Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Sime Darby $800 million contract, “another form of extortion”

By: Tolo Bonah Corfah and Sam K. Zinnah

The recently signed $800 million “United States dollars” Concession contract between the government of Liberia and the multinational conglomerate Sime Darby is raising questions in counties to be affected. Recently, the question of whether Sime Darby’s contract is development oriented or just another white wash development was raised by Son/daughters of Bomi, Grand Cape Mount, and Gbarpolu Counties. One angry looking gentleman from Gbarpolu asked “what does this contract means to poor rice and other agric-farmers in the affected counties”?
In the early 1920s Harvey Firestone, “with help from the US government” signed a dubious leased agreement with the Liberian government to cultivate one million acres of land into natural Rubber. The agreement was signed between the government of Liberia and Firestone without any import or knowledge of the local inhabitants whose land was taken. Overnight the government of Liberia and Firestone had forcibly turned Rice and Cassava farmers into Rubber planters and tappers. At the time the local inhabitants whose land had been given to Firestone for Rubber cultivation were forced to become Rubber planters for Firestone at minimum wage pay of 2 cents per day. Today, after more than 80 years in operation, the Firestone rubber tapper makes less than $6.00 a day while Firestone makes millions of dollars profit at the expense of poor or voiceless Liberians. Beside the starvation wages paid to Firestone rubber tapers, working conditions at the plantation is like what the non-profit group in Liberia, “Save my future Foundation” called “The Mark of Modern Slavery”.

Last week, the chairman of the National Investment Commission, Mr. Richard Tolbert was up on Capital Hill trying to persuade the law makers in ratifying the just signed $800 million concession contract between the government of Liberia and the multinational conglomerate Sime Darby of Malaysia to cultivate rubber and Oil Palm on 220,000 hectors of land in Bomi, Grand cape Mount and Gbarpolu counties. This land is in addition to the concession rights to the renegotiated concession rights to the B.F. Goodrich rubber farm in Bomi and Grand Cape Mount counties; which was awarded to the Kumpulun Guthrie Sendirian Berhad or KGB, a subsidiary of Sime Darby (www.anilnetto.com).
Are these investment beneficiaries to the inhabitants of these counties or just another political white wash to present fake improvement to the international community? Where is the good political governance that was promised during the 2005 elections?, the main objective for political governance in post-war Liberia should be to secure democracy by instilling checks and balances, which have been absent throughout Liberia's long history. Such political system “in a way” would limit or reduce the president or group of people’s power to no longer usurp so much power and wield such extraordinary influence over the fate of the majority and by so doing provide the conditions for sustained growth and development - not white washing old buildings, putting black water on roads and referring to them as development. The first task of political democracy in Liberia should be aimed at ensuring equal and unhindered access for all to state power, which “as history has shown” had been the most contentious issue in Liberian political life that to a large extend fueled the violence that we witnessed in Liberia for 14 years. Liberian leaders have either lacked a vision or the political will to enforce whatsoever vision they had for the development of Liberia. The Constitution, which should provide the framework for governance was disregarded and treated with discontent by the very people who should have upheld it. Liberian politicians are more talkative than doers. They bark more than they bite. Most Liberians grew under the perception, which of course is now becoming unacceptable, that only "doctors/well learned people" could govern Liberia. This explains why all of Liberia's past and present leaders had spent their energies seeking out doctorate titles, even if honorary, in order to bolster their position and create the erroneous impression that they were the custodian of knowledge.

During the 2005 general elections, Mrs. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf professed to be the best candidate for the job that was chased by more than 20 candidates. Today, the promises zero tolerance on corruption, good governance, accountability and many more are flying through the political windows as kids stand-bye and watch the reality.

While vigorously fighting to defend his job last week, the NIC chairman told law makers that Sime Darby would provide amongst other things “resettlement benefits to the locals in the concession areas and that farmers wanting to farm would seek permission from the company to operate in their area”.
The need to attract companies to Liberia that will provide jobs to the working masses of
Our people can not be overemphasized, but what Liberians need to know is; what are
the socio-economic benefits to the locals? Are the local inhabitants involved in the
Negotiations to rehabilitate them from their farm lands? What are the so-called resettlement benefits?
Are the locals going to be evacuated from their villages and resettled somewhere else?
We need to know what the environmental impact will be on the land; will it be
like Firestone rubber company that is not only exploiting the workers, but has
ignored every environmental law on the books.
It was the believed of many Liberians that this government would not take the road other Liberian governments have taken in the past, which is getting into contractual agreements that did not benefit the country or the working masses but few elite.

The need for decentralization in Liberia

In the wake of continuous extortion of county resources, decentralization of state management is high recommended. Giving more power to the regions to determine local policies and development priorities, including such areas as education, social infrastructure and human development, as well as the power to implement these policies such as forming their own budgets, financing developmental policies, collecting certain types of taxes etc.. Likewise local authorities should be held accountable for what happen in their regions and they should be made less reliant on central authorities. Local authorities should have a share in managing state assets on their territories and gaining incomes from it as well for financing projects. To avoid outright manipulation of local authorities, particularly Paramount, Clan and Town Chiefs, article 56, clause B of the 1986 Constitution be revisited and the power of the President to remove these local officials be transferred to a credible and well scrutinized National Legislature acting upon
a specific number of signatures of the local population in the respective localities of these officials, certified by the national election commission as valid. In this way, we might not have town chiefs coming to bring resolutions of support to the president out of fear of losing their jobs. Given that Liberia is a small country of less than five million and that the level of illiteracy is high, and in view of the fact that power had been the root of all evils in Liberia in as much as incumbents had feared parting with power because it will not be gotten back again, a revisit of article 50 of chapter VI of the 1986 Constitution which states that "....no person shall serve as President for more than two terms is highly recommended. It should “however”, be re-emphasized, nationally accepted (under international monitored) that no person who have held office for more than 2 separate consecutive terms should be allowed to contest further. Efforts should be made to exploit the opportunity for amendment that is provided for in article 93 of chapter XII of the 1986 Constitution.

The danger of corruption in post-war Liberia

Corruption increases the marginalization of minority groups including women. It leads to contestation of the state’s monopoly of force or radicalizes opposition to the State and most times contributing to conflict, destabilization and failed State. Most recovery programs aim at restoration of peace and stabilizing the economy through sustainable economic programs.
Corruption posts a threat to these efforts hence the need to deal with corruption from the onset of recovery. In recent years, there has been increasing attention to the effects of corruption in post conflict and recovery environments. Various studious (by; UNDP, World Bank & Transparency international) confirm that about half of the post war countries revert to war within one decade and corruption can be considered as one of the major factors that contribute to fuelling a conflict and the return to violent. Therefore, overcoming corruption in post-war Liberia is essential to restoring the confident of Liberians at home and abroad.
Post conflict reconstruction is normally characterized by large scale injection of resources in an environment where the legal and institutional frameworks are weak, fragile or inexistent and the expertise scarce. Detection of crime is very low and enforcement difficult or ignored. The surviving governing structures are weak with financial, fiscal, administrative and regulatory capacities and limited oversight is informal and sometimes criminalized sectors. These institutions are often transitional in nature, carrying very little or no legitimacy, and therefore prone to capture by the privilege elite with access to power and resources. This lack of popular participation in reconstruction is vulnerable to hijacking by local elites, which leads to corruption, waste of available and scarce resources, lack of maintenance and monitoring by beneficiaries and eventual rejection in the long run.
The main purpose of zero tolerance on corruption in Liberia should be to assist post conflict Liberia in developing anti-corruption strategies. These strategies will be used to develop programs on anti-corruption in post-war Liberia and recovery process which will be a tool that will assist affected areas.
Development will never come to Liberia if Liberians continue to rely on foreign companies to do everything. History attests to this. The Indian, Ghanaian, Nigerian and Lebanese business communities in Liberia have never productively participated in Liberia's development. In fact, they have always tended to set themselves apart from Liberia. It is now up to the government and people of Liberia to build-up the credibility to attract investors to boost the Liberia’s economy.

About the Authors:
Tolo Bonah Corfah and Sam K. Zinnah are sons of Gbarpolu County. They currently reside in the United States. Tolo B. Corfah is reading Multicultural Urban Education at the Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, MN. Sam K. Zinnah holds Bachelors degree in Human Services from Springfield college of human services in Wilmington, Delaware.
Tolo Corfah can be reached at corfto@go.metrostate.edu or 651-214-6204. Sam Zinnah can be reached at szinnah@yahoo.com or www.szinnah.blogspot.com.

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