Sierra Leone’s Tanker Accident Was a Preventable Tragedy

More than 130 people have been reported killed after a fuel tanker hit a large truck and exploded Nov. 5 in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital. The tragedy occurred in the city’s densely populated Wellington district. The victims included motorbike drivers who reportedly rushed toward the scene to collect leaking fuel, which they presumably hoped to either use or sell, as well as roadside traders and commuters trapped in vehicles along the busy intersection. Many of the victims were burned beyond recognition, and posters of the dead and missing have been stuck on walls and buildings around the site of the accident and across Freetown. The city’s mayor, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, posted a condolence message on Twitter and has spent time visiting communities affected by the tragedy.

In a national address the following Sunday, President Julius Maada Bio—who cut short his trip to the COP26 summit in Glasgow—declared three days of mourning, pledging that surviving victims would be treated free of charge. He also attended a memorial held at the State House for the Wellington fire victims. The World Health Organization has delivered 6.6 metric tons of emergency supplies to support the medical response. Crowdfunding efforts led by Sierra Leoneans at home and the diaspora on behalf of victims and affected communities have commenced, with locals pledging to support one another in any way they can. Meanwhile, large numbers of people attended a mass burial Monday, where nearly 75 unidentifiable bodies were laid to rest in a cemetery that also holds victims of the 2014-2015 Ebola epidemic and a 2017 mudslide that killed more than 1,000 people, the country’s worst natural disaster.

Deadly explosions of fuel tankers are familiar occurrences across the continent, often in large, densely populated urban areas with inadequate physical and transport infrastructure to accommodate multiple heavy-duty vehicles or even manage the flow of vehicular traffic. Six months ago, a fuel tanker burned down half a village in Ghana’s Ashanti Region after skidding off the road in an accident. In July, 13 people were killed in western Kenya when a fuel tanker overturned, collided with other vehicles and caught fire. Last year, at least 25 people were killed in Kogi, Nigeria, when the driver of a fuel tanker lost control of the vehicle on a major highway. In August 2019, a tanker exploded in Morogoro, Tanzania, killing at least 60 people and injuring many others. And more than a decade ago, at least 230 people were killed in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo when a fuel tanker overturned and exploded. 

In other words, Freetown’s Wellington disaster is merely the latest in tanker-related accidents across the continent. And for many Sierra Leoneans, the frustration is palpable, given that the problems of urban planning and administration that correlate with these kinds of tragedies are seemingly well-known but have largely gone unaddressed.

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But for Vickie Remoe, a Sierra Leonean TV host and writer, the Wellington disaster speaks to more than just inadequate transport systems and infrastructure. It reflects, among other things, the desperation many impoverished locals face and the dangerous risks they sometimes take when such opportunities—or what they consider to be opportunities—present themselves. “There’s this huge class of especially young people in Sierra Leone who live by a different set of rules, who are so disconnected from social services and have no kind of trust in any kind of system,” she said, referring to the people who reportedly gathered to siphon fuel from the tanker. Remoe said that these people, who generally tend to be young men between 16 and 30, live desperate lives that can sometimes spill over into criminal or other dangerous activities. “Every time they sense an opportunity to exploit the exploiters,” she added, “they will do so without thinking at all about the dangers.”

For the locals who have been left without a home or business, to say nothing of loved ones they may have lost, life invariably goes on, even as they expect little assistance from authorities and will most likely turn to their families, friends, and social and religious associations to try to rebuild their lives. But the larger failures of governance Remoe referred to are likely to persist, making similar tragedies in the future almost unavoidable.  

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Civil Society Watch

The African League of Cyber Activists and Bloggers for Democracy, or AfricTivistes, is organizing its third summit in Abidjan. The summit, titled #Abidjan2021, will be held from November 11-13 with the theme of “Promoting the development and democratic governance of the Internet in Africa.” It brings together bloggers and web-activists from the continent to promote and defend democratic values, human rights and good governance through digital technology. 

AfricTivistes is a pan-African civil society organization based in Dakar, Senegal. The attendees of this year’s summit comprise more than 70 civil society activists, bloggers, journalists and ordinary citizens from across Africa, including Boniface Mwangi, Diaby Mohamed and Rosebell Kagumire.  

Culture Watch

The African Culture Fund, a pan-African organization that supports “the professionalization and strengthening of artists and cultural managers in Africa,” is preparing to host the first cohort of African cultural practitioners in its inaugural academy. The ACF-Academy is a boot camp designed to strengthen the capacity of African creatives through training camps and residency programs. It will welcome 18 participants from eight West African countries, including Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal and Mali, where the organization is based.

The ACF is planning similar boot camps for other African regions, including in Tunisia for applicants from North Africa, in Kinshasa for Central Africa, in Johannesburg for Southern Africa, and in both Kenya and the Seychelles for East Africa.

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FW de Klerk: the last apartheid president was driven by pragmatism, not idealism. Yesterday, FW de Klerk, South Africa’s last president under the country’s white-minority regime, died at the age of 85. Regarded by many in the West as a courageous change agent who defied hardliners inside his ruling party to bring about the demise of apartheid, he shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela, his successor in office who won South Africa’s first-ever presidential election under a multiracial democracy.

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Chris O. Ogunmodede is an associate editor with World Politics Review. His coverage of African politics, international relations and security has appeared in War on The Rocks, Mail & Guardian, The Republic, Africa is a Country and other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @Illustrious_Cee.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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