Misogyny, harassment, and intimidation run deep in Sierra Leone


W
omen who fight for economic justice in Sierra Leone are often vilified and go unrecognized. But in the social media age, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr has earned significant props as she's gained notoriety among Sierra Leonean men who seize every opportunity to berate and oppress women and girls.

Aki-Sawyerr has been the Mayor of Freetown since taking office in May 2018, after winning 309,000 votes representing 59.92% of the votes in the mayoral election.

She's a member of the All People's Congress (APC) political party—one of the two major political parties, alongside the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP), 

Aki-Sawyerr was recognized with an Ebola Gold Medal by the then-president of Sierra Leone, Ernest Bai Koroma, in 2015. Queen Elizabeth II made her an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2016. Aki-Sawyerr was on the list of the BBC's 100 Women (BBC), announced in November 2020. In February 2021, Time Magazine named her one of Time's "100 Next" honorees.

This week, Mayor Aki-Sawyerr released an end-of-tenure message to Freetonians. Following a letter from Sierra Leone’s cabinet minister of local government, Freetown's mayor, chairpersons, and councilors around the country were forced to “vacate” local councils on March 1st.

For the record, this directive is in contravention of Section 137 of the Local Government Act 2022," Aki-Sawyerr wrote in her letter, adding that the current law on local government provides for councils to be dissolved at the dissolution of Parliament, which falls on April 25, or the fifth anniversary of the first council sitting, which should take place on May 30. 

For all the talk about how another gender equality law will benefit women with political aspirations in Sierra Leone, Julius Maada Bio, current president, has made no secret of his disdain for ambitious women. Especially those who do not speak Mende—the language of the largest ethnic group in southern and eastern Sierra Leone—or subscribe to the hardline views of Bio's cult-like "pa-o-pa" supporters. Pa o Pa translates to 'whether you like it or not' in English. 

Last year, concerned Sierra Leoneans started a petition to stop what they saw as the unconstitutional removal of Mayor Aki-Sawyerr from office.

“Our Mayor of Freetown, Mrs. Yvonne Aki -Sawyerr, OBE, was voted into office legitimately during the 2018 election,” the petition read. “But on May 16th, 2022, the Anti-Corruption Commission issued a press release for her indictment and removal from office on false accusations of misappropriation of council funds.” 

The local government minister, Tamba Lamina, shut down the Freetown City Council's Mayor's Delivery Unit based on recommendations of the investigations report into the management of the Council. 

In response, the main opposition party, All People’s Congress(APC), published a statement condemning what they saw as a "sustained campaign of harassment, threats, and intimidation directed at the Mayor since her election to office by state institutions and agents" of the President Bio-led administration.

"Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr is currently enjoying the support of the majority of residents of the capital Freetown as well as the international community in the country and outside," The Sierra Leone Telegraph posted in an editorial.


In October, police in Sierra Leone ordered Aki-Sawyerr to appear at a meeting following the arrest of one of her councilors, reported Bloomberg. Allegedly the councilor was arrested for inciting violence during a deadly protest. 

“The summon follows a Facebook live video post in which Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr complained about the arrest of Councilor Sheku Turay as they were about to board a flight to New York to attend the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Goalkeepers event last month," Bloomberg reported. "Aki-Sawyerr is expected to answer questions on “an alleged case of obstruction of police duties and disorderly behavior,” the police notice shows.”

That case is still ongoing. Aki-Sawyerr is widely expected to run in the 2023 elections scheduled for June. Read excerpts from the mayor's end-of-tenure message below. 

I will forever be grateful for the opportunity to serve Freetonians and to embark with you on our collective journey to #TransformFreetown. Yesterday, in a Press Conference at the Freetown City Council, I presented the Transform Freetown Four-Year Report, which details our interventions and progress made between January 2022 and January 2023. A copy of the report is attached, and copies of the First Year, Second Year, and Third Year Transform Freetown Reports can be accessed here https://fcc.gov.sl. Despite the many challenges I encountered and with Freetown City Council as an institution, I am excited about our achievements over my tenure.

#TransformFreetown is about transforming lives, and yesterday I was grateful to receive surprise visits and gifts from ordinary Freetonians, market women, and street sweepers, who gave moving testimonies about the 1000s of jobs created during my tenure and their own experiences of personal economic empowerment, growth, and development.

Yesterday afternoon was spent at a fun-filled farewell event with the FCC Staff. I handed over to Chief Administrator Festus Kallay the three decorative three mayoral chains as a symbol of the authority of the mayor's office.

It was beautiful to use that opportunity to inform FCC staff that after over three years of working on this, the FCC salary harmonization process had finally been completed, and a transparent system of salary bands that objectively reflect qualifications, experience, and length of service was being implemented for all staff from February 2023!

Celebrations of the end of my tenure continued in the evening with a cocktail event. I was so pleased to share the festivities with All People’s Congress (APC) Party Flagbearer Dr. Samura Kamara, US Ambassador David Reimer, UK High Commissioner Lisa Chesney, Irish Ambassador Claire Buckley, World Bank Country Manager Abdu Muwonge, Tony Blair Institute Country Lead Mariama Anthony-Williams, EU Delegation Representative Serena Bertaina and many others development partners and stakeholders. One of the highlights of the evening was a performance by the children from the FCC Congo Water Market Early Learning Adventure Center.

These bright, confident, and assertive children of the Congo Water market women warmed my heart and are themselves an accurate representation of the work we have done to #TransformLives! Yesterday was also an opportunity to thank God and my family, who have been incredibly supportive of me and without whom I could not have hoped to succeed. In addition, I was pleasantly surprised and deeply moved by a video that was shown at the event in which my mother shared her perspectives on the work that I have done and the impact it has had on the lives of others. 

 Thanks must also go to the APC party, mainly to Former President HE Ernest Bai Koroma, for entrusting the APC Mayoral symbol to me in 2018. I am grateful to the APC for their character and support throughout my tenure.

 

#TransformFreetown is a collective action, so my most profound thanks are extended to the FCC Councillors and Staff, members of the Mayors Delivery Unit (past and present), our development partners both in the country and abroad, to the central government, and most of all to Freetonians.

 

I leave office today grateful to have had the opportunity to serve, impact lives, raise awareness about climate change and design and implement interventions to address this significant risk and other challenges in our city, and develop and embed systems and processes at the Freetown City Council that provide a foundation for sustainable development.

 

May I use this opportunity to wish Freetonians and all Sierra Leoneans a peaceful and democratic 24th June 2023 elections and a bright and prosperous future for our beloved city and nation? May God bless us all. Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr 

Yvonne Denise Aki-Sawyerr (née Morgan) was born on 7 January 1968 in Freetown, Sierra Leone. She is a member of Sierra Leone's Krio ethnic group. She attended St. Joseph's Secondary School in Freetown as head girl and Loreto House Captain. Aki-Sawyerr graduated with honors from Fourah Bay College in 1988, earning a bachelor's degree in economics. At university, she was active with AIESEC (the International Association of Students in Economics and Management), and she became the first African on AIESEC's Brussels-based International Exchange Committee in 1988. She earned a master's degree in international relations and politics of the world economy at the London School of Economics and Political Science. In 1993, she received her certification from the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales.

Mayor Aki-Sawyerr is a Chartered Accountant and has a private sector experience of over 25 years in roles such as providing strategic planning, project management, risk management, corporate governance, and regulatory consulting services to high-profile clients in the UK financial services industry. She began working for the professional services firm Arthur Andersen in 1990. She became the Investment Director of IDEA (Inspiring Digital Enterprise Award) in 2009, where she was tasked with raising international finance to fund projects and managing local stakeholder groups.

In 1999, Aki-Sawyerr co-founded the charity Sierra Leone War Trust (SLWT), which aimed to promote humanitarian, social, and welfare conditions of children and youth in Sierra Leone. During the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone in 2014, she led a campaign in the UK to increase international awareness about the attack. She took a sabbatical leave from IDEA, joined Sierra Leone's National Ebola Response Centre (NERC), and became the Director of Planning. She relocated to Sierra Leone and recruited volunteers to work in the Ebola Treatment Centres.[3]

Before vying for the top position at Freetown City Council, Aki-Sawyerr was a critical member of the President's Recovery Priorities (PRP), serving as delivery Team Lead from January 2016 to October 2017. PRP was the second phase of a multi-stakeholder program to drive sustainable socio-economic transformation in Sierra Leone after the Ebola crisis. She played a crucial role in designing and implementing "Operation Clean Freetown," which was part of the PRP program that focused on introducing a sustainable household waste collection system in Freetown.[3]


 

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