Welcome to Africanews

Please select your experience

Watch Live



Sierra Leone: Political trailblazer Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr eyes 2nd term as Freetown mayor

Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, Mayor of Freetown.   -  
Copyright © africanews
SAIDU BAH/AFP or licensors

Sierra Leone

Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr became in 2018 Freetown’s first female mayor in 38 years. The member of All People's Congress party is now running for re-election.

During her tenure however, she raised hackles with her style and for projects she prioritized.

"When you are assertive, you're described as being stubborn. I heard that the other day, "she's stubborn". I'm like, "really?" If this was a man in my position, I don't think the position he'd take would be regarded as being stubborn. Why am I stubborn? Because I have my own point of view? And I'm sticking to it. No, no, no, no, determined."

One of Aki-Sawyerr's key goals has been to overhaul the city's manual taxation system.

With financial support from the UK government, the mayor had satellite images taken and measured rooftops and other metrics to build up a digital property tax database.

She claims to have brought 70 percent more taxpayers into the system. She also raised rates on those already paying tax.

Arm-wrestling with government

But within days of its rollout, the programme was frozen by the national authorities for nearly a year, and compliance remains low.

"Effectively, the city had been running with no revenue," she concedes. "And so it wasn't really running. And so being able to explain to people that if you want your garbage collected, if you want, you know, trees planted, if you want the municipal schools maintained, if you just want service, it has to be paid for."

It is common for Freetown mayors to go head-to-head with the central government. But the backlash Aki-Sawyerr has received for doing so seems unprecedented.

"You need to know how to deliver, but you (also) have to play the politics," said activist Valnora Edwin.

"Unfortunately, she seems to be falling directly in their trap -- she might have a court matter until it's time to nominate candidates for elections, and then she will not be suitable (to run)."

Mayor Aki-Sawyerr has been audited, investigated for corruption and summoned to testify about her initiatives in parliament.

She is also fighting charges of obstructing the police and disorderly behaviour over the arrest of one of her city councillors. He is accused of incitement over cost-of-living protests last August that spiralled into anti-government riots.

Sympathizers and opponents

One resident who refuses to pay his property tax is lawyer Chukwuemeka Taylor. He says it is unfair to raise rates on existing taxpayers, while providing inadequate services.

"I have to do the roads myself, I have to do the drains myself, and I'm paying property taxes?", he said, accusing her of milking the tax issue to appeal to poorer voters.

The mayor does have sympathisers. "She has a lot of challenges… but she still is pushing," said Marie Bob-Kandeh, head of a market women's group.

Last year, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr provided shades in markets to protect vendors from the hot sun. In the slums, she has worked with donors to construct public toilets and water taps.

"She talks to you," said Nancy Sesay, a resident of Susan's Bay slum. "When there is a problem, she comes."

But as Aki-Sawyerr's first term draws to an end, much of her agenda has been thwarted by rows and legal battles.

"My term comes to an end in just about what is it? six months from now. And I'm determined that everything that I started, should be completed so that there's less chance of disruption. Should I not, for some reason, return to the seats, although I'm hoping to. No! let's put that differently: I'm planning to."

Sierra Leone's presidential, parliamentary and local elections are scheduled for June 24.

If Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr plans to stay in Freetown, her party is expected to tap her as running mate for the presidency against Bio, who will bid for second term.

Asked whether Sierra Leone is ready for a female vice president, Aki-Sawyerr said: "I think people respond to what they're presented with, and if they're presented with the right person, they respond to that."

View more