Sunday, June 2, 2013

Sierra Leone Political Updates: On Land and The Sale of our Future

Sierra Leone
Just over the past few weeks there was a serious confrontation between the First Lady of Sierra Leone Madam Sia Nyama Koroma and opposition activist and former king maker Lawyer Charles Margai over some piece of real estate located around the tourist enclave of Aberdeen on the West Side of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. There was some confusion over the said land even in pro-government newspapers, as some could not tell who the real owner of the land was. It was variously reported that the land belonged to the government, to Mr. Margai through acquisition from the now deceased original owner Basma, to the First Lady through a lease agreement with the government.

Rape of Sierra Leone
I do not want to go into theCharles Margai- Sia Koroma, he said-she said confusion once again, as this issue has been thoroughly masticated by the pocket paid journalistic class in Sierra Leone with most of them condemning Mr. Margai as wrong, a trouble maker and some even writing that he needed mental help, even though the journalistic that wrote that particular piece needed some serious academic help himself. 

For his troubles, Lawyer Margai spent that particular weekend locked up in close confinement, while the President sent his trouble maker Special Assistant Omotunde Blyden to get an apology from him. I would have told O. Blyden not to bother.  You need to know people. The type of ego Lawyer Margai has makes it difficult for him to apologize even to Jesus Christ, let alone some two piece retired journalist who has succeeded into converting State House into a hotbed of scandal barely two months after entering the building. But my reason for this blog piece is not about the Margais or the Koromas

My reason for delving into the issue this morning stems from a simple question; what if it had not been Charles Margai? What if it had been some poor schmuck from Segbwema who had no influence or lawyer? What if it had been a poor fellow from Lunsar who had saved all his business money to buy land on that said property? Would he would have been edged out and trampled upon like an elephant steps on a rat? As they say, "the destruction of the poor is in their poverty."

The Margai issues shines a bright light on the perennial malpractices surrounding land ownership in Sierra Leone, with the Ministry of Lands being a major part of the problem and always being squarely at the center of most of the scandals. 

Many years ago my brother in law bought some land in the East End of Freetown from some local Alhaji who gave us all the properly signed conveyances. Every thing was at it should be, very perfect. Just when we were about to start preparing the land, another owner suddenly appeared from nowhere, with the same land ownership documents, also perfect, as egal as our own papers with the sale to him having being made years ago by the same Alhaji. 

Luckily it was at the height of the war and some hungry Segbwema military personnel who had come from the war front for supplies were able to gently persuade Pa Alhaji to give us back every penny he owed. That was then when there was some semblance of order around land ownership. Trying to buy land in Sierra Leone today is like trying to buy some real estate in Satan's kingdom. The land owners are dishonest, their witnesses lack integrity and the Lands Ministry is mired in corruption. The problem is compounded by the fact that successive land ministry officials just neglect deals signed by their predecessors. Whoever is in power has control over the land, a very unfortunate event.

This is just Freetown, where we assume the enlightened people are. If you go to the provinces where the paramount and town chiefs have the greater say in land ownership and the contracts for the transfer of land are usually by word of mouth, the situation becomes even murkier. The corruption in land ownership in rural Sierra Leone makes even Freetown look like purgatory compared to hell.
Do We Really?

The involvement of government in the lease of rural land to foreign companies in a bid to promote agriculture has just made the situation worse, as uneducated rural people are being made to sign lease agreements they do not understand, thereby sometimes releasing their interests in their property for eighty or more years. Could you imagine sitting for 80 years waiting to get back your village land?

A report on land deals in Sierra Leone commissioned by the Oakland Institute in Carlifornia found that by early 2011, close to 500 thousand hectares of farmland had been leased or were under negotiations for lease by the government with double that amount identified as still available. The report found out that there was no transparency and no public disclosure of these land deals. Of the four investors studied by the report; Addax Bioenergy of Switzerland, Quifel Agribusiness (SL) Ltd of Portugal, Sierra Leone Agriculture a UK subsidiary and Sepahan Afrique of Iran, only one had signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Government of Sierra Leone. These companies have local agents or coordinators to identify land for lease and negotiate the agreements with the local communities. Evidence was found that these local agents take unfair advantage of the local people and convince them into thinking that they will benefit from these deals and fail to adequately inform them of the consequences of the loss of farmland and the negative environmental impact of large scale agriculture. The Momoh Kontehs and Alex Mansarays were the agent types, only interested in filling their own pockets.
Displaced by Agriculture

When President Koroma took over as President in 2007, he declared Sierra Leone open for business and called for foreign investment in mineral exploitation and agriculture. Much emphasis has been on the mining sector with the agricultural sector flying under the radar. However the incentives for foreign investment in agriculture are just plain insane. In order to lure foreign investors the government gives a 10 year tax holiday on on investments in rice and tree crops and these companies pay zero import duty. The government also allows 100 percent foreign ownership in all sectors, allows no restriction on expatriate employees and permits these companies to send all the profits they make back to their home companies. Very few countries in the world have such lax investment rules. It is lost like opening up your country and inviting outsiders to come and grab what they may. 

All this is done under a so called "Agenda for Prosperity." It is only by close examination of these underground deals and the characters involved that one can deduce that it is of course an agenda for prosperity, but only for the prosperity of a few. With a population that is either too illiterate to truly know what is going on, or with an educated population that is either too partisan to care or too involved to acknowledge the harm, Sierra Leone is slowly digging its future into a hole of uncertainty all in return for cosmetic development schemes such as solar street lights. 
Beautiful Country

What is even more troubling is the lack of oversight of the activities of these foreign firms and the lack of an effective environmental protection agency. The whole scale agricultural projects will surely cause deforestation with a subsequent impact on local flora and fauna and local weather conditions as the rain cycle becomes interrupted due to the cutting down of trees and an interruption of the photosynthetic cycle. The country's journalists are too busy singing sycophantic praises to care.

As a man coming from the rural area, I am encouraged by the road construction around the country and also by the fact that the economy is improving. Hoever, as a futurist, I am really concerned with the socioeconomic impact of these developments. With the country signing one loan agreement after another, with international investors allowed to more or less do as they please all in the name of an agenda for prosperity, are we celebrating present happiness on a foundation of future volatility? I hope not, but we will continue to dig into these and many cosmetic beautifications that proliferating around the country. We as common people will start doing the work that our journalistics are failing to do.


Anonymous said...

As always, your postings are very inspirational; very touching indeed. The problem is perennial and in the thick of it you find the central government as active players. Sadly, it is the same poor people they all claim to be helping that are caught in the web of deceit.

When I read your piece, I was inclined to do some background readings and here, for other readers, is what I found about land acquisition in SL:

"A new investigative report by US-based think tank, the Oakland Institute, says investment funds are finding attractive returns on farmland in Africa because in many cases it can be bought cheaply due to poor property and land ownership rights.

Many African governments are waiving tax obligations and providing incentives to the companies at the expense of local subsistence farmers.
One of the countries named in the report is Sierra Leone."

When are we really going to prove to the very poor that Sierra Leone is the land we love? God help us!

Andrew B.

Sheku Sheriff said...

Thanks Andrew.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your progressive thoughts. Government should very cautiously proceed on land lease/sales after studying how other countries do it. Mainly corruption and a bit of ignorance may be responsible. I wonder whether gathering data on the following and publish will add anything to the debate:

TOPIC: HOW OTHER COUNTRIES TREAT FOREIGNERS: (We don’t have to do the same in each case but we can copy the cautious model to protect our future generations).

BUYING LAND: partner with citizen, eg. wife
LAND LEASE:Need citizen as partner
BUYING A HOUSE:Need a citizen partner.
Life/Health Insurance: OPEN
OWNING A CELL PHONE: Need a citizen to sign as guarantor
OPEN A COMPANY: incentives but guarantees for citizens.
BUYING A CAR: Need a citizen or Employer guarantee.
BUYING A PICKUP TRUCK: Need a Taiwanese citizen to sign as guarantor
EMPLOYMENT PERMIT:Carefully selected jobs that most citizens cant do.
PERCENTAGE OF CITIZENS IN A FOREIGN OWNED COMPANY: Fixed number in management positions, fixed percentage in staff

I don't have the details on all the above items for this country where I lived in 2010. But similar information about various and comparable countries to Sierra Leone could add to the debate about protecting Sierra Leonean's rights to the land and prevent a future Zimbabwe-style conflict.

bangs said...

May the good Lord have mercy on Sierra Leone.

bangs said...

May the good Lord have mercy on Sierra Leone.