migration will occur to the more successful economic system.
The greater the disparity between the two systems, the greater will be the migration. This is exactly what is happening in Sierra Leone. We see the problem in Freetown because we are based in Freetown. But what we see is a consequence, a symptom and a reflection of the real problem.
The real problem lies up in the provinces and in the socio-economic situation that exists up there. It is an age-old problem encountered at some point by peoples all over the world.
The peasants, the serfs, the campesinos, the proletariat – use whatever name from whatever part of the world – all faced the same problem and had to struggle against entrenched power structures and economic interests.
Compare the 30 acres Thomas Peters and his Nova Scotians, ex-slaves, were promised with the average size of a subsistence farmer’s patch of land in Sierra Leone today and the picture becomes clear.
The Creoles could be in the vanguard of a peaceful revolution to change the system. We must battle to change the land tenure system to a freehold system all over the country. In this battle we need allies.
Even the mighty US needs allies when it goes to war. Fortunately there are natural allies for this cause, which we perhaps have not made use of before. Perhaps now is the time we can rally them.
Our less privileged brothers in the provinces are natural allies in this cause. They are the ones who supposedly have ‘family’ or ‘community’ lands in their home areas, but feel compelled to come to Freetown and eventually, years later, discover they no longer have any land to which to return.
So these are natural allies and our strategy in this battle should be to reach out for their support. We also have other potential allies in our donor partners, even including China, whose systems are of course very much based on free market, free hold principles.
Since Independence, creoles have looked inwards at Freetown only, instead of looking outwards, at the rest of Sierra Leone and analyzing what’s going wrong there.
We have kept silent and withdrawn to our own little corner – Freetown, whilst the rest of Sierra Leone has crowded in on us. It’s time to look outwards again, as our forefathers did, and find out what’s going wrong in the rest of Sierra Leone.