Corporate-State Collusion: Making the Poor Poorer in West Africa

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Men left bewilderedby mining operations in a frontline village in the Northern Province of Sierra Leone

By Peter Quaqua

The West African sub-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. Add 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.

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 a paradox in the fact that the people and countries in the region are among some of the poorest and least developed in the world.         

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 coming to the region exploiting natural resources with no regard for humanity – while siphoning trillions off the region in illicit flows from poor destitute communities to rich capitals across the world.

Okay, governments need investments to create jobs for their struggling people, but to pursue foreign investments regardless of the consequences for human rights and the environment, is to surrender.

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.

The scale and impact of the environmental degradation and abuses perpetrated by these companies, coupled with their failure to even honor social corporate responsibilities to affected communities, make both the host and home governments of these concessionaires culpable.

Alfred Lahai Brownell, Sr. is the Founder and Lead Campaigner for Green Advocates International, the 2019 Goldman Prize [sometimes referred to as the Green Nobel] Winner. He speaks of how “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 sees the Mano River Union Civil Society Natural Resources Rights and Governance Platform (MRU-CSO Platform), “as a collective action in bringing much-needed justice, accountability and relief to the suffering masses across the region, who are victims of land grabs and destroying their habitats with impunity.”

Alfred 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 MRU basin. Participants 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. Yoboue, who now heads the Platform, could not hold back his enthusiasm about forming a body that would fight to amplify the plight of the neglected and abused people in the region and use existing judicial and non-judicial mechanisms at the local, national and regional levels to promote corporate and government accountability. He believes “nothing works better in a democracy than the rule of law”.  

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, with the doors open for the rest of the countries to join.

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.

Moving from the Monrovia conference, the MRU CSO Platform organized its first “People’s Forum” in Makeni, Sierra Leone from 18th 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.

The Makeni people’s 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.

Fund for Global Human Rights’ Program Officer for Thematic Initiatives, Dr. John M. Kabia (sponsor of the event), remarked that the gathering was overdue, highlighting the need for communities to lead their own campaign.   

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).

Scene from the Makeni People’s Forum in Sierra Leone

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, mobilized 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 corporate abuses by using national and international laws to hold governments and corporations accountable to their obligations to protect, respect and fulfill all rights.”

PILIWA 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 – IFC).

In Sierra Leone for instance, the NMJD, working with the Marginalized Affected Property Owners (MAPO) – a community-based association, filed a suit 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.

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 IFC, alleging 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, complaining of the shocking impacts of flooding on their health, property, livelihoods and environment caused by ENI and its subsidiary NAOC.

In Liberia, Green Advocates International, working with 22 Liberian indigenous villagers filed a complaint with the 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.

The MRU CSO Platform is keen taking advantage of the ECOWAS Court of Justice.  In fact, PILIWA has already made representations for several communities in West Africa, including Zogota massacre in Southeastern Guinea and a case in Niger concerning the State’s seizure of private community land without prior consultation or compensation.   

No doubt, the region is struggling 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. The longing to utilize natural resources for the well-being of the people and their environment is the all-embracing objective of the Mano River Union (MRU) Civil Society Natural Resources Rights and Governance Platform.

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