“Government of Sierra Leone explores development of domestic air travel” (thesierraleonetelegraph.com-10/08/20). This was one headline in the Sierra Leone Telegraph that caught my eye this week. According to the newspaper, discussions have been held to explore the possibility of re-introducing domestic flights. Here is a snap shot of some of the benefits of domestic flights in Sierra Leone, according to the paper. It is reckoned that “it will contribute immensely to the development of the country’s tourism industry and provide alternative form of transportation to the road networks, facilitate the movement of people, goods, and services within the country.”. The paper quotes the Director-General of the Sierra Leone Civil Aviation Authority (SLCAA), Moses Tiffa Baio on President Bio’s vision to “build an economically viable and civil aviation system that would be effective, efficient, competitive and sustainable.”
You need to be an enemy of progress, to contradict such a laudable dream. Sierra Leone needs all it can get on our march towards progress and development. I call it a dream and hope it remains so until reality sinks in. This is no attempt to pour cold water on such lofty ideas. Consider this piece as a cautionary exercise. But before we go any further, we might want to look at this dream from the very building blocks that make up “President Bios Vision….”. Let’s take the key words here: Effective, Efficient, Competitive and Sustainable.
It goes without saying that any investment should be effective, efficient, competitive and most importantly sustainable. Does this project satisfy these requirements? There is no doubt that our country is in dire need of economic growth. However, let us remind ourselves that economic growth without investment in human development is not only unsustainable but unethical. There has been a sustained effort by the government to promote tourism. When you look at what our country has to offer in terms of tourism, you look at our pristine beaches and the natural vegetation, you wonder why this sector is still not one of our national cash cows.
It is very easy to be damned as unpatriotic when you question such ideas. There may be many reasons why we are not reaping the benefits of tourism, with Sierra Leone as a top destination. But will any tourist be interested in visiting a country where corruption and violence are fast becoming a national past time? Will tourist consider such places as safe, where reports of law enforcement are reportedly involved in the loss of lives with relative regularity? As if on cue, America recently issued a travel warning to its citizens to Sierra Leone; “to exercise increased caution in Sierra Leone due to CRIME”. Covid is ravaging the world but the advice is not for covid but for crime. It is ne thing to have wonderful beaches, nice cuisine, vibrant night life and good weather for tourism. But it is an entirely different thing if one cannot guarantee those same tourists a stable, safe, peaceful and secure environment.
During the hey days of Sierra Leone Selection Trust (SLST) and National Diamond Company (NDMC), domestic flights were common to service the diamond industry across places like Tongo, Yengema, Bo, Hastings etc. Even at that, it largely served the interests of these mining companies, as the most efficient and safest way to move the diamonds and the top A staff members, who were predominantly white masters. So, when Moses Tiffa Baio stated that this will “facilitate the movement of people, goods, and services”, you wonder who would these people be, MPs and Ministers? What goods will be transported, Piassava? What kind of goods are we producing that would require this mode of transportation; as compared to overland travel?
These are the kind of questions that have been asked across board. Is there some evidence-based research to support this wonderful idea? When was the last time a traffic controller at Lungi International Airport complained about traffic congestion in our air space; when you can count on one finger, the number of flights arriving daily? Our country’s economic situation is an open secret. The cost of basic necessities is competing at astronomical rates. The value of our currency is virtually sinking. There is no doubt that Sierra Leoneans would love to have the pleasure, the option and comfort of travelling in style, at affordable cost. But is this a luxury we can afford? Is this what we need now? Is this the best prescription for our economic malaise? Sadly, such questions are bound to be seen as unpatriotic. Guilty.
Although many Sierra Leoneans would love to see such an enterprise undertaken, you can bet that the majority would like to see the bread and butter issues tackled, before considering whether to add mayonnaise to the menu. The government promised a new direction. To all intents and purposes, such a venture could sit well in this vein; at face value. But when the people voted for a new direction, “animal farm” like scenario was not on the manifesto. Like I mentioned earlier, this is not intended to dampen the bright-eyed thoughts of our leaders. It’s a cautionary exercise to remind our leaders, that the sun shines on those who stand before it shines on those who kneel under them. In a country where the average man cannot guarantee three meals a day, we should not lose sight of our priority. We should always remember that we have to crawl before we walk. It’s a long and winding road. Let us tread with caution.
Africa is no stranger to white elephant projects. Sierra embarked on the road to ruin when we hosted the OAU meeting in 1980. Prior to that, our country was economically stable. In a fit of megalomania, the late Pa Sheki decided to go against conventional wisdom to host the bazaar. It marked the beginning of the end of our country as we knew it. The rest is history, but it proved that every need has an ego to feed. We know that the world is flushed with new money; especially the Chinese who are just too happy to slush their excess funds into the new re-colonisation chamber of Africa. Some call it the Scramble for Africa-part 2. Its no doubt, we need all the help we can get, but we should also be cautious about how we shake hands over loans, aid and gifts. We can’t do that with clenched fists.
Many critics and sceptics see this floated idea of domestic flights as a distraction or a political wet dream. We know that the new direction is overloaded with very good intentions for the country. One cannot doubt the ambitions of the government. There is an unspoken desire to upgrade our country to the 21st century. We all notice the government’s attraction to technology; the life blood of current trends. But ambitions should be made of sterner stuff, and we cannot loan our way out of this mess. It is a good thing to dream big. There is nothing criminal about big dreams. But we need to be honest with ourselves. Can we afford these dreams? We cannot benefit if we keep our imaginations out of focus. There is a lot of stress in the world today. The last thing our country needs is a mental illness of megalomania.
It might be worth paying a visit to the people at Up gun, Krooton Road, or King Jimmy markets to find out what the people want. Or better still, drop by Manjama, Sobawan, Konomanyi Park or Makama Community Market ,just to find out what the people see as priorities for our country. Some of us may have danced ourselves lame here, when the main dance is yet to come. Thankfully, it was rightly said that “Government of Sierra Leone explores development of domestic air travel”. Whether this is a pipe dream or wet dream, let us spend some more time on the exploration side of things, before we jump feet first.
Don’t forget to turn the lights off, when you leave the room.