By Mohamed Massaquoi
Traders in Pujehun town have demanded for compensation of up to Le 6 million from the District Council over allegations of destruction of their wares.
The aggrieved traders are among people whose stalls were demolished as part of an operation sanctioned by the District Council Chairman, Sadiq Silla after a failed attempt to remove them from a location the authorities say was illegally occupied.
The incident which occurred last week has divided the district, with allegations and counter-allegations of political interference.
The demolished stalls were located on a part of the central market located on Kaikai Street which officially serves as venue for the weekly market fair called locally ‘Luma’.
The Council said it had informed the traders some two years ago to relocate the ‘Luma’, which they had in fact transformed into a daily market. Its Chairman said they went on to identify a new location where they built new stalls for the traders.
The local traders however said they weren’t given enough time and blamed Silla for taking “a unilateral” decision.
Santigie Sesay, Public Relations Officer of the Traders’ Union in Pujehun, told Politico that their stalls were demolished without proper procedure. He said they had been given a two-week ultimatum to relocate and that they were trying to digest that when suddenly they saw thugs allegedly hired by Silla demolishing their structures.
"The decision of the chairman has left many traders displeased. This [market] has been our major source of income in supporting the education of our children and livelihoods," he said.
"Most of our goods got missing and the only way we can forgive the
chairman for his action is for him to pay for the missing items,” Sesay added in a telephone interview.
The union spokesman stressed that they felt wrongly treated, noting that they were not keen to relocate because the new market location was frequently attacked by armed robbers.
Council Chairman Silla on the other hand told Politico that the area was serving as a den for criminals, and that some people were using it in the cover of darkness to engage in prostitution.
He also said that armed robbers always sought refuge in the area escaping police arrest.
Silla said the Council had made frantic efforts to secure funding from the government of Sierra Leone, UNDP and the African Development Bank to construct two bridges linking the centre of the town to the new market site. He said the project also entailed a road and water and sanitation facilities.
“When you receive money from the central government or from donor agencies like UNDP, African Development Bank to create those facilities we cannot afford to see them become white elephants and a waste of donor and state funds” he said.
"If we want government to be taken seriously by donors, when those funds are given we have to utilize them properly and the facilities
must be used," Silla went on. He said the traders were well informed about the situation, both on radio and in public meetings, citing a recent district stakeholders’ meeting in which it was resolved that the traders be relocated.
“So I was left with no option but to order the demolition of those makeshift structures,” he said.
The new market is located in the southern part of the town – about 100 metres outside the main town.
The Council chairman blames politics for the traders’ defiance. He singled out Moijueh Kaikai – former Resident Minister in the area and accused him of inciting the traders against the local authorities.
Asked why he used youths, instead of the police, and whether he had legal authority to order the demolition, Silla said he didn’t need
a court approval to take such an action because no one was claiming ownership of the land. He also denied that any goods were lost during the demolition.
“The makeshift structures are located in areas that are more dangerous to our lives, which is more important to me than the property and politics we are talking about,” Silla said.
Chairman of the Civil Society Coalition in Pujehun, Ibrahim Swaray told Politico in a telephone interview that even though the decision to relocate the traders had been collectively reached, the council chairman had “unilaterally” gone ahead to effect it before the end of the two-week deadline.
Swaray explained that after a recent armed robbery incident in the township the district stakeholders invited the traders to a meeting at the council hall where they were given an ultimatum to relocate to the newly established market site within two weeks. The activist also accused Moijueh Kaikai of undermining the Council.
“We have made it clear in public meetings and on radio that Alhaji Moijueh Kaikai has been using politics to undermine any decision taken by the Council and other district stakeholders," he said.
“He is clearly aware of the fact that people have been using that location at night to sexually abuse our girls yet he supports them in their defiance just for his own political gain."
“We have been harassing the council for their delay in removing the traders from that location. We are ready to prosecute Alhaji Moijueh
Kaikai anywhere in the country if he does not stop such behaviour," he went on.
Mr Kaikai did not respond to persistent calls or text messages from Politico for his reaction to the allegations.
Copyright (2017) Politico