On defunded ArcelorMittal road project
By Joaquin Sendolo
Yekepa, Nimba County – Traveling on the Ganta-Yekepa Highway is still a difficult task despite this period of intense sunshine when unpaved dusty roads are expected to be smooth.
After just two nights of rain in February, the stretch of road between Ganta and Sanniquellie was so muddy only motorbikes could easily ply it.
This is despite a promise by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf last month to fix the road. She did not state when the road work will start; however, as the dry season ends and the rains draw near, residents here say the President is running out of time.
Accordingly, the ‘Movement to Restore Ganta-Yekepa Highway’ is planning to stage a series of protests in Sanniquellie if no action is forthcoming to commence the road work.
“We want a quick response to this problem because when the rain starts, the entire upper Nimba will be cut off and we won’t have basic commodities like petroleum, rice, among other supplies,” said Nathan Gono, spokesperson of the group. “We continue to signal our concern to government over the airwaves; and if we are not taken seriously, our response will hinder activities, including the electoral process.”
The group promises to shut down businesses, gather at the county administration building and disrupt the electoral process until government responds to their request.
The state of the road has caused big problems for residents and business people here.
“After two nights of rain in February, the road turned so bad that no car was coming to Sanniquellie except motorbikes,” said T. Joseph Sayee, Jr., a tailor and head of the Tailors Union in Sanniquellie.
Their supplies and other needs come from Ganta through this road, he added.
During a visit to the road last month, the Daily Observer saw vehicles and bikes using narrow roadside tracks to bypass the deep mud on the main road in Zuluyii and Kitounmon following two nights of rainfall.
The tracks are steep, narrow and slippery in some places, posing a threat to passengers on a bike or aboard a vehicle.
The worsening condition of the highway also brings with it skyrocketing prices of commodities and transport fares, which Sayee said is severely affecting them.
“We are paying L$350 on a motorbike and L$300 on a car, instead of L$200 from Ganta to Sanniquellie,” Sayee said. “A half bag of rice is US$20, a bag of cement, L$1,300 and a gallon of gasoline, L$425; prices and fares that are far above what we used to pay.”
This is just the latest in a string of difficulties for people here, he said.
Local people say the current condition of the road is the result of an attempt by a Senegalese road construction company, Compaigne Senegalese d’Entre-prises (CSE), to pave it with asphalt a few months ago.
After loosening the soil for a few months beginning in Zuluyii, the company ceased activities on grounds that it was not receiving financial commitment from the government.
Incomplete bridges were left with piles of loosened dirt from start to end, and when rain soaks the dirt, it makes the highway muddy and inaccessible.
CSE started the project after the government promised to pick up the bill left when ArcelorMittal, the steel giant, reneged on a promise to provide US$40m to pave the road leading to where it mines iron ore in the nearby Mount Tokadeh. At the time, the people of Nimba were excited over the idea that they were finally getting a decent road on this critical artery for trade in the region.
But to the surprise of many local people, the road project was not part of the reworked Mineral Development Agreement that the company signed with the Sirleaf government in 2006.
When the price of iron ore plummeted on global markets in 2014, ArcelorMittal claimed its Liberian operation was no longer profitable and it therefore could no longer afford to pay for the road.
ArcelorMittal defended its actions saying that by backing away from the road promise the company was able to continue operating in the country and paying government royalties and its salary commitment to workers.
The alternative would have been to shut down operations in Liberia (as rival iron ore mining company China Union has done), which would have cost Liberia jobs and revenue according to Hesta Pearson, Corporate Communications Director for ArcelorMittal.
“The road was not a part of the Mineral Development Agreement,” said Pearson. “But we believe if the road is opened, it would open the economy of Nimba. We even provided funding for the design, but the drop in price of iron ore is affecting the company.”
By continuing its operation in Liberia, ArcelorMittal will help boost “Liberia’s economy, provide education for Liberians and so forth,” said Pearson.
Pearson would not rule out the idea that ArcelorMittal might come back in with funding at a later date if iron prices recover. She acknowledged that the company also uses the road and would benefit from its repair.
Indeed the government is still counting on ArcelorMittal to pay the cost of the road, according to Deputy Minister for Technical Services at the Ministry of Public Works, Claude E. Langley.
“They have not backed out,” said Minister Langley. “The financial constraints facing ArcelorMittal are not news here now; and when they say we can’t do it now, it does not mean they will not do it.”
He said for now government has sourced funding and will have to “front load” the project because it is in the interest of its citizens.
The road construction company CSE was asked to pre-finance the road project before government came in, something the company agreed to do according to Nimba County Senator, Thomas Grupee. It was under this arrangement that CSE brought in its earth moving equipment to Liberia in March 2015.
When the government failed to make an agreed payment, the company halted operations leaving an already bad road worse. But businesses here continue to hope that the project will restart.
Tomah Seh Floyd of Sanniquellie operates Jungle Water Business, Incorporated. He sells petroleum products, rice and many other manufacturing goods, which get to Sanniquellie through the Ganta-Yekepa Highway.
Floyd said he still has hope that the project will continue. “I supply CSE petroleum products and it has negotiated with me to make payment of my money in Liberian dollar instead of the United States dollar, which I have accepted just for the sake of the road.”
CSE has a policy not to speak to the press but a source who spoke on condition of anonymity, because he was not authorized to speak, said the company still has its equipment parked at a workshop near Sanniquellie and is waiting on government to make a payment before commencing the work.
An environmental watchdog says a big part of the problem was the failure of the government and ArcelorMittal to clearly explain the funding of the road to the people here. The fact that it was not in ArcelorMittal’s MDA, and that the company’s participation was dependent on iron ore prices was not made clear to the people, said Jackson Speare, Coordinator of the Natural Resource Consortium.
“That also means clearly explaining what they should obtain whenever these agreements are signed,” Speare said. “As such, when people are left to guess or figure out things, their expectations go through the roof.”
Upcoming protests will become heated, predicted Speare. “When you realize how people suffered during the last rainy season, something has to be done about the road or else people may take it out squarely on the company, and may result in road blocks, barricading train tracks, harassment of local government officials and open challenge to law enforcement.”
But one group is taking advantage of the poor state of the road: motorcyclists.
“This road will have the worst condition ever this year, and a passenger may pay not less than L$1,000 from Ganta here on a bike,” said Samuel Meahwoe, a commercial motorcyclist in Sanniquellie.
The stable transport fare from Ganta to Sanniquellie, according to Meahwoe, is L$250, but because the road condition is worsening, he said motorcyclists currently charge L$300 or more.
“During the rainy season motorcycles are the only means of transport on the road because it can easily cross the mud unlike other motor vehicles,” said Meahwoe. “And as the road condition looks this year, travelers will pay huge amounts of money from Ganta to Sanniquellie and Yekepa.”
Nyan Fargbian is another motorcyclist plying the highway. “For us bike riders, we find our way through the mud except cars that spend more days to reach Sanniquellie,” he said. “It is time that we make more money because the cost of transportation can increase.”
This story was produced in collaboration with New Narratives and the Thomson Reuters Foundation with funding from German Development Cooperation. The funder had no say in its content.