The Informer (Monrovia)

Liberia: Ellen Gov't 'Banjoes' Liberia's Resources - Accrues U.S.$19 Billion in FDI -No Impact On Citizenry

The government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is being accused of "banjoing" (in Liberian English, 'to sell something very cheap for quick money') the country's natural resources to foreign investors and swindlers at the detriment of the Liberian people.

Many voices in the public, often heard on radio stations and at hatai centers (tea shops) claim that the President, her immediate family and close allies as well as lawmakers are getting richer from bogus concession agreements, while the masses become poorer. Both the Executive Mansion and the Ministry of Information have since on several occasions rejected these claims.

The Sirleaf-led Administration is boasting of attracting at least US$19billion in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) since its inauguration, but bulk of the Liberian people is yet to feel any impact of these purported investments, many of which are reportedly signed under questioning circumstances.

The Sirleaf-led government, only eight straight years in power, has signed more concession agreements than any other Administration in Liberia's 166-year history.

"Even the country's longest serving President, William V. S. Tubman, did not make any attempt to unsympathetically squander our God-endowed wealth, intended to be used by the current and future generations to build a prosperous nation," stated an angry citizen from Lofa County, protesting the awarding of the Wologizi Mountain in Lofa for exploitation.

He said this government has boasted of attracting close to US$20 billion in foreign direct investments that would provide tens of thousands of jobs, spur economic growth, and reduce poverty, but these targets are wide figments of imagination.

"Today, the country comfortably lies at the button of the UN Human Development Index--the second poorest country in the world," he assertd.

Investigation by this writer found that between October 26, 2006 and April 15, 2013, at least 100 concession agreements of various kinds have been signed between the Government of Liberia and international and local companies (investors), with some of those companies later pulling out, selling and reselling their investments to make profits, or after making unimaginable profits.

Because most of the concession agreements have been signed hastily--with alleged greedy and belly-driven lawmakers willing to sacrifice the country's resources and interest for any bit that drops in their secret (Plenary) meetings--these agreements have almost never met the purpose for which the public is told.

"Sometimes more than half of what the country and people are to benefit from these agreements is often shared among signatories of the government and used to influence the lawmakers who receive huge envelops, without even perusing the agreements," a legislative insider pointed out to this writer.

"This government is 'banjoing' (selling cheap) our natural resources and doing sell-pay (take something and pay back later in cash or kind) with what God has given this nation," Mustapha Konneh claimed at the Carey Street Hatia center (near Carey and Lynch) in a heated argument.

"Look at Mittal Steel (ArcelorMittal), look at BRE (Buchanan Renewables), China Union, Elinito and Western Cluster. What have we benefitted from them?" Konneh wondered. "They come here with big show, give envelops to the government officials, put pen to paper in the name of concession agreement, take our resources, and go back," he states.

Multimillion agreements such as Sime Darby, Golden Veroleum and Docoris Oil Palm among several others have been criticized and at some point rejected by the locals.

The Publish What You Pay (PWYP) coalition, recently alarmed that its attention was drawn to the Liberia Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (LEITI) sanctioned Post Contract Award Audit Report wherein it is revealed that almost all the $8billion worth of resource contracts signed by the Sirleaf's government since 2009 have violated the Liberian laws.

Among other things, the report found out that the government granted vast swathes of land to firms including Golden Veroleum and Sime Darby without competitive bidding. Government officials negotiating these deals otherwise skipped contract steps meant to ensure a fair deal for Liberians, and that concessions awarded to Cavalla Rubber Corporation, Golden Veroleum and Sime Darby did not follow the correct legal procedure, and did not go through a competitive bidding process.

Golden Veroleum's $1.6 billion palm oil project - Liberia's biggest agricultural investment to date - and a smaller project granted to Cavalla Rubber were found to have been awarded without "any competitive bidding" according to the report which also noted that offshore oil Block 14, now held by Chevron and Nigeria's Oranto, was also awarded without competitive bidding. It noted that other such blocks involved "terms" that favored the firms with lower taxes and a smaller government equity stake than stipulated by Liberian law.

The report furthered that Liberia's major mining contracts signed since 2009 - including a $1.5 billion deal held by Anglo-Australian BHP - were also only "partially compliant" with Liberian law, and that none of the country's tangle of commercial and private forestry contracts covering a huge area of forest - complied entirely with Liberian law.

It said Entity Concession Committees were not appointed, coupled with lack of stakeholder forums, while Agriculture Concession durations are not compliant with the Public Lands Law, among others.

The PWYP coalition indicated its "support for the draft process audit report and advised the Government of Liberia not to do anything contrary that will undermine the integrity of the draft audit report and the findings, conclusions and recommendations contained therein."

The coalition said it was embarking on a sustained campaign to ensure that the public is fully aware of the audit report and galvanize support for the revalidation of these bogus concession agreements signed outside the law.

"In the last two weeks, we have seen several government actors struggling to clarify and defend the undefendable position of the government on the veracity of the draft audit report. We want to point out that even before this report, the President of Liberia had on two occasions indicated that there were problems with at least two of the concessions mentioned in this draft report."

The PWYP coalition furthered that "in January of 2012, the President told the people of Cape Mount, that the government made errors in the Sime Darby agreement. Just few weeks ago, the President, again, visited Sinoe and admitted that the Government blundered in the Golden Veroleum agreement. We are not surprised that these two concessions fell under the ax of the auditor."

The Coalition said it disagrees that these problems are just issues of clerical mistakes, non-working of filing systems and simple capacity issues, as the government has been defending itself.

Last month, stakeholders of Lofa County issued several statements, threatening strong resistance and non-cooperation posture should the government of President Sirleaf attempt to sell "their Wologizi Mountain" without their expressed consent and input as done in other counties.

They said President Sirleaf was on a spree of mortgaging all the country's natural resources in her administration and forgetting about future governments and generations, something they said was unacceptable.

Two lawmakers of the county initially alarmed that the President and her son, Robert Sirleaf, were working behind the scene to give the country's biggest mountain and largest iron ore reserve to an Indian company, JINDAL. It is now true that negotiations are ongoing underground.

The leaked information, then, claimed the attention of the public, especially Lofans, who have seen several concession agreements being resisted by citizens across the country as they were reportedly signed through covert means.

"If this information is correct, which we believe have some credibility, we consider it unfortunate and unacceptable because we now know that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is on a mission to ruin this entire country of all of God's given resources which are meant to be used for all Liberians for her leadership to prosper, including her immediate family and leaving our children out and posterity unattended," the angry citizens said in a statement circulated in Monrovia.

"This press statement," the citizens went on, "is directed to all Liberians to know that the resources in Wologizi are meant for all Liberians and must be targeted and used for that purpose and nothing else."

Lofans said they see it as an irony for Robert Sirleaf or anyone for that matter to be discussing "our only beacon of economic hope and prosperity without the direct participation of any of the many trained Lofa children."

They boasted that Lofa is blessed with the best minds in all fields of profession.

"What does President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf led government wants to do with the future of the children of this country, Lofa in particular? We submit that this president has gone very too far and must stop pricking our intelligence, because we fought with our sweat and blood to have Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf elected twice, more than any [one county]," the statement went on.

"She cannot pay us like we are bunch of fools and ignorant people; no, this is unacceptable and any attempt to force 'Sirleafdom' on the people of Lofa county will meet up with stiff resistance. Our natural endowment must not be tampered with and, or compromised without our direct participation from the beginning to the end," they warned.

The people of Lofa said they are not only good followers, but are sensible followers, and President Sirleaf and her Vice President must not test their resolve. "We are watching the situation very closely and if and when this government thinks it has all the international support and might and will come with sole purpose of depleting all of the nation's resources in one regime, it is mistaken. President William V. S. Tubman led this country for over 26 years, but yet after his demise, Liberia is able to still boast of being a country with natural resources."

President Sirleaf and her son Robert, they claimed, have divided Liberia up into clusters of natural resources to be exploited so as to finance her family led government. "In fact, this is why she, of all governments in Liberia, is running cash-based budget. The only rational explanation for this is that the resources are being mortgaged by these international corporations and paying cash out front. The succeeding governments will only have papers to look at and experience frustrations for them and their governed knowing that the succeeding government will only have future obligations and not funds to run the business of government."

"We demand equity participation and involvement in the process leading to the exploration of our Wologizi Mountain from beginning to the end," the citizens demended in a statement signed by Amos M. Mulbah Lavela, A Pieu Subah, Eugene Flomo, Tarnue J. Keselly, Yassah Weedor Gayflor, Arthur Saywallah, Jeremiah Fayiah, Sekou Varfley Konneh and Mama Gayduo.

Many Liberians keep wondering why the administration would want to sell out all the resources when those agreements already signed are yet to be realized.

"We are not against the exploitation of our resources as it will engender development; however, we expect the Vice President or the government to invite us in discussions. There is abundance of professionals in any field from Lofa to provide the requisite support and way forward," another Lofa-based group Movement For Better Lofa, headed by former Deputy Commerce Minister in Sirleaf's first term, Professor Lavala B. Kortimai, noted.

Though President Sirleaf has said these agreements are intended to transform the country and the lives of its people, she has also admitted that her government had made mistakes in the signing of these major concession agreements including Golden Veroleum and Sime Darby.

"We made some mistake, let us be the first to tell you that we made some mistake... .We made mistake, because before we signed that agreement we should have come and sat down with you... .So now, we let the thing go out of hand because we didn't sit down with you--and you too you get vex--so you started to do all the things, the "kata-kata" things to spoil it," she confessed late April in Greenville City, Sinoe County.

"For us we will not sit down to allow that happen in Lofa," Yarkpawolo Kolubah stated recently ago during a debate in Monrovia. "This government wants to mortgage this country, all of our resources, leaving nothing for the future, and God has exposed them on our Wologizi," he continued. "They have done it to Cape Mount, Bomi, Gbarpolu, Nimba, Bong, Sinoe and other places, but they must not try us in Lofa," warned the angry citizen at the Carey/Lynch Street hatai center. "We will resist them, with all our might traditionally, with our devils, and africanistically."

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