22 April 2012
The man strongly tipped to help president Koroma win a second term in office is in trouble. He is Frank Timis. He is the chairman of African Minerals Ltd., the largest iron ore producer in Sierra Leone.
Frank Timis, a multi-billionaire whose global financial interests also include oil exploration in Sierra Leone, has invested over $1 Billion in partnership with the Chinese to resuscitate Sierra Leone’s ailing iron ore mines, as China’s industrial revolution cries out for increased supply of steel and other metallic products.
But after several days of industrial strike action and violence in the Bumbuna Tonkolili district – just a few miles from the company’s mining operations, there are questions now as to whether the government will once again review its unpopular mining agreements signed with foreign companies.
African Minerals and several other foreign companies operating in Sierra Leone have been accused of displacing and exploiting vulnerable communities and workers, as well as taking advantage of massive tax concessions offered them by president Koroma.
Has last week’s violence in the president’s backyard and political stronghold of Tonkolili, shaken Frank Timis’ resolve to financially bankroll president Koroma’s bid for re-election?
Analysts say that most of the foreign investments in large-scale commercial agriculture and the extraction of precious minerals are largely concentrated in the northern districts of the country – the president’s stronghold.
It therefore comes as a surprise to many observers, and more so investors – who have been assured of relative stability in those northern communities, now witnessing the anger and resentment vented against African Minerals Ltd., in what the workers and local people regard as exploitation and abuse of human rights.
The iron ore industrial dispute, which erupted into appalling levels of violence last week, started as workers down tools and took to the streets in protest at poor levels of pay and working conditions at the mines.
The workers were joined in protest by local people of Bumbuna, whose resentment at the policies of successive governments to exploit their land for the benefit of the rest of the country, whilst their own communities languish in abject poverty and environmental degradation.
President Koroma has spent over $250 Million in developing the Bumbuna hydro-electricity project, which supplies electricity to the country’s capital – Freetown, yet the people of Bumbuna are without electricity.
Bumbuna is one of the poorest communities in the country, where most young adults are out of work, with higher than average child and maternal mortality, compared to the rest of the country, while children walk everyday for several miles to attend school.
The government says that African Minerals has created over 4,000 jobs for local people in the northern district of Tonkolili.
But analysts say that less than 25% of those employed at the iron ore mines, earn more than Le100,000 a month – approximately £17 a month. A bag of rice costs Le120,000.
Few in Sierra Leone would deny the legitimate demands of workers at the Tonkolili mines for more pay and better working conditions.
But the police response to the protest has been bloody. One person is said to have been killed and several wounded, as the riot squad opened live rounds on unarmed protesters.
According to Reuters, Kadiatu – a local resident of Bumbuna – aged 24, is critically ill in hospital “with gunshot wounds to her arm, stomach and back, after police opened fire on a crowd of protesters in the mining town on April 19, 2012. A woman was shot and killed and several others were wounded.”
Another Bumbuna resident – Kelly Conteh, is also in hospital with a head wound suffered as a result of the heavy handedness and lethal response of the police.
The lethal response of the police force, has vindicated those opposed to president Koroma’s decision to spend $5 Million, which the country can ill afford, on military grade heavy weapons to arm the police force – in advance of November’s elections.
But the response of the country’s main opposition SLPP to developments in Bumbuna was swift.
Speaking at their head office in Freetown, the party’s Secretary-General, Sulaiman Banja Tejan-Sie, issued the following statement:
“The attention of the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) has been drawn to the ongoing strike action by workers at the African Minerals Ltd work site at Bumbuna which has reportedly turned violent.
“Reports reaching our offices here in Freetown indicate that workers at the mines are protesting over conditions of service and what they deem as unfair wage brackets within the work force.
“Eyewitness accounts reveal that scores of people have been injured and at least one person shot dead, apparently from shots fired by Policemen deployed at the scene.
“The Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) wishes it be known that we support the rights of workers to fair bargaining and the due exercise of their rights under law to resort to peaceful industrial actions within the framework of the law.
“We call on the authorities at the African Minerals Ltd (AML) to respect the rights of its employees to lawfully associate and assemble as required by law.
“We note that labour disputes are common all over the world and that the company authorities should not take their close relationship with government as a conduit to trample on the legitimate rights of workers to engage in industrial action within the law.
“The Party also wishes to use the occasion to admonish the Sierra Leone Police (SLP) to promptly institute an impartial investigation into the incidents that led to the use of “live bullets” to shoot at unarmed civilians.
“It may be recalled that this is not the first time that Police have been accused of highhandedness in the exercise of their duties. The public may also recall that Police deployed deadly force in a similar disturbance between civilians and Koidu Holdings in Kono, which led to the death and maiming of unarmed civilians.
“Despite an official investigative Commission into that incident, victims and their relatives are yet to get justice.
“Also in 2010, at another AML mining site in the Tonkolili district, landowners were subjected to unprovoked violence and harassment involving police officers. It is conducts like these that continue to further present the SLP in bad light to the people of this country.
“It is the same concern that has left several people edgy when it emerged that the Government has procured more deadly weapons for a police force that has not shown much restraint in the use of deadly force against its own people.
“The SLPP therefore calls on Government to impress on the AML that they are subject to the laws of the land. We call on Government to protect the rights of workers to associate and to assemble without let or hindrance.
“We also challenge this Government to institute meaningful investigation into the circumstances leading to the death of unarmed civilians at Bumbuna and to hold anyone responsible for the shootings accountable.
“Finally, as we drive towards the multi-tier elections in November, the SLPP will continue to implore government to resist the urge to use lethal force on unarmed civilians anywhere around the country.
Last Wednesday, president Koroma called a meeting involving senior ministers and APC party political advisers to discuss the iron ore violence at Tonkolili, which and if not quickly resolved to the satisfaction of the local community, could have consequences for president Koroma’s chances of winning the forthcoming elections.
Recognising the volatility and political ramifications of the disturbances and legitimate concerns of local people and workers, the government issued the following statement:
“President Koroma has expressed grave concern about the development in Bumbuna and has instructed the police and members of government to work with all stakeholders in an effort to bring back the situation in Bumbuna to a state of normalcy.
“It should be recalled that the workers of African Minerals Limited commenced a protest action on Monday 16th April 2012 when they complained about poor conditions of service – a development which ignited a state of chaos but was later normalized by the police. The situation however deteriorated last night bringing all activities of AML to a halt with allegations that firing took place.
“Consequently, the President has appointed a committee of government ministers and security personnel to thoroughly investigate the Bumbuna incident to help the government take decisions to resolve the impasse.
“Simultaneously, Government appeals to members of the public, especially the workers at Bumbuna, to remain calm as it will leave no stone unturned to address the issue. All and sundry are assured that any death that may have occurred in the process will be treated seriously, will be thoroughly investigated, and Government will allow the law to take its course accordingly.
“The President has dispatched the following government officials to Bumbuna to convene meetings with all stakeholders, including the workers, in an effort to resolve the impasse:
Minister of Mineral Resources
Minister of Internal Affairs
Minister of Defence
Minister of Information
Minister of Political Affairs
Minister of Labour
Minister of Education
Minister of Local Government (who officially leads the delegation)
Resident Minister North
Representative of the Sierra Leone Police
Representative of the Office of National Security
Member of Parliament of the area
Paramount Chief of Kalasongoya Chiefdom, Tonkolili District
“Government has also asked African Minerals Limited to make itself available so that it can be part of the peace-making efforts in resolving the impasse.
“The public will be updated on the outcome of the fact-finding meeting in Bumbuna. Meanwhile, the government reiterates that all parties, including the workers and employers of AML and the local authorities, should work towards a state of peace and tranquillity within the Bumbuna and Ferengbeya areas.
While the Koroma peace mission to Bumbuna is all well and good, and indeed makes for good political PR, what is not certain however, is whether the government will this time commit itself to a genuine and honest review of all the agreements signed with foreign companies exploiting the country’s natural resources, to ensure social justice, equity and fairness.
Although the government has just weeks ago succeeded in getting parliament to ratify its latest mining policy, it is obvious that this has not impacted on the real concerns of local people, working for those companies and living in the mining communities.