Two days, five governmental ministries, two members of parliament, and four civil society organizations

By Ramya Parthasarathy and Michael A. Lindenberger

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We arrived in Freetown last week to see what we could learn on the ground that we couldn’t learn from the hundreds of pages of background reading. The in-country observations illuminated the lessons we had read and taught new ones, too. We hope this post makes clear how that happened.

On the first morning after we arrived, the beating sun already overhead, we set out from our hotel to brave the dust and heat for interviews with governmental officials and civil society organizations in the capital city. It was a crowded and dirty place of crumbling buildings, maddening traffic and endless streams of poor workers hawking goods on the street.

Aided by our local partner, public-interest lawyer Simeon Koroma, we had scheduled meetings with top officials in the ministries for local government, agriculture, mines and minerals and justice. We also met with a leading member of Parliament from each of the two parties in Sierra Leone. Our hope was to get a clearer picture of the role of mining and agricultural concessions in the country’s development, how they were awarded to companies, and how they affected local communities in the provinces.

Our first governmental meeting took us to the Parliament Building, a dark brick edifice walled off from the surrounding city.  There, we met with the deputy speaker, a rising force in the ruling APC party, and a leading member from the opposition SLPP.  By seeing them interact with each other, we were able to see viscerally how much deference is paid to the ruling party – even by a parliamentary opponent who, Simeon told us afterward, had been among the top vote-getters in the last election.

Everyone in government whom we interviewed agreed on two basic points: Sierra Leone desperately needs to attract foreign investors eager to develop its natural resources, and that the contracts it has signed in the past have been lopsided in favor of the companies.

The growing international recognition of Sierra Leone’s wealth was echoed in every meeting we had: from the bittersweet comments of the SLPP MP, who saw it as the one silver lining of civil war, to the proud deputy minister of mines, who admitted that he wanted us “to be part of selling Sierra Leone abroad.”

Most officials, even the opposition member in Parliament, saw the 2009 Mines and Minerals Act as a key accomplishment of the current administration that could improve the country’s growth in this sector. The legislation establishes new ground rules to renegotiate existing contracts, higher royalties for the country, incentives for companies to move quickly from prospecting to actual mining, and a new regulatory body to ensure compliance with government policy.

But by the time our two days in Freetown were over, we had seen how the spirit of the new law was easily circumvented. Senior officials didn’t even agree on the basic rules, as we heard as many accounts of the concessions process as we had meetings with officials. Even those proud of its passage noted major obstacles that remain: The inheritance of bad contracts from the war period, a limited capacity to develop domestic expertise, a comparative disadvantage in negotiating contracts, and continued challenges in community relations.

MPs, agriculture officials and the attorney general all told us that agreements required the signed consent of local communities. Others told us the opposite, and one official insisted all the wealth buried in the country belongs only to the Government.

The Attorney General admitted that some chiefs may seek to profit from concessions, but said the defect was in human character not in the system.

Turf battles over the concessions process were clear from the get-go, with agencies often pointing fingers: “My biggest frustration is the Ministry of Mines,” admitted one top ministerial official.  Another pointed to the challenge of local representation: “The paramount chief is the conflicting viewpoint.”  Still others asserted their ministry’s dominance: “It is clear that we are the supervisory body. We make the policies and they implement.”

The worn and dilapidated building that housed these ministries—an old “gift from the Chinese,” we were told—was clearly reflective of the communication and capacity issues within.  Electricity cut out twice during our meetings, once with the attorney general, who grimaced and said it happened every day at the same time, and once during a meeting with the deputy agriculture minister, who swore in frustration.

The flow of information was no more reliable. Officials at the local government ministry admitted that they were often unaware of concessions contracts until crises erupted. Some of these crises turned into tragedies—including at least one protest in the last year that left two dead and eight wounded.

Another pattern was complaints from government officials about the lack of capacity – lack of legal, financial, and engineering expertise. One MP commented, “Even we [the central government] feel poorly equipped to negotiate” with companies.  Another secretary sharply criticized the government’s ignorance about the country’s resource deposits, quality, or size.

Government officials agreed Sierra Leone had traded its mineral wealth for too little in return in the past, and said progress in the future would be slow. Meanwhile, local expectations were too high, they said.

One official in the Ministry of Local Government said starkly, “These people have to sacrifice,” while an official in the Agriculture ministry – a former civil society activist — grew frustrated over local misunderstandings: “They [locals] think we’ve already negotiated everything and we’re here to dump them.”

We learned as well that the government is sensitive to foreign perceptions. The recent suspension from the EITI was embarrassing, and ministers repeatedly put the blame in the provinces not in the capital.

Finally, a note about civil society: We met with a handful of groups dedicated to helping local villages and landowners see more profit – or at least see less harm – from these investments. These groups, like Simeon’s Timap for Justice, are providing real service through a variety of avenues: grassroots legal aid, contract renegotiation services, and impact litigation among others.

The flip side, however, is that across the government, officials cited civil society and NGOs as providing a providing a “voice” for locals who are often left out of the formal negotiations process.

We were left with the troubling possibility that the very groups that do the most for local people are giving the government an excuse for doing so little.

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