Yvonne Aki Sawyerr – a Mayor in a mare’s nest

Author: Andrew Keili: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 31 May 2018:

“We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” Romans 5:3-4

The wanton attack on the new Mayor of Freetown, Yvonne Aki Sawyerr who had barely settled down to work was indeed surprising. Stories abound as to who did and why. What is certain however is that verbal abuse of the Mayor was followed by her being hit with a stick whilst she was being driven away from her office after a meeting with the Internal Affairs Minister and the top brass of the Police.

She had apparently been warned to be careful as there could be plans of a physical attack on her. Fingers have been pointed in all sorts of directions and press releases have been issued by both the APC and SLPP.

SLPP haters have been quick to accuse the party especially as their office was close by. Others have accused some disaffected traders.

The poisoned atmosphere has been smothered considerably by Mayor Aki Sawyerr herself being very conciliatory and not pointing fingers and the SLPP top brass doing a good job of reaching out.

The picture of SLPP’s Secretary General Umaru Napoleon Koroma and Political Affairs Minister, Foday Yumkella meeting the Mayor looked reassuring. The SLPP also issued a press release.

The release called the perpetrators “faceless cowards” and continued – “The SLPP unequivocally condemns the attack on our Mayor of the Municipality of Freetown and calls on the Sierra Leone Police to effectively and speedily investigate the matter and bring the perpetrators to book.”

Indiscipline, lawlessness and youth violence have been much too commonplace in Sierra Leone. Political violence which reared its ugly head before the elections and immediately after has recently been on the wane, especially after the peace overtures by a cross party representative group.

The ONS had long warned about violence and indiscipline amongst youths. A report of theirs well before the election stated – “The post conflict security landscape in Sierra Leone is being threatened by a wave of generalized lawlessness, indiscipline and violence among the youth population.

There is a lack of respect for the rule of law and other societal norms………..public order is difficult to maintain in an environment characterized by a high rate of employment among especially violent prone, poor and unskilled youths, existence of cliques, gangs and cults in schools, colleges and communities, high interference in the law and judicial process, drug abuse, uncontrolled and unregulated street trading, proliferation of ghettoes serving as dens for criminal activities and the existence of a law enforcement and criminal justice system that is highly susceptible to bribery and corruption.”

Whilst we may put this squarely at the door of political violence, we need to take another look at the whole issue of our commitment to the decentralization process.

There has been no evidence yet of who is responsible but our recent history has indicated that Mayors and Chairmen of Councils have not found it easy to be accepted by some players in central government for various reasons. Surprisingly the rejection may be both outside their parties and within.

Former Mayor Winstanley Bankole Johnson did not have it easy with the SLPP government. He wrote in Cokorioko in 2007-“In many ways the Mayor may also be a victim – “I knew and saw it coming all along – from the word “Go”, I have been drumming it into the ears of everyone who cared that this SLPP government was committed to devolution and decentralisation “in words only” – not deeds. But nobody listened.

He continued: “Today I am being proved right by every tick of the clock, that the SLPP government is using every trick of the trade to “frustrate” me. If only they knew what resilience and dogged determination is all about. ….To the SLPP government, decentralizing specifically to an APC dominated Freetown City Council is anathema. It means losing power and that they cannot afford to do at this crucial time.”

He accused the then SLPP government of undermining the council’s effort at cleaning and several other functions devolved to it by utilizing the services of NGOs to perform some of these functions for their own “glory”, and having the Vice President commission these projects. Ironically it was his very own APC party through its own councillors that engendered his removal when they were in power.

One recalls the story of the problem between the Kenema Mayor J.S. Keifala and Minister of Lands, Country Planning and the Environment Musa Tarawalli a few years ago. The Mayor challenged the demolition exercise ordered by the Minister.

According to one report – “Youths hired by the Ministry held big hammers, wheel pullers, roof cutters, demolishing stalls, kiosks and other makeshift structures under the watchful eyes of OSD Police Officers.”

This episode was symptomatic of the quagmire created by a half-hearted decentralisation process in which Ministries want to preserve their turf, totally oblivious of the responsibilities of Local Councils and the spirit of the decentralisation process.

It certainly does not help when you have Local Councils of one political stripe and a Central Government of another stripe in a heightened and poisoned political atmosphere. Yvonne Aki Sawyer is walking right into the lion’s den.

It does not help that her party is not in power and she has to find some accommodation with an opposing government. Local councils have traditionally also been faced with a lot of problems.

The have very limited scope for revenue generation and rely largely on transfers from the central government-such transfers are based on an allocation formula which restricts their spending autonomy, as grants are mainly earmarked. Whereas political decentralization is advanced and administrative decentralization may be improving, fiscal decentralization lags behind.

Mayor Aki Sawyerr has a big job as the remit of the Freetown City Council is quite wide. The list of Standing Committees on council indicates the wide range of issues handled.

There are committees on assessment, labour and establishment, education, finance and budget, health and sanitation, Agriculture and food security, energy and public utilities, planning and development, municipal trade, social welfare, gender and children’s affairs, information and tourism, lands and city planning, foreign relations and youths and sports. It has Departments dealing with Municipal engineering, Internal audit, administration, finance, development planning and education.

Apart from potential problems with central government and management challenges in running a big establishment, the Mayor also works within a political environment with councillors who may have their own idiosyncrasies.

She basically has to walk a tight rope between a government with an uncertain interrelationship, council workers, councillors and an expectant population, many of whom may have the tendency to flout laid down regulations.

She has not however been known to shy away from a challenge. Even her meteoric rise within the APC to become the Mayoral candidate wasn’t exactly easy. She faced considerable challenges from blue blooded (or is it red?) APC challengers and open hostility amongst some top brass but she was able to clinch the candidacy.

Her history recently has shown perseverance and love of country and she has made it to this position by dint of hard work. Yvonne has stayed in Sierra Leone for the past few years carrying out a host of different activities.

She is a Chartered Accountant who specializes in Investment Promotion & Marketing, with considerable experience in the financial services industry and in property development jobs. She took up a volunteer position with the Ebola Response programme and ended up being the Director of Planning for Sierra Leone’s Ebola Response programme.

She was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s New Year Honours and was instrumental in the country’s Post Ebola Recovery Programme. She was also Head of the Presidential Recovery team, coordinating the work of several teams working on the programme which covers the health, education, energy and other sectors.

She and her husband are part of IDEA (UK) Ltd., which joined Hilton Group of Hotels to build the 200 room Hilton Hotel in Aberdeen.

She is joined in her new fight by an army of ardent advisers who are bent on helping her transform Freetown. There is no underestimating the challenges she faces. One is however certain that this attack on her, as bad as it would seem will not deter her.

The Mayor and her council will need to work with government. Both sides should realize they are in a symbiotic relationship. Needless point scoring by either side may result in triggering the mutual destruction button at the detriment of a hapless populace-no point a la Trump in saying “my button is bigger than yours”.

Their needs to be common ground on a considerable number of issues with some key MDAs including the Ministry of Health and Sanitation, Ministry of Trade and Industry, Ministry of Lands Country Planning and the Environment, the Works and Housing Ministry etc.

The case for collaboration with government cannot be overemphasized. Recent history has taught us that even governments of the same political stripe can frustrate the council by being too interfering and patronizing.

In many ways the failures of recent Mayors including the most recent Bode Gibson could largely be attributable to the government of his own political party, who forced the council to adopt useless projects.

If Mayor Aki Sawyer and the SLPP government realize that this might be a win-win relationship, keep to their respective mandates but be collaborative, it will not only bode well for both parties but for the populace.

This is an imperative as many potential problems and disasters loom over us including cleaning of the city, flooding, street trading etc. The Mayor and the government also stand to gain mutual credit if they could address the problems of Municipal schools in line with the government’s flagship education programme.

I am pleased so far at the utterances of the Mayor, the Internal Affairs Minister and other top SLPP officials which refer to “understanding and collaboration”.

That said, there is still the matter of addressing the recent violent attack on the Mayor. It is surprising that even after some positive identification of the suspect by both Metropolitan Police personnel and her driver, the Police does not seem to have made any headway.

Meanwhile this issue has proved divisive. The most rational view I have read on this is that from Memuna Forna who wrote on social media: “Women are derided, misrepresented and under- represented in public life in Sierra Leone. The attack on Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr is primarily a manifestation of political violence. It is also the consequence of a culture in which the physical abuse of women is widely accepted. Political violence should always be condemned, and the ridiculous tit for tat APC and SLPP press releases need to stop.“

She also warns about the tendency for some people to justify this as a tit for tat because of past attacks on SLPP women -“I can’t say this enough – when we apply tit for tat to the abuse of women we create a vicious cycle, the escalating effects of which we and our daughters will feel for generations to come. “

Her advice is right on point: “Arrest and question the perpetrator/s, ensure he gets whatever punishment he deserves and put an end to the ridiculous press releases. “

I totally agree with her. I know however that as a true Christian, Mayor Aki Sawyerr will “rejoice” in her sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. Hope for Freetown.

Ponder my thoughts.

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