What’s Happening in Yekepa?

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We have long heard of the extremely slow pace of development in the formerly booming town of Yekepa, the center of mining operations in Nimba County.

From the 1960s through the mid-1980s the town was the headquarters of the iron ore mining company, LAMCO, a Liberian, Swedish, Canadian an American iron ore conglomerate, known then as  one of Africa’s biggest companies.  It boasted modern housing for high, middle and low-level staff; 24-hour electricity and pipe-borne water; a modern medical center; a vocational training school; and many other social amenities available to the company’s workers.

But since the Indian steel giant, ArcelorMittal, took over operation of the mines in 2005, we have heard consistent complaints about the very slow pace of work there.  Last week Nimba youths staged a sit-in on the railway in protest against the company’s failure on many of the agreed projects.

Arcelor came in with great promise.  One of the major components of its concession agreement was the multimillion dollar Social Development Fund that put money into the hands of people in the three counties in which the company is involved–Nimba, Bong and Grand Bassa.

Is was the first such fund required from concessions in Liberia. Nimba receives US$1.5 million, Grand Bassa US$1 million and Bong US$500,000.  The Community Colleges in Nimba and Grand Bassa are direct results.
But there are many problems with the Arcelor Mittal that    are frustrating Nimba citizens.   Our Nimba correspondent Ishmael Menkir visited Yekepa in February.  He found the hospital in deplorable condition, not yet renovated ever since Mittal took over the operations in 2005. Nor have most of the schools been renovated.
In addition, the Ganta-Yekepa road, which Arcelor Mittal since 2007 promised to rehabilitate and pave, is yet to be done.  Another Dry Season is past and the Rainy Season is upon us.  How long can the people wait for implementation of written agreements between them, their government and this company?

Liberians and their government are far more familiar with Americans and Europeans than Indians.  The country was founded by freed men and women from the United States, which has had the longer relations with us than any other country.  Our relations with Europe date back to 1848 when Liberia entered diplomatic relations with Britain, the first country to recognize our independence.  Other European nations, including the Hanseatic States, began recognizing Liberia from the 1850s.

But Liberia’s first contact with Indians came in the early 1950s when an Indian national opened what he called an “Indian Bazaar” at the foot of Mechlin Street Down Waterside.  Since then many Indians, beginning with Sethi Brothers, have entered the Liberian market, especially in building materials.  Now the Indians have a serious eye on Liberia’s mineral resources, beginning with Arcelor Mittal. This multibillion dollar deal signaled a lot of hope.  But neither the Liberian government nor its people fully understood the Indians’ intentions–nor their way of doing business.

Another Indian company, Sesa Goa, has also taken over the Western Cluster mines in Bomi and Cape Mount counties.  But the GOL knew little about this company and the Daily Observer warned the GOL many times about this.  But GOL went ahead and let it happen.

GOL did not even know well enough Elenilto, the Israeli scrap metal company to which GOL, against the advice of the Daily Observer and many others, gave the concession to mine iron ore in the Western Cluster.  But GOL ignored the warnings and Elenilto walked away with over US$100 million when, realizing just as we had said, that they knew nothing about iron ore mining, they sold 49% of the concession to Sesa Goa, an Indian iron ore firm.

A few months later, Elenilto sold to Sesa Goa the remaining 51%.  Yet GOL knew nothing about Sesa Goa.  So GOL seemed taken aback when that company one morning presented a most preposterous (absurd) proposal to ship its iron ore from Cape Mount and Bomi by truck to the Free Port of Monrovia!  Now there is another development: the company has scaled down its operation by 80% because of “difficulties.”  Did GOL really know who Sesa Goa really was?

As for Arcelor Mittal, GOL needs to engage them  seriously and get them to honor their commitments to their concession agreement.  The company needs to realize that it is not doing business in Liberia in a vacuum, but among Liberians with whom the company has to live and work in order to succeed in doing business.

This is the message the youth of Nimba are sending.  It is about their future that they are concerned–and rightly so.

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