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Sierra Leone News: Investment or exploitation: Three investments gone sour!

One reason why our small, heavily-endowed nation continues to remain poor and our rating on the UN Human Development Index languishes on the bottom rungs is because successive governments have mismanaged our resources – sometimes with brazen impunity. For a long time, our governments have anticipated the engagement of investors as a great move to boost our economy. However, the heavy dependence on investment in the mining sector has been more of a curse than blessing. Since the 1930s, companies have been mining our precious minerals but you cannot point to the benefits to the nation. Rather, individual businesspeople, politicians and the politico-elite have been getting filthily rich while the nation remains impoverished. This piece is inspired by a report in the September 7, 2018 edition of this paper done by Zainab Joaque under the headline: They Make Money and we are left poor…Philips. In that report, Bowenson Philips of the FJP Management Consultants, said eight years ago a Chinese billionaire investor came to invest in the iron ore mines. The investor’s proposal was for a smelting firm that would be exporting finished iron rod products. “It is unimaginable that a political decision came about wherein the proposal was rejected and not only that, he was willing to build another city for the country,” Philips lamented. This was the occasion of the plenary Session of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Sierra Leone. Now, the painful thing here is that the government did not give the contract to the aforementioned investor but rather gave it to African Minerals Limited. As we know, African Minerals mined the iron ore and shipped them abroad. We all know how expensive iron rods are. Is it not ironic and foolhardy that we export our ore cheap and then import iron rods at a very high price? Come on, this is very serious. Why did the government reject a deal that could have provided the valuable foreign exchange we so badly need? The smelting firm that we never had should be at the centerpiece of contract negotiations next time around. We all remember that an austerity period was slammed on the country in early 2017 because our economy collapsed partly due to the drop in the global price of iron ore. We would not have been so shocked at the drop of the price of iron ore if we had given the contract to the investor who wanted to set up a smelting firm to produce iron rods from our God given iron ore. As simple as drinking water. This is a clear example of how people we put in positions of responsibility fleece us in the most bizarre manner and want us to go to the Town Hall and clap for them that they have done well. I really hope the proposed Commission of Inquiry will look into all agreements entered into with investors and assess the benefit to the nation. Like we say, this country is a paradise that our governments mess up and leave us with a threatening nightmare that entrenches our abject poverty. There are several investments that are of no benefit to the nation but rather line the pockets of certain authorities who had sworn to work in the best interest of the nation. The sad part is that in most cases the public hardly know the content of the agreements entered into with investors. It is not just the fleecing of the resources but also sometimes there are marked abuses of human rights especially those of the Sierra Leonean staff. We have witnessed workers’ strikes where lives have been lost. The Addax Bioenergy Company comes to mind. Addax Bioenergy operations are situated at Mabilafu near Makeni town, in the Bombali and Tonkolili Districts of Northern Sierra Leone. I remember, it was the President himself who went on radio and told the nation that the Company will produce fuel, which will reduce our fuel price down a lot. We were all happy at the time because we wanted to have cheap fuel so that other basic commodities could be bought cheap. Initially, all the raw materials were shipped to the UK and refined for the British market. Inhabitants of the lands disposed to make way for the farms were paid pittance per annum. A total of 23,500 hectares of land was leased. The project was designed to produce 900,000 metric tons for the production of ethanol and power. 90-120 GWh was to be supplied into the national grid, which is approximately 20% of Sierra Leone’s national grid capacity. For the disposed inhabitants, they have no access to their land anymore even if ADDAX is not cultivating the land as it is the case now. The restrictions are enforced even more strictly than before and people are not even allowed to use the residual land (between the pivots). Moreover, the land used for sugarcane production had been leveled and drained and the trees removed. It became useless for the diverse production systems of smallholders. From a study done by NGO, Namati, it is clear that it is close to impossible for the landowners to get back their land. The Company could not even honour its obligations and had to send off 1,128 permanent workers on garden leave and received only 45% of their monthly salaries. All the 2,243 casual workers lost their jobs. The Company also spelled consequences for the food security of the people. Without money and land – hunger was imminent. So, a company that was said to help improve the lives of people ended up impoverishing them the more. The Socfin Agricultural Company operates in the Malen Chiefdom in the Pujehun District.  According to several reports and research on its operations, the Company cultivates approximately 30,000 acres of community land, leaving the people, whose predominant occupation is farming, with only swamps (wetlands) to farm.  The lease agreement never favoured the landowners and it was entered into long after the company had started operations. Several protests were made and one such was a letter dated 4 June 2016, signed by 42 section and town chiefs, including members of Malen Youth Development Union (MAYODU). There had been several and court actions against the company by aggrieved landowners, prominent among them the Malen Land Owners Association (MALOA) A key stakeholder told the press as stakeholders are not being heard in the chiefdom despite several efforts to ensure that the proper things are done for the benefit of all the residents of Malen chiefdom. She said a community centre that was provided by defunct oil palm planters, the state-owned Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Board (SLPMB), has been transformed into an office space by SOCFIN, leaving the people with no place to hold meetings and other entertainment events. The people claim that the surface rent that SOCFIN pays to land owners is not even enough to pay a school fee for a primary school going pupil. That prior to the advent of SOCFIN in Malen, there were boundaries demarcating lands and plantations owned by communities, families, and stakeholders, adding that those boundaries are no more since SOCFIN invested in oil palm plantation in the entire chiefdom. Given the importance of land, this will have adverse effects on the future generations because they would not know the demarcation where their inheritances are situated when SOCFIN should have left. Many environmentalists had fought for the rights of the people of Malen. However, their actions to defend the rights of the people have been criminalized. There were arbitrary detentions and continued judicial harassment against several members of MALOA in three different criminal cases in February 2016. There had also been several strike and court actions against the company by aggrieved landowners. On one occasion, members of the MALOA were found guilty and a stiff bail was placed on them up to Le50 million. In the end they were imprisoned and civil society human rights activists had to come to the aid of a prominent MALOA member to avoid the jail term. From the foregoing, it is clear that investments in our country have been unfairly arranged and it has not benefitted the people. Investment has created untold suffering. It is therefore hoped that the new government will try and review current agreements and formulate new ones that will improve the lives of the people.

17/9/18

By Beny Sam

Tuesday September 18, 2018.

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