How Liberia May Come to Realize A Dream of Three Former African Presidents, from A Single Railroad.

Sierra Leone President Siaka Stevens and his Liberian counterpart, Dr. William R. Tolbert.

By Henrique Caine

When the Mano River Union (MRU) was established in 1973 initially by President William R. Tolbert Jr. of Liberia and President Siaka P. Stevens of Sierra Leone, they were embarking on bold initiatives and visions to better integrate the socio-economic fabric of their respective countries through broad economic cooperation and trade.  

They believed, and rightfully so, that the MRU could facilitate increased trade and investment in hopes of yielding major development dividends for their people.  Liberia and Sierra Leone share so much in common culturally and historically, so the shared vision of the two Heads of State was no surprise.  

Guinea’s then President Ahmed Sekou Touré later joined the Union in October 1980, not long after the death of his counterpart, President Tolbert, but those discussions and negotiations with Guinea had long commenced way before Tolbert was assassinated.  

It made all the sense in the world to include Guinea.  Ironically, the very Mano River for which the Union is named originates in Guinea and flows through the other two countries.  

Not to mention that Guinea borders both Liberia and Sierra Leone and the constant level of daily trading and movements of people back and forth as well as the overlapping cultural, family and tribal linkages more than justified Guinea’s inclusion seven years later.   

In 2008, after much of the civil wars of the 90s that ravaged Liberia and Sierra Leone, leading to a complete stalling of much of the MRU's early initiatives, the issue of cross-border security coordination and cooperation became paramount to the future of the Union, thus making it essential that Cote D’ivoire, which shares borders with Liberia and Guinea and experienced extensive movements of refugees across its borders during years of sub-regional conflicts, join the union and help to ensure peace, security and stability — which are the bedrock for economic growth anywhere.  

Today, the four MRU countries — two English speaking and two French speaking — have a combined market potential of approximately 53 million people.  More than enough to make a major economic impact on the African continent and the world.

Unfortunately, for much of the last two decades, the Union has struggled to regain its footing despite a history of early successful inroads.  In its better days, it operated four technical training centers to build civil servant capacity in the areas of telecommunications, forestry, trade, and maritime affairs, among others. 

 It also provided scholarships for its nationals to pursue higher education intended for building the technical and professional capacity of its citizenry.  The Mano River Bridge linking Liberia and Sierra Leone was constructed in 1976, duty-free trading was encouraged within the Union and a glass factory in Liberia was constructed. 

The framework for economic integration has been ratified through several existing Protocols for many investment opportunities, but they remain mostly untapped. Fast forward to today, as the need to develop and export Iron Ore from the southeastern part of Guinea has now become essential for the viability of several mining projects that have stalled for many years, thereby creating renewed investment opportunities.  

To the pleasure of many investors in the mining industry, the Governments of Liberia and Guinea signed a Bi-lateral Agreement in 2019 to allow for the transshipment of iron ore from Guinea through Liberia via the Yekepa to Buchanan Port and rail corridor. 

 This is an infrastructure that is currently being used by ArcelorMittal, one of the largest steel companies in the world that operates a mining concession in Liberia.  With the subsequent ratification by the Legislative bodies of both countries of the 2019 Guinea-Liberia Bi-lateral Agreement, major investment mining projects including the Société des Mines de Fer de Guinée (SMFG) — operated by High Power Exploration (HPX), a U.S. mining company present in multiple countries, can more easily proceed with its project which is estimated at over US$2 billion with over US$600 million earmarked for Liberia infrastructure projects.  

According to many analysts, both Liberia, and Guinea stand to gain when multiple mining projects worth billions of dollars are concurrently being implemented, assuming that both countries ensure that agreements they enter into with investors achieve those desired objectives. 

 In a recent press release from HPX and its Liberian subsidiary, the company commended the Liberian House of Representatives for voting to ratify the AML agreement and also allowing the rail and port corridor to remain open to other potential users as well as to allow for the expansion of the rail for the provision of passenger and freight services.  

This realization would clearly be a dream come true for those long gone Presidents — Tolbert, Stevens and Toure who sat in the 70s, brainstorming ideas for economic integration between their countries.  

At a State Dinner hosted by the current sitting Liberian President in honor of the Guinean delegation in 2019 to celebrate the Bi-lateral Agreement he signed with Guinea, President George M. Weah stated:

“The evacuation of Guinean ore through Liberia has been on the agenda and in discussion for many decades, because it makes economic and financial sense, trade and development sense, and social and political sense… In this regard, I am particularly encouraged that all the parties around the table are African institutions, which means that we can shape a solution that is uniquely positioned for our own environment. Within this context, I would once again therefore like to repeat that the railway corridor under discussion, presents to our Administrations the opportunity to deliver on a legacy that will not only be transformative for our nations, but will be pioneering within our continent, and of global strategic importance.”

Just like his predecessors who had that same vision decades ago, on this particular issue, President Weah was very correct in his remarks!

About the Author: Mr. Henrique Caine is an International Business Development Consultant working in Africa.