7 July 2014

Liberia: Nimba 'Scare' - Yekepa Raid Dampens Investment Climate

Photo: Tami Hultman/allAfrica.com
A mountain-side site of Arcelor Mittal, 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Yekepa.

The United Nation's repeated assertions that Liberia remains fragile despite immense post-war progress received perhaps its clearest dose of reality last weekend when armed vandals raided the compound of one of the post-war nation's major investors, Arcelor Mittal, holding employees hostage, embarking on a looting spree, burning down the key Sanniquellie to Yekepa makeshift bridge, exchanging gunfire with the Emergency Response Unit of the Liberia National Police, damaging company cars and vandalizing office spaces.

Earlier this year, a leaked US-Backed Liberia Governance Stakeholder Survey on the Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf-led government obtained by FrontPageAfrica warned that "many of the issues that drove the country into violence remain just below the surface, waiting to bubble up when the right combination of factors align".

Sirleaf alluded to similar trends in her Address to the Nation, titled, "Indiscipline and Lifting the Gag Order" on December 2, 2013, during which she highlighted what she called the "wave of lawlessness which is creeping upon the State" as she urged Liberians to fully commit to the maintenance of law and order, and peace in our beloved country.

"We cannot allow our fragile peace to slip from our grasp," the President declared." This requires all Liberians to change their attitude for the good of the nation." The President's Address to the Nation comes amid concerns regarding instances of lawlessness, where individuals or groups that are aggrieved or are in disagreement for whatever reason, would resort to threats or use of violence as recourse to redress

In its 2013 report to the UN Secretary General, the UN Security Council alarmed that while significant progress has been made in Liberia since the end of the civil war, the situation in the post-war nation Liberia remains fragile and continues to constitute a threat to international peace and security in the region. The assault on Arcellor Mittal in the mining town of Yekepa last weekend ricochet a violent tone and a constant reminder about the vulnerability of Liberia's post-war peace.

So much so that the government's chief spokesman, Information Minister Lewis Brown, who represented the administration on an inspection of the post-riot scene, pleaded with Arcellor Mittal not to leave Liberia because of the actions of a few vandals. The protesters have been identified as the Tokadeh Progressive Youths for Peace and Development. They were protesting in the town of Zolowee in Nimba County over the operations of Arcelor Mittal, triggering fears, tension and drawing condemnation from members of the county's caucus in the national legislature.

Teeko Tozay Yorlay, assistant County Superintendent for development, explained to FrontPageAfrica shortly after the incident that compensation has been paid over the years to locals for use of their land for roads and other mining activities by Mittal with over US$4. 2 million already paid to the locals. The official said it has been suspected that some individuals who are not from the communities are masterminding the current protest using the situation to extort money.

"We learnt that some people who do not even hail from the communities are holding rubber seedlings and taking part in the protest using the situation to get money from the company by causing trouble, but we are working with local chefs to know the real land owners and solve the problem", Assistant Superintendent Yorlay said.

Protestors want crops recount

Assistant Superintendent Yorlay said the protestors are claiming that some of their crops were not counted during the counting process in 2010 and are therefore demanding a recount. "They are saying that some of their crops were not counted in 2010, and they want a recount, so on tomorrow we will be having a joint security meeting to solve the problem" Yorlay said.

He indicated that they are calling on the protestors to engage the process through dialogue rather than using violence. The government through Brown assured the management of Arcelor Mittal and its partners, including workers at the entity of improved security in their concession vicinity following the massive destruction of their facilities by protesters.

A FrontPageAfrica reporter who toured the scene in the aftermath of the riots, said protesters vandalized the company facilities by destroying office working equipment, records, including the million dollars investment iron ore plant and also looted several materials being used by the company. Some of the materials include, cement, shovels, vehicle tires, drilling and mining equipment, vehicles, computers, vehicle batteries, amongst others essential materials.

Our reporter also said the protestors damaged over five Isuzu, Hilux vehicles, jeeps, buses, earth moving equipment and also burned a truck and other earth moving equipment and several hundred bags of cement in the company's operations area in Yekepa, Nimba County.

Brown insisted after the tour that the government will not compromise what happened. "Anyone who's responsible for this level of damage on the company's facilities and are caught will be prosecuted in accordance with the laws of Liberia". At a meeting with employees of the company most of whom are foreign nationals, Brown expressed President Sirleaf's deepest regret over the incident which most of them were held hostage for several days and hours.

Assuring Arcelor Mittal that it remains a major partner in Liberia in improving the lives of thousands of Liberians, mainly people in rural areas, Brown described the riots Yekepa as a scary act which has cast a negative image of the country as he appealed to Mittal not to abandon Liberia by pulling out its operations as has been speculated over the last two days following the destructive incident at the company facilities.

"The president has commissioned me and the team here to inform the management that she is deeply sorry for the incident" Minister Brown told the management team of ArcelorMittal.

The action by the rioters, Brown explained has the propensity to scare investors from investing in the country which is now trying to attract investors to improve the living condition of Liberians following years of unrest and total destruction in the county.

R. Matonakay Tingbean, Representative (Nimba County District 9) described the action of his kinsmen as a total disrespect to the county's leadership as he condemned the act carry out by the citizens and said the Nimba Legislative caucus is taking the issue seriously and will not compromise the issue based on tribal line, but take the issue as a national concern which affected the company, county and its people.

"We have been negotiating with our people and told them that we were making efforts to settle their concern, but to come behind us why we are negotiating and carry out this act is a complete disrespect for elected officials of our county", Tingbean said. The lawmaker said ArcellorMittal is doing well by providing basic social services for Liberians in their concession areas and it was only reasonable that once people have issues with the company to properly channel their concerns in a more responsible way.

Not Deterred, Mittal Remains in Operation

ArcelorMittal management in response, lauded the government for their efforts taken so far and assured that they will resume operation and at exactly 6pm Saturday, the company turned on its iron ore mill and begun operating in the presence of the government delegation.

The company also lauded the government for the rapid response of the Police who were able to remove most of their expatriates from in hostage and has been working to retrieve some of the looted properties of the company. Police authorities said most of the properties of the company were looted by protesters. "Most of the items we are retrieving are taken from inside the forest, these people, most of them hid the items when they heard that we were coming".

By Sunday, full calm appeared to have returned to Yekepa with the government declaring the riot officially over. According to an Executive Mansion release, a number of the ringleaders, including those who shot at the police, have been arrested and are being brought to Monrovia for further investigation and prosecution. The full extent of the damage, which is still being assessed, includes destruction of private properties, as well as injuries to at least six police officers and damage to public roads and bridges.

Speaking for the Liberian Government, Information Minister Lewis Brown said, "There is no tolerance in this society for those who act outside the law by expressing grievances through violence, destroying properties, assaulting law enforcement officers, and violating the rights of others. All such individuals will face the full weight of the law", the Minister concluded.

The Government of Liberia has assured the management of Arcelor Mittal, and all private and foreign investors that no action will be spared to protect lives and properties as well as the general well being of their staff and employees. The Government has also expressed appreciation to the peaceful and law-abiding citizens within the Yekepa Community who refused to be a part of such destructive activity, and has reassured all Liberians of the full protection of their rights to live in peace and safety in their communities.

Protesters Appeared 'Drunk', Disjointed

Jerry Mwagbe, Resident Communications Manager at ArcelorMittal Liberia posted on his Facebook page Friday that the protesters resisted attempts by the company to resolve the matter and claimed that many of the protesters were intoxicated.

"Attempts by the company's managers to engage with the demonstrators, many of whom appeared to be drunk, were unsuccessful. Police arrived at the scene but did not engage with the crowd at this point. At about 11am the County Attorney arrived and tried to disperse the crowd, but he was booed and jeered and he left."

Mwagbe wrote that the group's leaders identified themselves as the Tokadeh Progressive Youths for Peace and Development and were protesting against the Ganta-Yekepa Highway, the County Development Fund and other issues that were recently dealt with in a tripartite meeting held between government officials, advocacy groups from the county and management representatives from the company. Mwagbe said by 12:30, demonstrators who had been standing at the entrance to the mines, moved into the operational areas and started to attack employees of AFCONS, a sub-contractor working on Phase II of construction in the mines.

"At about 1pm reinforcements from the Public Safety Unity of the Police arrived on the scene, and by 1:30 started to disperse the crowd. Tear gas was fired and the crowd, which had seemed poised for a confrontation, scattered only to return within a few minutes. Some of the rioters were armed and opened fire on the police."

Employees Held Against Their Will

Mwagbe also said that rioters had entered the mines and had started to loot equipment and construction materials. The Mittal spokesman said the company had engaged the government, who has been working along with Mittal to resolve the matter. Mwagbe however, noted that employees of the company were being held against their will in the warehouse at the mine. "They have been held up for the last 20 hours with no access to food. Confined in the workshop and cannot come because of fear of hostile protestors. We are awaiting police intervention. In the meantime, the employees have been calm and are holding up well," he added.

Senator Thomas Grupee(NUDP, Nimba), head of the Nimba County legislative caucus condemned the situation, but has at the same time cautioned the police mainly the Emergency response Unit (ERU) to refrain from using force against the people. Senator Grupee told FrontPageAfrica Friday morning that eyewitnesses on the ground informed that protestors blocked the main entrance leading to the Mittal Steel operated mine and damaged some properties belonging to the company.

Ironically, Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia launched the civil war using the Nimba County towns of Bhutuo and Karnplay as a launching pad for the war, recruiting mostly ethnic Gios and Manos who felt persecuted by Doe. Doe's troops retaliated against the whole population of the region, attacking unarmed civilians and burning villages.

Arcellor Mittal signed a 25 year mineral development agreement with the government of Liberia to mine iron ore in the country. As part of its social corporate responsibility the company has paid millions of dollars to three counties- Nimba, Bong and Grand Bassa for its operations with Nimba getting the lion's share.

Last weekend's protest is not the first as in the past, there has been protests against the operations of the company with some locals demanding compensation for use of their land which has made them to be unable to make farms. After a recent protest, Mittal displayed photographs of development it has carried out since it began operations in the county, including the construction of clinics, schools and other undertakings.

Even amid the calmness of the storm are lingering, unanswered questions. How did things deteriorate to a point where one of key investment partners is now forced to endure a loss of probably millions in damages? What steps would the government of Liberia take now to ensure that disgruntled contractors and youths do not resort to violence, probably much worse than what took place last Weekend. More importantly, where did protesters find the guns used in gunfire exchange with ERU officers?

The answers for now appear to be engulfed in the Liberian government's pledge to look into the matter and get to the bottom of the saga which political observers say boils deep into the root causes of Liberia's concession dilemma, one which has stalled developments in major concession areas around Liberia, pitting investors and against villagers in a recurring theme rocking not only development but progress of a postwar nation on the mend struggling to restore its economic sanity.

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