On the many troubles of Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma (2nd L, with glasses) and Liberian President Helen Johnson Sirleaf (C) lay flowers on coffins of mudslide victims on August 17, 2017 at Waterloo cemetery near Freetown, Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone buried at least 300 victims of devastating floods on Thursday, as fears grew of more mudslides and accusations of government “inaction” over deforestation and poor urban planning mounted. With the aim of clearing the overflowing central morgue, burials began around 1800 GMT in Waterloo, a nearby town where many victims of the Ebola crisis that hit the nation in 2014 were also laid to rest, according to a morgue official and an AFP journalist at the scene.<br />/ AFP PHOTO / SEYLLOU

Sierra Leone became independent from British imperialism on April 27, 1961. Based on a 2015 national census figure, the country has a population of 7,075,641, making it far smaller than Lagos State in terms of human inhabitants.

Like many African nations, Sierra Leone has had to contend with numerous complicated challenges of nation building. In contemporary times, however, the country has been plagued by fiery troubles that have threatened its very foundation.

For instance, between 1991 and 2002, there was a devastating civil war that seriously ravaged the country.  The tragic war which resulted in the death of more than 50,000 people also left much of the country’s infrastructure in total disarray. Equally, it led to the displacement of over two million Sierra Leoneans who became refugees in neighbouring countries. In January 2002, with the assistance of Britain, ECOWAS and the United Nations, the destructive 11 years of war eventually came to an end.

As the country was trying to put the misfortune of the civil war years behind her, it was struck by yet another tragedy in 2014 with the outbreak of the dreadful Ebola virus. The deadly impact of the Ebola epidemic led to the declaration a state of emergency by the county’s authorities. By the end of 2014, there were nearly 3000 deaths and ten thousand cases of the disease in Sierra Leone. The epidemic affected nearly every aspect of the country’s life. For instance, sometime in August 2014, national football league matches were cancelled across the country to curtail the spread of the Ebola disease. Unfortunately, the Ebola plague further exerted much strain on the nation’s already weakened medical infrastructure which resulted in more casualties from medical neglect than Ebola itself. It also brought about a huge humanitarian problem which negatively affected the country’s socio-economic development.

While the country was gradually getting over the devastating stress of the Ebola brouhaha, another tragedy of greater proportion recently struck, thereby throwing the now much distressed nation into further anguish. On August 14 this year, the country witnessed three days of torrential rainfall that resulted in devastating floods and mudslides around Freetown, the capital city and its environs.

Though the precise number is not yet certain, disaster-related deaths are estimated at scores of hundreds while thousands of others are either missing or outrightly feared dead. Thousands of people were displaced and hundreds of buildings damaged by the devastating mudslides. Happening especially during rainy season, the catastrophe was further aggravated by Freetown’s peculiar geographical reality of being below the sea level with weak infrastructure.

Initial recovery efforts were spearheaded by local organisations as well as the American Red Cross while the international community has also been assisting with aid. Authorities are still looking for the more than 600 citizens still unaccounted for in one of Africa’s worst flood disasters in living memory. Aid agencies cautioned that corpses trapped in the mud are likely to contaminate water sources and cause outbreaks of disease, but continuous rain has made the search difficult and dangerous. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said 3D mapping of affected neighbourhoods was taking place around Sugar Loaf mountain, which partially collapsed, and said voluntary evacuations might extend to more areas, potentially increasing the number of displaced.

According to Amnesty International, international aid is now urgently needed to provide temporary accommodation, proper sanitation and health care to those affected, as it warned that the death toll was likely to rise “substantially.” In a national broadcast, Sierra Leonean President, Ernest Bai Koroma declared a state of emergency and announced the establishment of a relief centre in Regent. He urged the nation, still recovering from the aftermath of the Ebola outbreak, to remain unified: “Our nation has once again been gripped by grief. Many of our compatriots have lost their lives, many more have been gravely injured and billions of Leones worth of property destroyed in the flooding and landslides that swept across some parts of our city.”

The President also addressed the coordination of registries in Freetown that provide aid for residents left without shelter. To really demonstrate the severity of the incidence, on August 15, President Koroma declared seven days of national mourning which was to take effect immediately. He also appealed to the international community for aid. In response to his clarion call, the UN arranged contingency plans to mitigate potential outbreaks of waterborne diseases such as diarrhea and cholera while also allocating $150,000 (USD) in initial-response aid and mobilised personnel in Sierra Leone to assist in rescue operations and distribute supplies to survivors. The World Food Programme (WFP) also provided rations for 7,500 people while the European Union (EU) approved 300,000 (euros) in humanitarian aid.

As if the mudslide calamity was not enough for a nation already in distress, Freetown has also had to grapple with an extremely destructive fire that completely razed over 50 houses in Sunsan’s Bay, a slum located in the east end of the capital. There has been no indication of the cause of the fire yet, and the relevant officials are yet to announce any investigation. According to reports, as at the last count, the inferno had left over 500 people homeless. Sunsan’s Bay is one of several slums surrounding Freetown and it is inhabited mainly by fishermen and petty traders.

Sierra Leone is, no doubt, passing through a very bumpy phase and the distressed nation definitely needs all the help she could garner from the international community and relevant global organisations. There is no better time for all to rally round the troubled nation than now. Her distraught citizens, especially children, should not be left alone to bear the brunt of the several calamities that have befallen the nation. Every helpful measure must be put in place by all concerned global stakeholders to ensure that soccour hurriedly comes to the country and her much troubled citizens. This is truly Sierra Leone’s hour of need and she must not be let down.

Meanwhile, while acknowledging current efforts of concerned members of the international community in ferrying help to a nation in distress, it is expected that the African Union and ECOWAS would equally come to the aid of this brother Africa nation. It won’t really speak well of the African continent if all initiatives and efforts aimed at offering relief to Sierra Leone and her pained people come majorly from outside of the continent. After all, charity, as they say, begins at home. This, indeed, is the time for the African continent to actually extend a hand of love to Sierra Leone.
Ogunbiyi is of the Lagos State Ministry of Information and Strategy.

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