Story by: Jessica McDiarmid & Poindexter Sama
Annie Kargbo has spent the last 18 years sweeping the streets of Freetown, earning up to 100,000 Leones (about $22) per month. She used that to buy items to sell, which made her a little more money; enough, at least, to keep her grandson in school and some food in their bellies.
But she hasn’t been paid for the last six months. She’s one of about 600 employees of the city council of Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital city, that haven’t received salaries for half a year.
Meanwhile, the city mayor and eight other officials are in court facing corruption charges. The prosecution says high-ranking municipal staff misappropriated public money, allegations that have not yet been proven in court.
Government in Sierra Leone often fails to pay salaries, leading to frequent labor unrest, disruption of services – and corruption. Payment of bribes for everything from a report card in school to passage through a police checkpoint remains a nearly daily occurrence for many Sierra Leoneans. Teachers, police, health workers and other public servants often cite low, or unpaid, salaries as a reason for corruption.
Kargbo’s grandson Samuel has been kicked out of school because she can’t pay the Le 40,000 (less than $10) in fees for him. She has resorted to begging to get money for food and basic necessities.
Kargbo and some 100 other city workers protested earlier this month in front of city council, calling for immediate payment of salary arrears. Demonstrators shouted and argued with police, who were on hand to quell the crowd, while others hovered on the peripheries quietly. City council workers inside the office compound watched from balconies and stairwells.
The protest broke out after a morning meeting called to inform staff that the city was working on getting money to pay them.
‘We go everyday to work,’ said Memanatu Kargbo, a market keeper. ‘They just say wait, wait, wait. I just want to work, to eat, to feel fine.’
Saidu Bangura said his children no longer respect him, since he’s not bringing home money or food, and his wife suspects he’s spending money elsewhere, as a result of not being paid. A father of two, he’s resorted to begging loans from neighbours to pay his children’s school fees.
‘There’s no peace in the house,’ said Bangura. ‘It’s breaking us.’
John Conteh, acting chief administrator of the city, called the salary backlog ‘unfortunate.’
‘It’s not a good situation,’ said Conteh, who was parachuted in to cover while the former administrator faces corruption charges along with the mayor. ‘We don’t like the situation. (The workers) have needs and financial commitments.’
He said the national government has promised a Le 2 billion ($500,000) bailout, to cover salary arrears as well as the city’s other debts, including amounts owing to banks and contractors.
‘I don’t really know how they came to accrue this much indebtedness,’ said Conteh. ‘We are doing our best, but maybe our best isn’t good enough for the workers, and it’s unfortunate it’s been so long. But we are fighting to make this a thing of the past.’
Conteh said workers should receive some money within a couple weeks. Meanwhile, the corruption case against the mayor, administrator and other city officials is before the courts.
Poindexter Sama, 27, is a parliamentary reporter for
Awoko newspaper in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He has worked with
Journalists for Human Rights since April 2011.