Liberia: Cartels in Mining Sector Threaten Boakai’s Reform Agenda

— Investigation reveals that cracking Gao Feng’s control over the sector is a herculean task, as he wields significant power at MME

President Joseph Nyuma Boakai of Liberia is set to face formidable resistance as he seeks to reform the country’s mining sector, reliable sources at the Ministry of Mines and

Energy (MME) has said.

They told the Daily Observer that the pervasive influences of various cartels, particularly those controlled by foreigners, pose significant challenges to the much-needed reforms that the new government would want to institute.

President Boakai has expressed his commitment to implementing crucial reforms in the mining sector, aiming to ensure that Liberia benefits from its abundant natural resources.

After his election in November, President Joseph Boakai pledged to thoroughly examine mining concessions in order to ensure that Liberia benefits from its rich mineral reserves. He expressed concerns that despite the country’s abundance of resources, the mining sector has not translated into improved livelihoods for the people.

However, the deeply entrenched corruption and manipulations within the sector, especially in the artisanal and alluvial sectors, with the complicity of top-level government officials, present obstacles to these reform efforts.

“For President Boakai to have total control over this sector will be difficult. There are a lot of strong forces that are ready to fight him,” a former lower-level minister who served in the Weah administration, told the Observer. “There are a lot of powerful cartels that are ready to do anything to protect their interests and those of powerful past government officials.”

The presence of influential cartels, many of whom are foreign individuals, especially Asians, adds another layer of complexity to the situation. These cartels exert an uncontrollable influence over the mining sector, making it challenging for President Boakai to bring about meaningful change.

Among these influential foreign figures is Gao Feng, a Chinese national, dubbed, “the Real Minister”, due to his significant sway within the Mines and Energy Ministry.

Gao Feng, in particular, has gained notoriety as a prominent foreign player in the sector. His moniker, “the Real Minister”, reflects the significant level of power and control he wields within the Mines and Energy Ministry.

A recent media investigation unveiled troubling pieces of evidence regarding manipulations and clandestine activities at MME. The investigation reveals a Chinese national known as “Barry” or “the Real Minister” operating within the MME and allegedly engaging in bribery, illegal license issuance, and a complete disregard for mining regulations.

Gao Feng is said to have collaborated with former ministers to further his interests and those of his companies. These companies include Urban & Rural Services Inc., Xin Li Da Investment Development Ltd., and Scott Investment Incorporation. Among the alleged offenses, Gao Feng reportedly paid former ministers a substantial sum of US$350,000 to secure two Prospecting Licenses for Urban & Rural Services Inc., despite overlapping with the active Exploration License of NEO Global Mines & Minerals Inc.

One of the documents 

Furthermore, Urban & Rural Services Inc., under Gao Feng’s ownership, is accused of conducting large-scale mining operations within the area intended for NEO Global Mines & Minerals Inc., causing significant damage to exploration infrastructure. The operation is said to produce a daily minimum of 8,000 grams of gold, equivalent to $480,000, evading substantial government taxes.

Additionally, evidence suggests that Gao Feng revoked exploration licenses at will, conspiring with Scott Investment Incorporation to apply for an area previously granted to NEO Global Mines & Minerals Inc. The latter's license was swiftly revoked and transferred to Scott Investment Incorporation within a matter of minutes.

Gao Feng’s activities also extended to hindering NEO Global Mines & Minerals Inc.’s Reconnaissance License while favoring Xin Li Da Investment Development Ltd. for two Exploration Licenses in Grand Bassa County, despite pending complaints and legal violations. 

The Daily Observer placed a call to a mobile phone number belonging to an aide in one of Gao Feng’s companies. When the individual answered the call, he refused to state his name or which one of Gao’s companies he represents. He rather told the reporter the Gao is not in the country and that he (Gao) will speak to the media when he’s ready. 

Another one

Like the “Real Minister,” many members of cartels, their ringleaders continue to take advantage of the country’s poor regulation within the sector, lack of concrete and genuine investments, disorganization within the sector, ignorance of the Liberian people, and abuse of labor and the resources.

They and their networks are deeply embedded in the operations of the sector, making it difficult for any reform-minded leader to navigate the complex web of interests. President Boakai’s determination to institute reforms aimed at maximizing the benefits of Liberia’s vast natural resources is commendable. However, he will need to confront the deeply rooted corruption and manipulations that have plagued the sector for years.

“The way these people have the sector in their hands, it will be difficult for any government to dislodge them. They are firmly grounded and supported by powerful people who have so many stakes in the sector,” a top geologist who works at the Ministry told the Observer in an interview over the weekend. “Boakai needs to work harder if he will succeed in making the sector a priority that will help the economy. Gao Feng and a few other guys in this country practically control everything here.”

It is therefore no secret that Boakai’s reform process will probably encounter resistance from influential figures, both within and beyond the borders, who seek to maintain the status quo for their own gain. Addressing these challenges will require strong leadership, unwavering commitment, and a comprehensive approach to tackling corruption and enforcing regulations.

Collaboration with international partners and stakeholders who prioritize transparency and accountability will also prove instrumental in the reform efforts. While the road ahead may be challenging, Liberia's mining sector reform is crucial in unlocking its potential for sustainable development and benefitting the nation and its people.

President Boakai's determination to challenge the entrenched interests and institute meaningful change indicates a promising step towards a transparent and accountable mining industry that benefits the Liberian people.

Meanwhile, observers of the sector have emphasized the urgency for the Ministry of Mines and Energy to take prompt action to address these serious allegations and prevent further damage to Liberia's mining sector. It is crucial that swift and decisive action is taken against Gao Feng and anyone else involved in this abuse of power, in accordance with the Mineral and Mining Act of 2000. They believed prosecution should be pursued where necessary to maintain the integrity and fairness of the mining industry.