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COMMENTS & OPINIONS  

PUNISH NATIONAL INFRASTRUCTURE SABOTEURS
By Andrew Keili
Mar 27, 2013, 17:10
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My domestic servant a few decades back during my bachelor days who had a penchant for stealing would  place a Maggi cube in the soup pot in my presence and remove and packet it as soon as I moved away. Talk about senseless stealing! Some people actually steal because there is something to be stolen even if the economic benefits are minuscule. Others have absolutely no respect for other peoples convenience and steal anything that could make them money. Their stealing is not opportunistic but actually planned. In Sierra Leone theft or wilful damage involving national infrastructure is commonplace. The public who would readily criticise the government or a company for poor provision of infrastructural services is often loathe to condemn wilful damage or theft of such services.

Examples galore exist of theft of national infrastructure components of services. I was shocked to learn that thieves were removing the base course aggregate from the Lungi to Port Loko road being constructed and placing the stones in their backyard for beautification. Theft of electric cables and even cutting of poles is commonplace. I recall that a major problem faced by NPA during the construction of the transmission line from Dodo to Bo and Kenema was the theft of the poles which went into the making of pots. People steal oil from NPA transformers rendering them ineffective or even causing permanent damage thus depriving several people of electricity. Mobile phone companies with sites in remote environments experience the same problem with theft and vandalism and spend an inordinate amount of money on security and logistics to supply fuel and materials to their sites. I recall when I worked at Sierra Rutile that a case of diarrhoea in the community was later attributed to market women frying cakes in Flotation oil which was stolen from the mine. The cooks and local chemists can get quite creative usually at somebody elses expense in converting stolen products to normal everyday commodities.

A considerable amount of the theft may be for the free use of infrastructure services like electricity and water. The cutting of water pipes is much too commonplace. Usually the perpetrators may just want to abstract water at that point or they may want to route new pipes to their houses. Whatever the case it results in damage to valuable infrastructure and to wastages. No wonder Guma Valley Water Company loses as much as 40 percent of water pumped because of such practices. Electricity theft is quite another matter. Bypassing of electricity meters is commonplace. Illegal abstraction of electricity can also take other forms like directly connecting from the pole to the perpetrators houses. There is suspicion also that a lot of this is done with the acquiescence of some NPA staff.

In all of these the repercussions are far reaching. The nation loses a considerable amount of money from physical damage and theft of services. Theft can also be dangerous and lead to accidents or even death. Electricity bypassing may be dangerous not only to the perpetrators but to the public. Depriving crucial emergency facilities of electricity or remote communities of mobile phone facilities could also be life threatening.

These problems are not unusual in Africa but a lot of other countries are addressing them through well implemented legislation. Wanton destruction of telecommunication support systems in particular has become a major cause for concern in Africa. The insurgent group, Boko Haram bombed 25 masts in the North Eastern part of Nigeria recently. This forced the Nigerian government to re-think its policy on safeguarding ICT infrastructure. The Nigerian federal government collaborated with the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC and the private telecommunications operators to come up with an ICT infrastructure protection bill. Damage  to fibre cables resulting from road construction and maintenance, indiscriminate vandalism of cables and other network infrastructure results in over 60 per cent of major breakdowns in telecoms infrastructure of some countries. A report from Uganda indicates that losses incurred involved $1.533 million due to cuts and theft of fibre optic cables, while $2.918 million was spent on maintaining and repairing the damages. Some people in Tanzania have been excavating the fibre optic cables because they think it is copper wire that could be sold to scrap metal dealers

In Kenya the Energy and Communications Law (Amendment) Act 2011 increased the penalties of those caught in unsavoury acts to a fine of $58,000 and a jail term of no less than 10 years. Previously offenders could walk away with a $1,164 fine or three years imprisonment. There is also provision in the law that acts as a deterrent to the practice where contractors and utility firms dig up cable without regard for existing underground infrastructure.

A cogent poser in Sierra Leone should therefore be whether or not state infrastructure should be classed as critical infrastructure or services classed as critical whose illegal abstraction would be regarded as economic sabotage. The new Electricity Act has provision for penalties for electricity theft but this is neither well defined nor stiff and the law has not been made to bite. Time for a general law to cover all critical national infrastructure!

Customer Service: the bane of Sierra Leonean businesses

 

One of the things people hate about going to business houses is the disproportionate amount of time spent there and the shoddy treatment meted out to them. Customer care should not be a foreign thing as most people think, it should be done right as it also affects us. As one writer says its a business thing. In Sierra Leone, for many, time is very much still a relative concept. For businesses to grow there needs to be structure and punctuality. There also needs to be a high sense of accountability.


Some of you may have had similar experiences to mine at one time or another. You are sitting in a restaurant waiting to place a further order and the three waitresses are all watching football totally oblivious of your presence until you shout. I once went to a restaurant in Bo with a friend and we both ordered chicken. After some 45 minutes of impatience, a lady walked in with a couple of live chicken in her hand. Nar now you day cam?, the waitress asked. We just got up and walked out. In restaurants and pubs it often takes ages for your bill to be prepared. The odd pint or two would probably be added to your bill if you are not attentive. For a particular barmaid in my normal watering hole, it was a case of mathematics gone awry. A bill of much less that Le100,000 turned out to be several million Leones. On checking the mathematically challenged ex Harfordian (yes she had impressed us earlier with stories of her academic prowess at Harford) had lined up her figures in the wrong columns and was making vein attempts at defending her addition. Members of a work team I sent out recently to a major town in Kailahun (name withheld to protect the dignity of my District) were thrilled that the hotel proprietor could offer them self contained rooms. On finding out there were no toilets in the rooms or indeed the house, they queried him. It is self contained. Everything is contained in the compound including the toilet, he said, pointing to a pit latrine at the back of the house. I will leave mobile phone companies out of this discussion as whatever excuses they give may give may not be worth the paper they are written on.

 

I must say however that whatever customer service problems there may be with Banks, they are now much better at serving customers, now that you have a proliferation of them. A few years back, terse treatment of customers at the few major Banks was much too commonplace. We could learn a lot from Lebanese traders who would often treat you like royalty especially if you are a valued customer. They go to great lengths to please the buyer. An old story that made the rounds some time ago was of a Lebanese trader who was asked if he had carbon dioxide. A nor get tam now but ar go get am next week was his reply.

 

It is the responsibility of managers to ensure that the relevant skills are available by either recruiting staff who have already acquired these skills or by ensuring that these skills are imparted to existing or new staff by training. Also the right environment should be created to influence the attitude of staff. It is however one thing getting trained and another in following things up in the field. The problem may be partly cultural. Time also does not mean much to a lot of employees and they may not even have any performance criteria against which they are judged. Whatever the case some of it is just plain bad manners. Perhaps it is high time for us to have an independent customer complaints radio programme radio to complement the work done by existing groups and give awards to high performing institutions and publicise them. Customer Charters which set out standards for major factors important to the customer with penalty clauses should be encouraged by regulators. Customers should be made to be loyal for business to thrive- we should remember the long-established fact that it costs about five times as much to acquire a new customer than it does to keep an existing one.

 

Ponder my thoughts.


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