To what length might a hyperventilating showboat of a mayor go to stay in the public’s eye? The BBC’s recent Private Eye documentary, “Mayor on the Frontline”, gives some clues.

It describes Freetown’s combative Mayor, Ms. Yvonne Aki Sawyer, as the “tree planting Mayor.” But the nearly one-hour documentary makes only a passing reference to an overhyped tree-planting exercise initiated by Ms. Aki-Sawyer around three years ago that seeded a few thousand plants.

The environment is the top priority, she said, but there are a lot of other things to do. Those “other things” are what the documentary focuses on: Ms. Aki-Sawyer’s theatrical confrontations with the country’s government shortly after the publicity that the tree-planting attracted convinced her that she was better cut for a grander national and international platform.

In keeping with that driving passion, the documentary opens with an entirely manufactured ruckus during the national elections in June 2023. Carrying the health warning “distressing content”, the scene shows, in quick succession, first an elated Ms. Aki-Sawyer confidently predicting that she would win her re-election for mayor; and then, bizarrely, she is seen scuttling away and screaming that some dark forces were about to arrest or finish her off. Armed security forces are then shown patrolling the streets: none of them is seen entering the building. Ms. Aki-Sawyer is shortly after shown, in a different dress and showing no trace of scuttling, complaining that she had been so harassed by the central government that she had been unable to do her job as mayor. Another scene quickly follows, of the mayor speaking to her lawyer – a braces-wearing Joseph Fitzgerald Kamara – advising her not to get too agitated but to focus on telling her story. Agitated she does get: Ms. Aki-Sawyer is soon shown crying on the streets and shouting into her phone – which was logged into her Facebook account – about “real” blood flowing everywhere as the government forces embark on a campaign of murdering her supporters. In quick succession, she concedes that what she has been crying over isn’t blood at all but residues of teargas canisters. (Teargas, not bullets, had been used by the police to disperse a combustible crowd that had blocked all traffic around the APC’s headquarters). As if on cue, someone in the crowd cries out that the body of the mayor’s murdered supporter is somewhere else, not at the scene of the purported blood. But Ms. Aki-Sawyer and the camera do not follow that lead. In fact, no such body was ever produced. The police said no one had been killed. The whole scene was very obviously carefully choreographed, and great camera moment it is. No satirist would have invented this farce.

All these scenes – her scuttling away after a victory prediction, the patrolling armed security forces, her well-groomed grousing about state oppression, the faux horror about bloodbath – were evidently filmed on different days and are then piled into a montage. We now know that a BBC reporter with a video camera was all the time, for probably weeks, embedded with her, recording scenes, suggesting that she was playing out these horrors exactly for this documentary. The documentary does not show a most telling scene that was – God bless that anonymous patriot, who probably helped prevent a carnage in Freetown – made available by an outraged observer after the “real blood” outburst. In it, Mrs. Aki-Sawyer is seen rehearsing exactly that blood flowing scene shortly before enacting it, showing her with the cans of red liquid that she would declare blood, and miming those cries about “real blood.”.

That the BBC would collude in this gross dishonesty is shocking. But since this is the BBC, rags of objectivity emerge from time to time, as when the market women are shown complaining that the mayor does not care that they exist. That, as well as cleaning the streets of Freetown, should be the key preoccupation of the mayor of Freetown, the mandate of whom is necessarily limited.
Ms. Aki-Sawyer admits that in her first two years as mayor, she got the support of the central government. Those two years she devoted to her core municipal functions. She does not state why the relationship broke down. In fact, shortly after her tree planting attracted attention – she carefully choreographed a visit by former Liberian president and Nobel prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to the site, attracting media – she launched her true career as an international conference guest-speaker, spending more time in western capitals than at Freetown City Council. At one of such meetings – which was hosted by US President Joe Biden – the mayor went out of her way to publicly insult President Bio, a disastrous breach of protocol that she must have known would earn her no favours. From that point, it was downhill for the municipality: garbage began to pile up all over the city (the BBC camera skirts the moraines of garbage even around her APC party’s offices), corresponding to the mayor’s taking up bewildering causes like solar tramcars, windmills, endangered tropical turtles, and near-extinct spiders.That gained her international stardom, which further encouraged her to nurse the more fitting ambition of becoming the vice-presidential running mate of the APC. That, of course, set the stage for permanent confrontation with the central government, which she now discovers was led by the opposing party.

The BBC documentary avoids this context entirely. It instead highlights the mayor’s anguish over the results of her own election (which she won, but – sigh – by a lower margin than her fantasy had projected) and those of the APC presidential candidate.

The documentary shows the leaders of the National Elections Watch projecting, just before the presidential election results are announced, that there would be a runoff; and the National Elections Commissioner shortly after announcing that Bio had won outright, with around 56% of the votes. Ms. Aki_Sawyer is seen speaking on the phone purportedly with the APC’s candidate, Samura Kamara: “Your votes have been stolen”, she tells him, doubtless not displeased that hers weren’t, really. In fact, the NEC’s projection put Bio over 10 points ahead of Kamara: in any case, projections are projections, not actual vote counts. The NEC Commissioner had the final say.
As a backdrop to the heroism of the mayor, the documentary reminds viewers that Ms. Aki-Sawyer gallantly abandoned a comfortable job in England to help the response effort to the Ebola pandemic in 2014. At the time, she worked in the financial sector, not as a medical doctor, nurse or ambulance driver, but never mind – no reproach for being a voyeur may be shoved in her direction for such a selfless endeavour. Not even when she made sure she was interviewed about her sacrifice on TV in England before heading to Freetown. No, she even deserved the OBE which Queen Elizabeth, of blessed memory, conferred on her for her Ebola-related labours – just as, only goodwill intended here, the delightful old lady conferred it on the then old Englishman who used to manage the expat tart-joint in immediate postwar Freetown, Paddys. Standards are hard to define when it comes to British royalty’s attitude to Africa. But when Ms. Aki-Sawyer tells the BBC that she vied for mayor primarily because of her concern about the effects of climate change on Freetown, one might be forgiven the urge to respond, as the Duke of Wellington did when a stranger greeted him with the words “Mr. Jones, I believe”: “If you can believe that, Sir, then you can believe anything”.

At the conclusion of the documentary, the BBC regales in the fact that there was a failed putsch just months after the results of the June 2023 elections were announced – around 18 people were murdered that morning – and that, in effect, fingers must remain crossed.
One must take this as the key message from Mayor Aki-Sawyer… Her next move is highly anticipated.