Menu Close

Poor in the Midst of Plenty: The Natural Resource Dilemma in West Africa

People Gathered in Manonkoh, Sierra Leone
A frontline village in Sierra Leone (Manonkoh, Port Loko District) affected by mining operations of London Mining Company

There is little doubt the West African sub-region is endowed with abundant natural resources. The region is home to some of the best and largest deposit of gold, bauxite, rutile, diamond, timber, oil and gas, iron ore, uranium, coal and rivers. It hosts the Upper Guinea Forest [the Lungs of West and North Africa], with a massive green fortress protecting the region from being overtaken by the Sahara Desert. Then factor in the rich marine resources including, eye-popping lobsters, shrimps, crabs, fish in its oceans and the quixotic and scenic beaches, a tourist paradise of sort. These are the many alluring resources to behold in the milieu in focus.

This rich and sprawling natural endowment has always been an attraction and destination of some of the biggest corporations from around the world. There is paradox in the fact that the people and countries in the region are among some of the poorest and least developed in the world. How unfortunate that ‘resource curse’ ascription remains an ignominious tag on the region.       

Bad governance and corruption easily come to mind when lamenting the woes of the people, but one should consider for a moment how multinational corporations, from countries that profess to champion rights, accountability, anti-corruption and justice, have been running to the region exploiting natural resources with no human face in the name of foreign direct investment. 

There is a maxim that ‘one who aids and abets a theft is equally a thief.’ No wonder trillions are siphoned off the region in illicit flows from poor destitute communities to rich capitals in the West, joined recently by China, India and others.

“Being that it is the government that is inviting them (the multinational companies), they are sure of receiving protection. But we want these multinational companies to be accountable while tapping out our natural resources…,” said the Board Chairman of the Sierra Leone Network on the Right to Food (SiLNoRF), Raymond Senesie as he made opening remarks at the first people’s forum of the MRU CSO Platform in Makeni, Sierra Leone.

Yes, governments in the region need investments to boost their economies and create jobs for their struggling people, so it goes without saying that the people must survive at the mercy of their governments’ pursuit of foreign investments regardless of the consequences for human rights and the environment.

Various accounts show how foreign companies, with the backing of their host and home governments, violate local community rights with impunity. Poor people suffer forceful displacement, denial of their livelihoods and destruction of their properties.

Saa Pascal Tenguiano, Guinean lawyer and former Executive Director for the Center for Commerce and International Development (CECIDE) said “The scale and impact of the environmental degradation and abuses perpetrated by these companies, coupled with their failure to honor social corporate responsibilities to affected communities, make it hard to resist the feeling that, like their host and home governments, these concessionaires must be made to account.” In other words, the home countries of multinational companies operating in the region should also be made to account for excesses committed by the companies.

Attorney Alfred Lahai Brownell, Sr. is the Founder and Lead Campaigner for Green Advocates International, the 2019 Goldman Prize [sometime referred to as the Green Nobel] Winner. He’s all too aware that “communities in concession areas experience a range of negative impacts from the destruction of farmlands, to pollution of water sources, desecration of sacred sites and burial grounds and inadequate compensation for uprooting them from their livelihoods.” He thinks by bringing vulnerable communities together in the Mano River Union Civil Society Natural Resources Rights and Governance Platform (MRU-CSO Platform), “there would be collective actions in brining much needed justice, accountability and relief to the suffering masses across the region who are most affected by foreign corporations – grabbing their land and destroying their habitats with impunity.” Adding, “Governments in West Africa cannot and must not outsource their responsibilities to protect the rights of their citizens and the environment. It is time to ACT”.

Alfred Brownell is one of four activists behind the formation of the MRU CSO Platform. The others are Abu Brima, Executive Director of the Network Movement for Justice and Development (NMJD), Sierra Leone; Dr. Michel Yoboue, Executive Director, Group for Research and Advocacy on Extractive Industries (GRPIE), Côte d’Ivoire and Kabinet Sesay, then Executive Director, Center for Commerce and International Development (CECIDE), Guinea.

The idea was conceived in September 2012 at a meeting of civil society activists in Monrovia, organized by Green Advocates International (Liberia), to research and publish natural resource rights and governance profiles of countries in the Mano River Union (MRU) basin. The parties agreed in a communique to use the findings to design advocacy campaigns to ensure that land and natural resource laws and regulations are people friendly and that governments and corporations in the region will be held accountable to their obligations to protect, respect and fulfill rights.

Dr. Michel Yoboue, could not hold back his enthusiasm about the achievement of forming a body that would fight to amplify the plight of the neglected and abused people in the region. He believes nothing works better in a democracy than the rule of law. That is why they resolved to use existing judicial and non-judicial mechanisms at the local, national and regional levels to promote corporate and government accountability. “This is simply victory for human rights,” said Michel.

The network has since grown beyond the (four countries) MRU (i.e. Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire) to include five other countries across West Africa, (comprising of Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal and Niger). The potential of the remainder of the other West Africa countries joining is evident.

Among other things, the MRU CSO Platform is committed to strengthening collaboration around corporate and governmental accountability, undertaking solidarity actions and sharing experiences on how community dwellers and their livelihoods are being affected by government’s infrastructure development and foreign direct investment involving (large-scale mining, oil and gas, forestry and agricultural) companies and their host and home governments.

Going forward from the Monrovia conference, the MRU CSO Platform organized its first “People’s Forum” in Makeni, Sierra Leone from 18 to 21st March 2019. Sixty participants from indigenous communities and civil society groups from eight West African nations (Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, and Niger) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (observer) as well as development partners were in attendance.

While delivering the keynote address, the Deputy Secretary General, of the Mano River Union (MRU) Secretariat Abu-Bakarr Tarawalie (PhD), called for more collaboration and networking among the public and civil society organizations in ensuring that communities dwellers benefit from their natural resources.

Speaking earlier at the opening of the Makeni forum, the Executive Director of NMJD, Abu Brima, said the forum was designed to generate dialogue on the extent to which citizens and indigenous communities have been responding in terms of actions taken to counteract the bitter experiences that come with the extraction of their resources.  He emphasized “We must pursue the development of alternative extractive mechanism beneficial to our countries and their people. “

Fund for Global Human Rights’ Program Officer for Thematic Initiatives, Dr. John M. Kabia, remarked that the gathering was overdue, stressing the need for communities to lead their own campaign. Dr. Kabia noted that the forum would not only give the people the opportunity to determine what happens to their land and natural resources, but it would also allow them to lead the process and map out strategies.  GiZ’s Sierra Leone representative, Mr. Patrick Macua, also contributed to the Forum.

For four days, delegates shared experiences, learned and discussed a range of issues common to countries across the region. A ten-count communique followed the deliberations, with the communities declaring among many things that: Multi-National Corporations have failed to observe international best practices in community entry protocols in most cases and cited instances of harassment and blacklisting of Human Rights Defenders (HRDs).

Prior to the Makeni people’s forum, the MRU CSO Platform, working in collaboration with the Alternative for Community Advocates (ACA) based in Ghana; the Center for Public Interest Law (CEPIL), also in Ghana and Environmental Rights Action (Friends of the Earth Nigeria) based in Nigeria and Green Advocates based in Liberia to mobilize progressive young and public-spirited lawyers and brought them together in Monrovia in September 2016.

That meeting gave birth to a community legal defense team named and styled, Public Interest Lawyering Initiative for West Africa (PILIWA). According to Veteran Ghanaian Lawyer, Augustine Niber, Executive Director of the Center for Public Interest Law (CEPIL), and one of the co-founders of the PILIWA, “The aim is to provide legal support to communities caught on the frontline of cooperate abuses by using national and international laws to hold governments and corporations accountable to their obligations to protect, respect and fulfill all rights.”

Nigerian Lawyer, Prince Chima Williams of Environmental Rights Action (Friends of the Earth Nigeria) and the Chima Williams and Associates, spoke of the enormity of the work ahead due to the insensitivity of political leaders in the region to the suffering of their people, but said PILIWA is prepared and “equal to the task.” He said the group has already made legal representations on behalf of several affected communities before the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice and domestic courts as well as non-judicial grievance mechanisms (such as the compliance advisory ombudsmen of the international finance corporations.) “We will go all out to ensure that justice is served to the poor,” Chima asserted.

Substantively, in sierra Leone, the NMJD, working with the Marginalized Affected Property Owners (MAPO) – a community-based association, filed a suit on March 4, 2019 against the operations of Koidu Limited (KL) and its various subsidiaries and related companies. Koidu Limited (KL) is a kimberlite diamond mining enterprise located in Koidu, Sierra Leone. It is wholly owned by BSG Resources Limited (Benny Steinmetz Group) – an international company based in Guernsey and owned by a Liechtenstein-based trust controlled by Israeli entrepreneur Benny Steinmetz – through BSG’s subsidiary, Octea Limited, and other intermediate companies.

In Guinea, CECIDE provided counsel for affected local community dwellers from the expansion of the Sangaredi mine and filed a complaint with the Compliance Advisory Ombudsman (CAO) of the International Finance Corporation, alleging concerns related to lack of compensation for loss of land and displacement, impacts on livelihoods and pollution, among other things in relation to the Company’s operations.

In Nigeria, Chima Williams & Associates (CWA), working with communities from Aggah in Rivers State, Nigeria represented by Egbema Voice of Freedom (EVF), filed a complaint against Italian energy company, ENI S.p.A with Italy’s OECD National Contact Point on 15 December 2019 complaining of the shocking impacts of flooding on their GiZ’s health, property, livelihoods and environment caused by ENI and its subsidiary NAOC. ENI has drilled for oil in and around the town of Aggah since the 1960s. The complaint alleges that the company built elevated roadways, embankments and platforms that completely block natural streams that used to flow through Aggah, causing violent annual flooding of large swathes of farmland and residential areas. 

In Liberia, Green Advocates International, is working with 22 Liberian indigenous villagers to file a complaint with the International Finance Corporation (IFC) Compliance Advisor/Ombudsman against the Salala Rubber Corporation (SRC), a Liberian subsidiary of Luxembourg-based agricultural giant Socfin. The complaint alleges that SRC is using World Bank money to expand and operate its Liberian plantations through illegal land grabs, sexual violence, and intimidation of human rights defenders.

SRC took over the Weala Rubber Company in 2007, after the end of Liberia’s civil war.  The company received an IFC loan in 2008 to expand and modernize its rubber plantations. But according to villagers, that expansion has undermined their livelihoods and has been accompanied by violence against women and community leaders. 

Affected Communities and their supporting civil society organizations are keen on going beyond domestic legal and non-judicial grievance mechanism to take advantage of the ECOWAS Court of Justice.  In fact, as recent as February 6, 2020, the Public Interest Lawyering Initiative for West Africa (PILIWA), representing several communities in West Africa made oral arguments in two cases currently before the ECOWAS Court for hearings.

Nigerien Lawyer, Idrissa Tchernaka, President of RESEAU DH GOUVERNANCE based in Niamey, Niger expressed delight that “PILIWA is pursuing a case on behalf of the Zogota massacre victims in the forest region of Southern Guinea. The people were massacred by state security while protesting for their land. No one has been held accountable for the killings. The other case involves several families whose lands were illegally expropriated by the government of Niger.”

Evidently, the extractive sector in West Africa is beleaguered with instances of exploitation of natural resources that dispossesses ordinary citizens of their farmlands and livelihoods. Such blatant disregard for rights fuels conflict and exacerbates massive poverty across the region.

“In the quest to ensure that the God given natural resources that Africa is endowed with are utilized for the best interest of the people and the struggle to wrest power from the multinational corporations that exploit these resources without recourse to the well-being of the people and their environment; it is a stride in the right direction to bring all the actors, both as defenders and as victims of these corporate abuses to work together and speak with one voice, hence the need for the Mano River Union (MRU) Civil Society Natural Resources Rights and Governance Platform. As we say, we must go multinational to engage the multinationals that our individual governments are not able to singularly challenge” said barrister Chima Williams.