There is a widespread perception that our mineral resources are not serving the interests of the country; is this true? Some argue that bad agreements allow foreign investors to get away with the lion’s share, leaving very little for the country. Some also think that one of the major problems is that the ore is shipped out virtually unprocessed with little or no value-added done in the country. Additional criticisms focus on the corporate social responsibility of the mining company as being inadequate to compensate the local community for the loss of the asset and the inconvenience caused by the mining operations in the locality. In this context locals even look to the mining company to provide public and social services rather than to Government. On the part of civil society, they tend to attack mining operations as bad, because of the environmental and social effects on the local population and their habitat. Some elements from the private sector have now joined the fray. These are demanding that Government intervenes, on the pretext of enforcing “local content policy” to force the foreign investor to award them contracts.
In all this negative noise, there are voices – usually powerful and political – that argue strongly in support of mining companies. This second, group of people, point to the employment created by the mines, the high-profile acts of generosity by the companies, the apparently thriving local businesses ranging from hair stylists, to home rentals and restaurants in the vicinity of the operations as sufficient benefits. Hence they argue that it is “unpatriotic” to criticize the company.
Where lies the truth? Or better still what is correct and appropriate?
After five years of leading the re-negotiation of previously bad mining agreements in Sierra Leone, I have come to realize the extent of the fallacies and inaccuracies surrounding the mining industry. What is the real story? Are all mining companies out to milk us? If so, what can we do? How have other countries managed to prosper with similar if not less resource endowments?
There is no doubt that there are some real problems in seeking the right formula when the surrounding climate of weak institutions, poor governance, fragile political structures all combine to complicate the efficient and effective management of the sector. The matter is more serious than we generally think. Ours is a small country with very low levels of development in every sphere. We cannot compete at the global stage in any field outside natural resources. They (natural resources) are the mainstay of the economy and the primary source of livelihoods for our Peoples. Failure here, particularly this time around, is a condemnation to years of penury and even instability.
Technocrats owe it to the general public to explain and inform what the options are have to manage the only option we have. If we do not get it right this time around, as Shakespeare wrote
“ there is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at its flood leads on to fortune; omitted then all the voyages of our lives are bound in shallows and in misery…”
Failing to manage our resources prudently, and not only for mining but for other natural resources, the consequences will be worse than what we experienced before – even if different in form.
Getting the story right is one step towards riding the crest of the wave to the prosperity that the nation clamored for at the Transformation Conference. In the coming weeks I will share my thoughts on the above. The articles will endeavor to de-mystify the operations of the mining companies, throw light on some of the misconceptions on both sides of the divide and examine whether there are similarities between what is happening now and what happened in the 70s and 80s when we were speeding down the road to utter anarchy and an apparently senseless civil conflict.
In short are we on the same road? If so how can we change lanes urgently towards the direction of true prosperity?