“Cad a dhéanfaidhmid feasta gan dhaonnacht? tá deireadh ár gcoillte ar lár”
Mention of the Regent tragedy in an email from my old (sorry, former!) YSS colleague Paddy Daly in Clonmel on 15th August led me to some unexpected links. That 18th century poem, Caoine Cill Cháis, laments the passing of a way of life symbolised by Kilcash Castle and its woods near Clonmel. Yet its opening lines always prompt a proverbial reflection on the effects of Ireland’s deforestation: “Cad a dheanfaidhmid feasta gan adhmad? / Tá deireadh ár gcoillte ar lár.”
“What will we do without timber now the last of our forests are down?”
On the 14th, our Yengema Old Boy and human environmentalist, Tommy Garnett, posed a more essential, existential question in reacting to Regent’s Sugar Loaf disaster: “the urgent need to begin the painful process of developing a new culture in our country: a culture that emphasises respect and care for our forests and environment as the very essence of our existence. If we fail to heed this warning, then we will have failed in everything else. God help us all!!!” What will we do without humanity when the last of our forests are gone?
Other old students and Kono colleagues have been making similar keenings and demands. They know enough about land degradation with impunity and allied shenanigans in Kono not to be too impressed by Kono’s Lady Di (Diana Konomanyi) as Minister of Lands, Environment & Country Planning. Our stalwart YSS man, Khai A.P. Sam (‘KAPS’ as we all remember him), just home for an August break in Kissy and Nimiyama from his support role with UN-MISS in South Sudan, writes: “On my mind is the calamity that has befallen my people in Salone. Unfinished and unthought through construction strategy has led to this massive flooding and calamity in Freetown today. Government environmental regulations should have been enforced to leave the Freetown hills and valleys alone, planting more trees and brush instead of mansions and more mansions by the rich and powerful.”
Another YSS Old Boy and colleague, Sahr O Fasuluku, who has blogged over recent years about Freetown’s denuded hills and land degradation farther east, facebooked: “Hills of forests now stripped bare. Bare hills now hanging over the heads of Freetown, rich and poor. Hills unprotected waiting to drop. Do we have criminal negligence laws in Sierra Leone? Homicide? Reckless endangerment? Who allowed the forests cut? Who sold the land? Who killed those people and continues to threaten the lives of countless others?”
Even an odd bishop moved sharply from piety to pillory. Pentecostal Bishop Archibald Cole had the (ir)responsible ministers in his sights: “One look at mountain rural areas, one look at the so-called new development sites is enough to convince you that no planning is done. People build disorderly, arbitrarily. Who gives them the permit? Who is responsible for soil testing? Who ensures that there are access roads to every property? Is the Ministry of Housing or the Ministry of Lands, Environment & Country Planning really planning at all? Will I be wrong to say that the Lands Ministry is a contributing factor to this tragedy? They allocate dangerous areas to desperate people, distributing lands like the apportioning of elephant’s meat.”
Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Global Issues summed up the disaster: “Right now, Sierra Leone needs immediate assistance to save lives and provide for those who have lost their homes, but we must also ask why so many died. Flooding may be a natural disaster but the scale of the human tragedy in Freetown is, sadly, very much man-made.”
‘Freetown Floods: Don’t Blame it on the Rain Again! Briama Koroma of the Sierra Leone Urban Research Centre was in no doubt as to how that human tragedy has been man-made, over and over again: “Civil society groups have repeatedly warned that houses are being built illegally in areas that contribute to the risk of flooding. Most of the residents are top civil servants, private individuals, senior military and police officers who grabbed the land to build houses. Thus, Sugar Loaf Mountain, a national protected reserve area for the water reservoir and water dam, was infiltrated. The Government has failed to clamp down on such developments.”
Government’s idea of clamping down so far has been fatuous words from such as Diana Konomanyi a year ago: “We are working with line ministries like Internal Affairs, Agriculture, Works and agencies including Environmental Protection and National Protected Areas agencies, so that they will get the creeks free of destruction, the mountains to be re-afforested, so that the dams will get enough water to supply the populace, and to demarcate proper lands for agri-business and so on.” Has somebody taught her the words and links so she can trot them out in tame and undemanding interviews for the likes of ‘Awoko’ and ‘Cocorioko’? Anyway, who will occupy her post after March 2018?
In 2015 President Koroma told refugees in the National Stadium that the floods were “unexpected”. Where had the man been, particularly in August-September 2011, 2013, 2015 ? On Thursday last he led his entourage to Waterloo to mourn his “unsuspecting compatriots” but added confidently, “We believe our Lord God is on our side and, like the resilient people we always are, we will rise above this tragedy . . .” An opportune moment, maybe, for Ambassador Catherine Campbell to have taken EBK aside to whisper in his ear: “but surely being resilient means you are better prepared, better able to cope, better able to recover?” according to Irish Aid’s International Development Bible, 2013 ed.
2013 was the year when the historic King Jimmy Bridge at Freetown’s heart was destroyed with many casualties: “Freetown woke up on Friday morning, 9th August, to heartbreaking tragedy caused by landslide, precipitated by heavy torrential rain. The nation’s major streets are flooded by heavy rainfall. Sadly, nothing concrete has been done to arrest this dire situation. The force of nature and dearth of repairs on infrastructure bear the blame for the destruction of the King Jimmy Bridge, a very important monument of the slavery era built in the late 1700s. The death toll is about 15 and climbing . . .” (Sierra Express Media, Aug 2013)
Later, 16th September 2015, Freetown-born but Accra-based Vicky Remoe chided: “Freetown Floods – Don’t Blame it on the Rain Again! Yesterday Freetown flooded in what many are saying is the worst destruction and devastation they have seen in recent years. While this may have been the worst, the level of unpreparedness was exactly the same as it was last year, and the year before that. The people in the City cry and complain about the rains and the floods every year, but as soon as the clouds give way to sunshine in October everyone forgets about the rain. And then the year rolls round and it is August-September again, the slums flood, the gutters overflow, people die, structures fail or fall, and in the City and on social media people ask that we pray for God to save Salone. The same people who took no action the previous year now expect God to come down and save them.”
On the same day, the redoubtable Umaru Fofana tweeted: “Photos from inside Kroo Bay and the Freetown floods. A scar on the conscience of SL’s leaders, methinks.” Then two years later, with the Sugar Loaf scar visible to even those corrupt and conscience-lite leaders, Fofana tells the world: “May nature have mercy on us. And may we hold our leaders to account. Otherwise next year we will be wailing again. This tragedy also will pass. And we will learn nothing from it.”
Commission of Inquiry ? All week I had looked forward to some comment from one of our more distinguished Yengema Old Boys, Dr Peter Dumbuya, and by Friday Peter did not disappoint: “No one can deny the fact that the deaths of hundreds of Sierra Leoneans in the mudslide and floods that hit Regent and its environs in Freetown, with hundreds more missing and homeless, are matters of public interest. Therefore, it is now incumbent upon President Ernest Bai Koroma to appoint a Commission of Inquiry into this unprecedented human tragedy. Section 147(1) of the Constitution empowers him to appoint such a commission to inquire into “any matter of public interest.” Pursuant to Section 149(1)(a-c) the commission should “make a full, faithful and impartial inquiry into” systemic, structural, institutional, infrastructural, environmental, official, and personal failures that wrought this human tragedy. The commission should publish the report, including “the reasons leading to the conclusions arrived at,” of its findings. The President owes the People of Sierra Leone a thorough explanation of what happened in the early hours of Monday August 14, 2017, and how to prevent such a catastrophe in the future.” [Peter Dumbuya (YSS 1968-73) is an expert in Constitutional History and Law, Associate-Professor of History at Fort Valley State University in Georgia and Attorney-at-Law in Alabama, but very closely in touch with the state of politics and education at home in SL.]
There is enough evidence of expertise among Sierra Leoneans in Freetown and in the diaspora to fuel the sort of many-sided commission of inquiry Peter Dumbuya is calling for; but there is more than enough evidence of wrong-headed approaches by ministries and agencies in the past decade. A piece from the African Research Institute shortly after the floods of September 2015 – ‘Flooding in Freetown: a Failure of Planning? ’ – https://www.africanresearchinstitute.org/blog/flooding-in-freetown-a-failure-of-planning/ – illustrates both the problems and some of the wrong-headed attempts at solutions, such as enforced movement of inhabitants of so-called ‘informal settlements’ to new unsustainable locations. Yet that section of the EU-aided Freetown Development Plan in the 50+-page document ‘The Risk Mitigation Project’ (2011-2014) has everything any government or city council could wish for – apart from the capacity, personnel and political will towards enforcement. www.slurc.org/uploads/1/6/9/1/16915440/environmental_assessment_and_evaluation_of_natural.pdf [pp.16-27: erosion, landslide, mudslide, rockfall; pp.29-32: Deforestation in Peninsular Regent area.]
Laudato Si’ Pope Francis has been busy praying for Salone and the Regent victims. It’s good, too, that Bishop Archibald Cole has been putting the boot in and skewering those who need skewering. It seems to be long after time for all Sierra Leone’s bishops and pastors to take the ‘social gospel’ to their flocks and to the politicians along the lines Francis laid down two years ago, just two months before Freetown’s last flood disaster: “The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation. In fact, the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet. Both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest.” – Laudato Si’ §48.
But surely the question Francis needs to ask is: have enough of the poorest and most vulnerable died under Mount Sugar Loaf to make any lasting difference on Tower Hill?