By Alloycious David
An illicit miner, who uses an armed gang to mine diamonds from the Gola Forest National Park, has been arrested with an automatic weapon, charged and sent to court for illegal possession of a firearm.
Defendant Morris Sokpo alias “County” told police investigators that the machine gun, which has been in his possession since October 2019, is owned by a Sierra Leonean friend, who left it with him for safekeeping.
Sokpo, 56, was arrested March 1, 2020, in Gbarpolu County by a group of newly trained eco-guards, following several failed attempts by state security forces to dislodge him from the 88,000-hectare Gola Forest National Park, which stretches to Sierra Leone and cut across Cape Mount and Gbarpolu counties.
Although Morris Sokpo is not in court for violating the Mineral and Mining Law and the Wildlife Law of Liberia, the Ministry of Mines and Energy promises to support his prosecution to deter would-be violator.s
“He was armed and deadly,” Jeremiah Gontee said, “County” Sokpo has over a period of five years challenged local authorities and state security forces discharging automatic rifles randomly at sight on several occasions.”
“He would just start shooting when he sees people coming in the forest, Gontee an eco-guard, who led a team of five that apprehended County Sokpo told Daily Observer via phone from Gbarpolu County.
Gontee, a hunter, recruited and trained by a local conservation group to help protect the forest and its biodiversity said arresting County Sokpo was an uphill and risky task, which requires compensation from the government.
“We suffered. It took us 15 days to do what the Liberian Government and Sierra Leonean security forces failed to do over a period of five years. The Liberian Government needs to pay usUS$ 1,000 for capturing County Sokpo,” he said.
“He declared his own state in the forest and refers to himself as the county, Gontee explained.
County took advantage of the denseness of the forest and set-up mining sites in various locales in the park.
He was also arrested with elephant tusks, which were turned over to the police in Bopulu City, Gbarpolu County, Gontee said.
Emmanuel T.T. Swen, Assistant Minister for Mines at the Ministry of Mines and Energy, corroborated that County Sokpo was also involved in illicit hunting of protected animal species in violation of the Wildlife and the Protected Area Management Laws of Liberia, but “County” Sokpo dismissed the assertion and said he used the gun once to kill an elephant that was eating his crops in Sokpo Village.
Assistant Minister Swensaid Liberia is a country of laws and there shouldn’t be anyone person who should think they are law and gospel unto themselves and that they can take the laws into their hands and nothing will happen.
“Sopko has been someone who has taken the law into his hand claiming to be the county and anything he does is the final. I think arresting him is going to instill law and order in the area and it will serve the purpose of the protection of the National Park,” Assistant Minister Swen said.
He said Morris refers to himself as ‘County’ Sokpo with the belief that anything he does will go unpunished.
“His prosecution is my interest, at the level of the Ministry of Mines and Energy we will support his prosecution because in the absence of that we would have a reoccurrence of what he has done,” Mr. Swen explained.
Michael Garbo, Executive Director of the Society for the Conservation of Nature of Liberia (SCNL), a local conservation group that worked with the Forestry Development Authority to established Gola Forest as a protected area, was not available for comment, but a conservationist working in Grand Cape Mount was elated over the news of ‘County’s’ arrest and said his action was denting their work to keep Gola as a protected area.