Sierra Leone, a country that never seems to catch a clean break is once again in the grip of another scandal. As with most massive scandals in the country these days, the government is once again on the defensive.
A few weeks ago, the country's transportation Minister, a portly fellow called Balogun Koroma gleefully announced the arrival of 100 buses into the country from the People's Republic of China, with the expressed aim of alleviating the massive transportation problem in the country's capital Freetown. Balogun arranged a bus parade to show off the brand new vehicles and he was everywhere, as giddy as a kid in a candy store.
Sierra Leone has for decades been afflicted by the plague of rural urban migration. With the few economic opportunities in the country heavily concentrated in the country's Western region, Freetown and her environs have always been a Mecca for job seekers, students, hustlers, traders and people down on their luck. Even the world's oldest profession, prostitution, is infinitely more lucrative in the Western coastal corner of the country.
During the civil war of the 90s, insecurity in the rural areas accelerated the pace of rural urban migration and at the end of the conflict, many people refused to trade the relative comfort of Freetown for the drab and tough existence of their rural villages. As a consequence Freetown has over the years become an overpopulated coastal settlement drowning in a sea of humanity, poverty and filth.
This migration has led to the congestion of Freetown, a narrow city with old colonial roadways. Transportation has become a growing problem and a major headache for successive governments. The lack of public transportation to accommodate the needs of the population has given rise to a lucrative business in motorcycle transport known locally as "Okadas." As most of the Okadas are owned by powerful people in the country, their activities have been largely unregulated, even though they are frequently involved in very serious and occasionally fatal accidents.
So the decision by the current government to bring in 100 buses to tackle this perennial problem should have been a blessing, and the people should have been out in the streets celebrating the arrival of these brand new buses. But in Sierra Leone these days, people have grown skeptical, and in this case, it seems as if they had every right to be.
The first thing that smelled fishy about the entire hundred bus episode was the cost of acquiring the Chinese buses.
Twelve million dollars seemed too high a price to pay for the said buses, especially when the same buses were being sold on the Chinese trading website Ali Baba for prices ranging from 19 to 50 thousand dollars apiece, with massive discounts for bulk purchases. Many people started to question why the Sierra Leone government would not have bought these buses from Germany, Japan or other countries that were renowned for the quality of the vehicles they manufactured. Even the Chinese bought reliable vehicles overseas.
To compound the skepticism, just a few days after the buses started appearing on the streets, they started breaking down. Lo and behold, some of the brand new buses started leaking oil and it was discovered that some had engines that did not look brand new. Now except if the Chinese had taken the extra time to paint them old, this looked suspicious to even the illiterate traders on the street. Some of the buses found it even difficult to climb short hills that were no match for locally operated "Poda Podas" some of which were more than 15 years old. Passengers had to come down and help push the brand new buses.
Something was just not right about these buses that were being heralded as far away as America, as the final arrival of the "Agenda for Prosperity," with the Sierra Leone government's usual paid news outlets already starting to question the integrity and patriotism of those who questioned the bus deals.
Then last week Mohamed Kamaraimba Mansaray, the leader of a new political party, who had recently been chased out of the ruling party on account of his ambition to challenge for the leadership of the party, dropped a bombshell in the country. Mansaray detailed the crooked procurement procedures that had been followed to acquire these buses and gave specifics of how the prices of the buses had in many cases been doubled.
Mr. Mansaray questioned why the country's procurement procedures had not been followed and called on the country's Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) to investigate. The ACC, whose string of court losses are now their only redeeming figure, quickly came out with what seemed like a halfhearted response to Mr. Mansaray. However, the crafty Minister Balogun had already collaborated with party operatives in the Parliament for them to invite him to answer questions on the bus acquisitions. Parliament is now the main obstacle to anti-corruption investigations in Sierra Leone.
Balogun's explanation to parliament shows the depth of corruption in Sierra Leone and the brazen fashion in which state funds were been pillaged with reckless abandon. When I was reading his long meandering story to Parliament this evening, it was just sad to see the depths that Sierra Leone had fallen into, for even a class of primary school seniors would not have bought that story. But parliament believed him.
According to Balogun's elaborate tale, in 2013, the country's President Ernest Koroma happened upon people waiting in long lines for transport and felt he had to do something quick. He then instructed Transportation Minister Balogun to address the problem promptly. Balogun approached the Finance Minister who said he sympathized, but money had not been allocated in the budget for that. There was no money.
Balogun decided as long as the President had said so, even if there was no money, it had to be found. So the search for money started. They searched long and hard without much luck. Fortunately, just as if by destiny, in comes a Lebanese business man Mahmoud Khadi, a popular local magnate. A man popular in Balogun's home district of Kono. Mahmoud Khadi had a solution.
Mahmoud had a Chinese Company, Poly Technology Group, of which he was a representative that will provide 12 million dollars loan to the government. The catch here was that the government will not direvtly get the money, but the 12 million dollars loan would be used to buy 100 buses, ship and insure them, insure the whole transaction, pay the interest on the loan for 2 years, provide spare parts, pay for Balogun and his delegation to go to China and back, and so on. Balogun of course accepted all these crazy conditions without telling Parliament and the deal was done.
Sierra Leone was in a hole for 12 million dollars and the taxpayers of counyry, rural farmers on whose sweat the government depends will again have to pay in the future for buses they may never get to ride in.
But the good part, according to Balogun, is that the Buses were made just for Sierra Leone. They were not like other buses, but were made specifically just how Balogun and his ministry wanted them. The Chinese must have taken these instructions seriously-the buses started breaking down on their first day on the road. Nothing works in Sierra Leone. So why should buses?
After the long story Parliament cheered Balogun and thanked him. "Next time," they told him, "tell us before you do this kind of thing". He agreed. End of Story.
Will Africa ever develop? Well who knows. In Sierra Leone, at least we have an Agenda for Prosperity.