Monrovia — Amid lingering threats of protests, senior staffers of the Ministry of Mines and Energy and officials of the ArcelorMittal Liberia management team Thursday held a secret closed-door meeting with a group calling itself Nimba Education Guide in a bid to quiet down threats of protest in demand of jobs for Nimbaiains.
The meeting, which lasted for several hours at the Ministry, did not include lawmakers of the county or representatives of other relevant ministries or the Ministries of Labor and Justice.
Recently, the Nimba group threatened to stage a protest in demand of jobs for citizens of the county - a situation that appears to be pushing the steel company to the limit during a global health crisis that is disrupting global economies.
Among a laundry list presented to the company, the group is demanding that the company shoulder the responsibility of rehabilitating the Yamein Road once every year and open its recruitment with preference given to Namibians -- especially skilled jobs.
The group are also demanding that Nimba-based companies be given the same opportunity to apply for contracts at ArcelorMittal Liberia and that all local contracts such as catering and other services be given to Nimbaians only.
Industry observers say pushing the company to adhere to these demands will set a wrong precedent for one of the country's major investors and may leave other project-affected counties - Bong and Grand Bassa where the company also operates - launching similar threats and demands
The Ministry of Justice, which is the legal organ of the government, and the Ministry of Labor were not informed nor were invited to the discussion.
A source within the Ministry of Justice, who asked for anonymity, said the Thursday's meeting at the Mines & Energy Ministry presents a "semblance of illegality", adding that "If it relates to any disruption or potential violence, it should involve justice from justice minister".
Additionally, a top official of the Ministry of Labor, who asked not to be named, added: "If the protest is about labor matters, it should involve the Ministry of Labor. If it relates to any disruption or potential violence, it should involve justice. If a group is threatening protest, justice, labor should have been present just as it was done in the issue with the redundant workers."
FrontPageAfrica also observed that there were no lawmakers from the county at the meeting. One lawmaker, Representative Samuel Korgar later told FPA via phone call that he knew nothing about the meeting
But Mr. Emmanuel O. Sherman, Mines and Energy Deputy Minister for Operations, denied reports that the meeting was held in secret and that the media was not allowed because "we don't run the government in the press."
"As a lead ministry, we call the two parties to broker a deal because we were clear with the group that if there is any protest it could shy away investors. For FrontPageAfrica to assume that the meeting was a secret meeting is an affront," said Sherman.
"We had the meeting because we are the sector lead ministry. Instead of taking the matter to the inter-ministerial committee we thought it wise to broker a deal between the company and the Nimba education guard. We could not allow FrontPageAfrica today because we don't run our business in the Press."
Mr. Armstrong Goba Sekekpoh, who represented the group from Nimba County, said the Thursday meeting ensured that they face the company to discuss their demands, warning that their planned protest still remains.
Sekekpoh disclosed that AML has asked for three weeks to come back to the drawing board to further discuss the possibility of responding to their demands.
"They call us to face those we accused for the first time. We argue point by point and didn't come out with a solution, so we were given three weeks to come back at the drawing board," Sekekpoh said.
Sekekpoh added: "There is a communication gap between us and the company. We submitted 13 counts draft that was presented to the company. One of the basic issues is [that] the community liaison does not speak any of our dialects [languages] and for that we don't received information -- these are issues we want to protest for. The HR doesn't love Nimbaians."
In July, the Nimba Education Guide wrote the County Attorney seeking permit to protest at the facilities of ArcelorMittal. In that communication to the County Attorney John D. Miah, the group claimed its membership was over 1,000 youth, who were seeking permit to demonstrate against the company.
"The leadership of Nimba Education Guide has decided to mobilize its supporters to go to ArcelorMittal on the 20th of July 2020 in demand of (500) five hundred jobs for each of the Mountains in Nimba, including community liaison heads, human resource heads, mine managers and 50% of unskilled jobs," the group said.
Although the permit to protest was denied by the County Attorney, who cited the COVID-19 pandemic, the group informed FrontPageAfrica that they remain resolute to carry out the protest.
"Our concern is not whether another company wants to come or not. Our concern is that ArcelorMittal should be able to give us jobs. If they own all the potential mountains, they must give us jobs to sustain ourselves. We went to school and came back to the county to contribute to the development of the county, but ArcelorMittal is not helping us. We see a lot of Guineans in the employ of the company while Liberians remain jobless," Mr. Sekekpoh said.
AML has faced several protests actions from aggrieved residents of three counties where it operates. In February this year, hundreds of former workers of the company blocked rail which is used to transport ores to the port of Buchanan. The former workers from Nimba, Grand Bassa and Bong Counties, claimed that they were illegally dismissed but the steel giant denied the allegation.
The Amendment to Article XII of the Mineral Development Agreement states that senior management positions should be held by Liberians with no specific tribal or ethnic group: "The CONCESSIONAIRE shall not import unskilled labor into the Republic. Subject to availability, the CONCESSIONAIRE shall employ qualified Liberian citizens for stilled, technical, administrative and managerial positions in accordance with the schedule attached hereto as Appendix G. The CONCESSIONAIRE shall ensure that, subject to availability, within five (5) years of the Amendment Effective Date, 25% of all senior management positions at the CONCESSIONAIRE are held by Liberian citizens, increasing to 50% within ten (10) years of the Amendment Effective Date. Not later than 365 days after the Amendment Effective Date, the CONCESSIONAIRE shall appoint a Liberian citizen to one of 'the top three management positions at the CONCESSIONAIRE... "
With renewed demands coming from residents of Nimba County and the Mines Ministry initiating what some termed as "secret talks" between the company and the residents, there are fears that it might force the company in an unfavorable situation that might threaten its business amid an already turbulent business year created by the global pandemic.