Our first President of the Republic, the late President Siaka Stevens had some issues with his compatriots during his days. This was that according to him, Sierra Leoneans did not want to do business i.e. they were not engaged in business enterprises like the Lebanese and Fullahs. According to him, Sierra Leoneans were not enterprising enough to make a turn around with their economic situations and by extension those of the country itself. The late President indeed had quite some few brushes with hawkers who largely depended on foreigners who gave them wares which they sold and kept their retail profits. Pa Shaki never liked this kind of business at a time when filthy rich foreigners were abounding in the city. I can remember one businessman did lend the government of Sierra Leone the sum of three million Leones. That businessman was even allowed to be sitting in Parliament during sessions if he chose to do so.
Well, we have come a very long way away from those days and the whole chemistry of the Freetown city has also changed drastically. The population itself has changed so much that today we are told that the Freetown city’s population has hit the more than 2 million mark. Wow! Do I hear you say that this is great? Well, it definitely has its own many short comings. One thing I know is that no City Council or Committee of Management has really been able to limit hawkers to some designated areas except the late great Alfred Abraham Akibo- Betts in his days at the helm of things at the City Council.
This was the man whose administration took on the celebration of Freetown’s bicentenary that gave Freetown a wonderful facelift including the beautification of the Freetown Cotton Tree; the giving of additional building to the Museum, the Up Gun Round-About and many others. Yes you now remember Akibo Power… the indefatigable Chairman, Freetown City Council Committee of Management who strengthened the Goderich Street Bridge and got hawkers off certain prohibited streets in order to make Freetown look beautiful, though small. You remember the Squander gates and Voucher gates? Well what’s up today? Business is every where… indeed there is economic boost, I suppose, anything that late Pa Shaki tried hard to let his people get involved in.
Recently, a team or call it a committee was put together to look at why the sharp price hike in the country and I understand they did their work and forwarded a report to the authorities. It is the strategy stage the report might be waiting now. I know as a nation we are not very good at following up reports but definitely things hinging on peoples’ livelihoods or survival are priority anywhere in the world.
The current euphoria over our Golden Jubilee as an independent state is a rejuvenation of what for a long time this nation lacked that has been together as on thematic national issues. We are all happy to celebrate. For those who are older than independent Sierra Leone, obviously they will not witness the 100 anniversary. In fact the bulk of people witnessing this 50th anniversary may not witness another 50 year anniversary. So much work has been done by AWOL and others to beautify the city and I think they have done a very good job. One thing though the flags that people are making and displaying speaks a lot about that fact that as a nation we have never taken a real good look at our flag. Apart from the sometimes annoying funny shades of green, there is this problem of the position of the colors. I see some of the colors are placed vertically when they should be horizontal. Well, the Creoles will say all cabor nar cabor but in the case of our flag, it should not be like that, it has to be exact!
The issue that I find very burning even as we celebrate is the fact that hawkers have taken over the city and have made the traffic situation too horrible and disgraceful, if not embarrassing. When they made the streets of Freetown, think in time for the Bicentenary, the 1980 OAU or something, sidewalks were provided so that pedestrians can move about swiftly and unmolested.
Today even when streets are made one-way, allowing one side for vehicles to park, hawkers still put their wares right on the small spaces left, making it very impossible for pedestrians to traverse the terrible traffic of a city whose population growth is moving far ahead of the necessary social amenities that befit a city. The question is, are we going to leave the situation as it is when we are inviting many people from other countries to come and celebrate with us?
Talking to some people about the problem, they think it is a very sensitive issue taking the hawkers off the prohibited streets especially during these days of economic squeeze. Quite understood, I must say, but some solution needs to be found just so as to save us from the embarrassment at this unique time. Times have changed and these days you cannot take people on the so called conducted tours without them sneaking and seeing other areas outside the official ones. Of course with the advancement of the social networks the eyesore will go world wide on the internet.
Sure we do not want to showcase a hawker’s paradise this time round in the manner in which our present situation is. Or do we? Let us leave politics out of this and find an alternative for our brothers and sisters hawking so that at least we can once more see the beauty of our dear Freetown. We know the votes of all the hawkers count and NEC will also count all their votes. What we should try to avoid is this idea of one section of the population trying to blackmail the government in power for the simple fact that their votes count. I think people will vote whether they are happy or not because voting has that effect of self satisfaction that one has fulfilled a worthwhile civic obligation.
We have seen many cases when different professions blackmail governments at very critical times. This time around I really hope that hawkers will free the streets to allow the celebrations to move on smoothly and not use it as a trump card to blackmail the government. This time round we are not going to accept the available as the best just because the best is not available. One little solution could be allowing the traders to use the unfinished site at Sewa Grounds for now until the main celebration activities are over. City Council really has too much problems on her plate, but a little addition may certainly not break her back!
By S. Beny Sam