Liberia: Nimbaians Outraged over AML’s ‘Manipulative’ Letter

.... Call on GoL to trash steel giant’s request not to sign agreements with other investors

“It is disheartening that people who have spent close to two decades here and got nothing to show for their long stay will want to dictate to the government about what to and not to do,” says Saye Thompson, a citizen of Gbarpa in Sehyi district, one of the communities in the heart of the iron ore-rich region of Eastern Nimba.

Taking a swipe at global steel giant, ArcelorMittal Liberia (AML), Thompson indicates that the company’s presence in the area since 2005 has added no value to the wellbeing of the locals — as he also narrates the dehumanizing conditions residents of communities around the AML’s operation areas continue to live in despite the presence of the multi-billion dollar steel company in the area.

“Our communities are still poor, if not even poorer than they met us. We still have this dusty [laterite] from which moving vehicles give us dust daily during the dry season, and mud during the rainy season,” Thompson, who is the chairman of the Blei and Sehyi-Kodoo joint Community Forest Management Bodies (CFMBs), says in an interview over the weekend in Gbapa, his hometown. “Basic social services, especially health, education, electricity, and safe drinking water are lacking here. We have nothing.”

Thompson’s outburst was provoked by a recent communication by ArcelorMittal to the government, urging the administration of Liberian President George Manneh Weah not to sign a Mineral Development Agreement with Solway Mining Inc., a Liberian mining company, and not to give railroad usage rights the High-Power Exploration (HPX) group companies Ivanhoe and SMFG—two mining companies that are poised to make some substantial investments in Liberia and Guinea.

Solway, which was issued an exploration license in 2019, has since discovered the ore in commercial quantities after years of prospecting. The company has been locked in talks with the government over sealing a mineral development agreement (MDA) that would allow it to mine in Mount Blei and Mount Delton ores deposits. 

For HPX, it has entered into a framework agreement with the government to establish a path for agreeing to final terms for access to critical rail and port infrastructure, marking the first step in de-risking world-class Guinea Nimba Iron Ore Project and moving the project closer to realization.

But in its letter addressed to the ministers of Mines and Energy, Gessler Murray; Finance and Development Planning, Samuel D. Tweah; and Justice, Frank Musah Dean, ArcelorMittal decried what it termed as an encroachment on its operations by third parties that the government has been dealing with recently.

Mittal said it felt obliged to write to the government, given the recent wave of agreements with other parties trying to encroach on the company’s activities in Liberia.

“Given the seriousness of the matters addressed in this letter, AML requests the Government to cease any and all actions that violate AML’s rights under the MDA, cancel all agreements granting the right to third parties in AML’s Concession Area, including, without limitation, the HPX Framework Agreement, the Solway License, and the Graphite Licenses, and not take any steps that could risk violating AML’s rights further.”

But Mittal’s latest action has irked the nerves of locals in the former Liberian American Swedish Mining Company’s (LAMCO) operation areas, a portion of which ArcelorMittal has been conducting mining operations. 

Like Thompson, many residents are also outraged over “AML’s manipulative moves,” which they say are aimed at ensuring that the company becomes the sole operator in the area despite its decade-long operations leaving much to be desired. 

Peter G. Zuweh, Chief Elder of Zolowee, says the company has done very little to impact their lives positively, especially in the areas of health, education, and youth and women empowerment. 

Chief Elder, Peter Zuweh

“Mittal is doing nothing for us. They don’t even care about our well-being but they continue to take our resources from here year in, year out,” he said. “Why should the government continue to keep the company here?” he asked rhetorically. “Anyway, it was the government that brought the company here. So they have not been looking at us since they came. They don’t care about us,” the elderly man states.

John McCarthey, 82, and founder of Bassa Village, where Solway has its camp, says “our resources make these people rich while we remain poor. This is unacceptable and the government should not be allowing this, Let them give Solway the right to operate here too. At least they have been relating to us, they have been helping us here.

“Until our leaders get to know that we need to benefit from our natural resources, these people will continue to use us. We don’t benefit from Mittal. Only Yekepa has electricity and we sleep in darkness here though we are very close to them,” he said. 

The locals are calling on the government not to heed AML’s request. They say the government should rather sign an MDA with Solway so that competition can be in the area.

“In fact let Solway, which has done more for us than Mittal, who has been here for more than 16 years, be given an MDA so that the company can start its operations,” says Gbarpa Zone Town Chief Quee Neanquoi. “Solway has already established an agricultural project, women empowerment program and has provided pipe-borne water to Zolowee and will be providing the same for other communities soon.

All of these are happening, Neanquoi says, when the company is yet to acquire an MDA. “The company has employed some of our brothers and sisters. They can sit with us and ask what our needs are. These things, for us, are good. This is why we want Solway here.

If the government fails to grant their request, according to Yorh Brown, Zolowee, the residents will protest next year at the ballot box. “We the citizens, are telling the government that we want Solway. They are helping us here a lot. But if the government refuses [s] to listen to us, we, too, will speak next year during the elections.”

There is no safe drinking water in the communities, except Zolowee, where Solway has installed a pipe-borne water system with at least thirty-two pump heads across the town. Note that Solway has completed exploration for mining but does not yet have a Mineral Development Agreement to begin actual mining.

However, this is not the first time AML has accused Solway of encroachment. In a communication dated June 26, 2020, Mittal directly confronted Solway, informing its officials of the alleged encroachment on their concession area.

In its latest communication to the government, the company further urged the government to refrain from taking any further steps that could jeopardize its rights under the MDA and revoke the Solway License forthwith. 

“The Solway License is for “Iron Ore” and the relevant area is within AM’s Concession Area. Accordingly, it is patently clear that the issuance of the Solway License violates AM’s exclusive rights under the MDA,” the ArcelorMittal letter says.

But the Minister of Mines and Energy says otherwise. 

In a letter to the Minister of Justice giving reasons why Solway should be granted an MDA, Minister Murray said that the areas being courted by the company do not belong to AML.  The government, under the 2006 amended MDA, granted AML the right to submit a bid to undertake an exploration of potentially exploitable Iron Ore resources in an unencumbered contiguous area of the concession area.

In his letter dated November 25, 2021, the mines minister noted that AML was also given the opportunity to apply for the entire LAMCO concession area but it applied for only a portion and the rest, by law, was reverted to the government.

“AML applied only for mining license over the production areas of Tokadeh, Gangra, and Yueliton. By this, all other areas of the former LAMCO concession note delivered under the amended MDA reverted to GoL,” the minister said in his communication. “The single most issue for which this opinion is made is whether or not AML has any legal claim to the tenement granted to Solway and my response is NO!” the minister said in his communication."

Former Nimba County superintendent, D. Dorr Cooper, and other eminent citizens of the county have been calling on the government to give Solway operational rights.

“The happiness of our people is our concern. Once the company is making our people happy, then there is no need to delay its operations. We want our government to act now,” Cooper stated at an endorsement ceremony held in Zortapa in March this year.