Sierra Leone’s Black Johnson Chinese fishmeal factory deal exposed – Op ed

James Fallah-Williams: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 04 June 2021:

Sierra Leone government’s advanced plan to build a $55m Chinese-funded fishmeal processing factory on Black Johnson estuary in Freetown will deliver a catastrophic blow to the quest for national food security, devastate pristine fish-breeding sites and destroy the already humbled artisanal fishing communities along the Sierra Leone coast.

The project is part of China’s global Belt and Road Initiative, which was unveiled by Xi Jinping in Kazakhstan in 2013 “to construct a unified large market and make full use of both international and domestic markets, through cultural exchange and integration, to enhance mutual understanding and trust of member nations, resulting in an innovative pattern of capital inflows, talent pools, and technology databases”.

If you walk along the shores of Black Johnson, you are greeted by a vast and beautiful expanse of calm and clean waters in an unspoilt setting. Black Johnson sits beneath the peninsula overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and holds some of the most delicate ecosystems in West Africa. A plethora of fish species come to spawn here in Black Johnson’s estuaries and ecotones.

A small, uninhabited island just off Black Johnson is called Barracuda Island by locals. It is no ordinary place; it is home to the prestigious barracuda, a ray-finned fish known for its fearsome looks and, of course, its taste. Along the beaches here are egg-laying homes of the endangered green turtle. The rainforest hills overlooking the Atlantic Ocean hold a variety of majestic animal species, including green monkeys, slow loris, porcupines, pangolins, and Gambian pouched rats.

The peninsular forests are also home to a large collection of bird species, including the beautiful and rare rock fowl (Picathartes), the noisy plantain-eaters, wood doves, and the endangered Gola malimbe – the list is enviably long! Freetown and Greater Freetown surrounds a truly tropical rainforest in the peninsula – you can stand anywhere in Black Johnson and take photographs of an impressive collection of tropical birds. To sell this place for $55m is a heinous act.

When the Sierra Leone government planned to seize the land from the local community in the Black Johnson area, it imposed an order forbidding land sales by landowners and stating that land documents would not be signed by the Ministry of Lands until further notice.

Since last year, dozens of private land ownership transfer applications have languished in the ministry. It was under this guise that the government took hundreds of acres of land and allocated them to the Chinese company building the fishmeal factory.

I was told by a security guard that it was also under this pretence that the president’s wife acquired a large piece of land in the Black Johnson area.

The proposed fishmeal factory (‘fish harbour’, as the government would like to call it) is a multi-faceted project: 1) it will harvest high-value fish such as tuna, barracuda, the vulnerable snapper fish, lobsters, crabs, etc and will package them and send them to China; 2) ‘undesirable’ fish such as bonga, sardine, mackerel, etc. will be turned into fishmeal for the Chinese fish farm market. What this means is that national food security will be in great jeopardy. Eighty per cent of the Sierra Leone population get their protein from fish.

Before the fishmeal factory project came to light, large and highly sophisticated Chinese fishing vessels floated imposingly on the calm waters along Freetown, many of them using pair trawling and dragnetting techniques. Between Ferry Junction in Freetown and Tagrin in Lungi, I counted seven large Chinese fishing vessels basking in the waters within an area of 1.5 nautical miles. It was an eye-opening spectacle.

Photo: Sophisticated Chinese fishing vessels litter the coast of Freetown.

Local, artisanal fishermen have been chased out of water by people with guns on these vessels. Many young families along the peninsular coast are now unemployed and homeless, which is one of the key factors in overcrowded city areas and pilfering, and is a trigger for pre- and post-election violence. The sight of large groups of young people selling anything from a couple of phone chargers to four or five used t-shirts is common. Pickpocketing and theft have become extremely common in Freetown.

A few days ago, a minister’s phone was stolen. He used his power to command the Lumley police to use tear gas to disperse hundreds of petty traders along the streets at Regent Road junction, accusing them of criminality. When I rushed down to investigate, a female petty trader, holding her small tray of fried chicken drumsticks, wings and nuggets spoke with anxiety mixed with excitement: ‘We go fet this all kind way!’ (We will fight this in every way!) as police officers ran after them. She picked up her tray of fried chicken and ran down a dark alleyway, where underage prostitutes amass in droves after dusk.

The underaged prostitutes, motorbike taxi and Okada riders are her main customers. A police officer with a long rattan whip ran after a group of motorbike riders, one of whom quickly planted a fried chicken drumstick between his teeth and dashed off on his motorbike in the melee.

Similar projects by the Chinese have left Senegalese fishing industries in absolute crisis. The recent fatal street protests and civil unrests in Senegalese cities have their origin in the destructive fishing activities that have forced young people into joblessness and pervasive and pernicious hunger.

In Gungur in The Gambia, a place I know very well has had its estuaries polluted by dangerous chemicals released into the sea by three fishmeal factories operated by the Chinese. According to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organisation, three quarters of West Africa’s fisheries are depleted.

The effect of the fishmeal factories in the Gambia is irreversibly damaging the tourism industry too. I used to ride a mountain bike from Brikama to Gungur beach and back. Golden Lead, which is one of the three factories operating in the town, was sued by residents. Small, local tourist restaurants and hotels no longer have customers.

Collateral catches such as turtles, dolphins, etc caught by the factories’ fishing vessels are thrown into the sea and end up on tourist beaches in The Gambia. The reeking, rotting fish and the dead birds are shaking The Gambia’s tourism industry, which is the main income earner for the country. Like in Sierra Leone, the decision to award licences to fishmeal factories was taken out of some deeply venal motive by only one man, the president, with total disregard for the effect this will have on the country.

If the fishmeal factory is allowed to go ahead in Sierra Leone, it will be the end of the country’s tourism industry aspirations. An insider has told me that Memunatu Pratt, the tourism minister, is opposed to the project, but that she has been coerced and muzzled by the president.

The project was awarded under corrupt circumstances and was designed to benefit only a handful of people in the administration. Steve Trent, CEO and founder of the Environmental Justice Foundation, has said: “The deal is also deeply opaque, raising profound concerns about who will benefit and what the negative impacts will be. It seems clear that no social or environmental impact assessments were carried out, nor were there any consultations with local communities. No data from any study of this kind has been published.”

When The Sierra Leone Telegraph raised the fishmeal case, Du Zijun, the Chinese embassy’s economic and commercial counsellor in Sierra Leone (Photo above), accused foreign media of publishing “false reports on the China-aid fish harbour project for Sierra Leone on the basis of some unfounded social media news”.

Zijun described the project as “an assistance project that the government of Sierra Leone has requested the Chinese government to help construct, for the purpose of promoting the development of Sierra Leone’s own fishery sector”. Zijun’s description is a classic fairy tale, pie-in-the-sky fantasy stuff; it is the same message that was preached to the Senegalese and the Gambians, and all have ended up being short-changed, with their local populations suffering immense food deprivation, unemployment and destroyed livelihoods.

The mass migration of young people from West Africa – especially from Senegal and The Gambia – to Europe through the Mediterranean is of people from fishing villages affected by degrading food insecurities and unemployment.

The Sierra Leone government has shamelessly gone to great lengths to tell the country that the fishmeal project will create “thousands” of jobs. This is utterly delusional and nonsensical, a load of claptrap; the whole factory process is extremely mechanised. For example, Golden Lead in The Gambia has only about fifteen people working on the factory floor at any one time. JXYG, another Chinese fishmeal factory in The Gambia, employs only thirty-six people.

Alarmingly, the Sierra Leone Fisheries Minister, Kowa-Jalloh, said the project has a waste-management component of the “recycling of marine and other wastes into useful products”. What she is basically telling us is that when the high-value fish is packaged and shipped, undesirable fish will be turned into fishmeal (this is the ‘useful product’ stuff she is talking about) and sent to China.

The ‘waste-management component’ she is talking about involves bonga fish, sardines, mackerels, etc – which is what ordinary Sierra Leoneans eat on a daily basis to survive. If she is going to turn these into fishmeal and ship them to China, what is the alternative for eighty per cent of the Sierra Leone population? This is typical blind credulity at its best on the part of the minister. The social, economic, and environmental consequences of her fish harbour/fishmeal project will further demoralise this desperately hungry country. I have never seen a government that is as clueless and naïve (if not deliberately warped) as this one.

Photo: Small fish like these, dried and sold to poor people, will be turned into fishmeal.

Last week, we concluded two major focus group workshops in Freetown with a UK university working to rehabilitate young people affected by displacement in Sierra Leone. Ninety-four per cent of the young people between the ages of seventeen and twenty-six involved in the study admitted to having mental health problems.

This is driven by the harsh economic challenges they and their families are now facing. Many travel more than ten miles a day to come to city centres to sell items between 7am and 10pm. Sixty per cent of the young people are school dropouts who are selling on the streets to earn money to help them go back to school. Their daily profit margin is about 75p ($1.06).

Families who have been chased from their traditional fishing villages along the coast are now living in overcrowded favelas such as Susan’s Bay and sending their young children out as prostitutes on the streets of Freetown. In March this year, Susan’s Bay was swept away in an inferno.

I have been told that a sudden unease has developed between the administration and the Chinese funders about threats of sabotage and the financial implications. Black Johnson and No2 River areas are at the heart of the most dangerous and challenging policing district in the whole of Sierra Leone. Some of those who have settled in the peninsular areas, and whose livelihoods will be affected, are ex-combatants who are easily dragged into land disputes.

This current administration has completely lost its way, and it now seems like the most inept yet this country has had. Seeing its deficient administrators herding in their offices is like watching a flock of stricken ducks hiding away from a thunderstorm. I feel very much for the country’s young people.

12 Comments

  1. I have said this quite recently, but let me inflict more boredom on everyone by repeating it: Maada Bio is a scared political fighter, which makes him extremely dangerous for our small nation. For three years plus, the man has done nothing of note to enhance the progress of the nation. He and his wife have been travelling the world for fun while trying to fool us that he is trying to attract foreign direct investment. Where is the investment? Since taking over, billions of Leones have constantly gone missing at government institutions.

    The former Chief Minister (David Francis) was prone to behave as if he controlled all the arms of government, he had a journalist arrested and locked up for simply wanting to ask him a question about $1.5 million deposited into his account. The former Finance Minister, Jacob Saffa, who studied his Economics at the corner shop, would have given Maada a blank cheque whenever he travelled to cover his expenses, but for the public outcry. Bio has been draining public coffers by the use of chartered jets to go all over the place.

    With all this drag on him, Bio is now stuck in a morass of no ideas as to what to do to secure a second term. Herein comes the Chinese bait, which Bio could swallow without thinking of the repercussions, a major one being the threat to his country’s sovereignty, as long as it makes him look like he is doing something about the economy. Time is running out for the fellow, and he knows it. It’s time for Sierra Leoneans to start thinking seriously about the use of sabotage to frustrate any moves by Bio and his Chinese henchmen to destroy Black Johnson Beach. Bio is behaving in a treasonous, unpatriotic and non-nationalist manner. He may force many of us underground; if he does, our motherland, Sierra Leone will come with us. Let us wake up fellow Sierra Leoneans, the Chinese are bent on overrunning us, with Bio providing the fuel.

  2. You know what? Lets just tell the Chinese that they are wanting to go to war with us and that we might be ready for that. We are proud to call them terrorists.

  3. As a great man once said, “you have no friends.” Nations have interests and geopolitical aims and objectives. We in Africa have failed to realise the effects of neo-colonialism, simply put, there is no need to conquer nations, when you control their resources. The Chinese are some of the most racist people in the world, yet we Africans persist in behaving like children.

    They see an Arab and whether he be a crook or a criminal, they think he is an angel, they see a Chinaman and they think it’s the revolutionary partnership of the 60s. This is naivety. China is no longer the revolutionary communists, they are the foremost capitalists in the world. In Arab countries, they have thieves and murderers like every other country in the world.

  4. As the local saying goes in Creole/krio “u dae sell u birth right for coco ebeh”, this is whats happening now in Sierra Leone/china relationship. For 252 acres of land, beautiful beach, rainforest and the Atlantic ocean sold to the Chinese for $55 million is what translates the quoted saying. Every country under this planet are yearning for investors. But it doesn’t mean investors must have it in their own ways and on their own terms. If our country is so desperate to have a harbour built for the fishing industry, I do believe that our country can afford the funding of $55 million from the public coffers in the Bank of Sierra Leone. Why we just rely on donations from the outside world?

    Sierra Leoneans from within and outside Sierra Leone need to be encouraged to help build mama Salone instead of foreign donors. But the most discouraging part of it is that people in government and high positions demand bribes first, be you Sierra Leonean or foreigner. And this is where Sierra Leoneans can not beat the foreigners in giving bigger bribes and in so doing, Sierra Leoneans opportunity to invest is zero.

    China is a country with stricter regime of government in terms of protecting every inch of her territory from foreign bodies in and around the country. There will be no way under the sun that China government will sell a one by one foot (one square foot) of land to any foreigner, let alone 252 acres of land with natural beauties. Wake up Mama Sierra Leone and open the eyes of your sleepy children and tell them that, your beauty is not for sale but for it to be admired for generations to generations to come. Say AAAMEN. May God bless mama Sierra Leone.

    • To be honest no one is saying China is the best option available, to develop our African countries. Why should a retired Governor in Nigeria be given a Golden handshake whilst people that have retied are fighting for their pension? The problems we face in Sierra Leone, is that we Sierra Leoneans are our own worst enemies. We have corrupt politicians that are only interested in stealing from the state and building Mansions, buying the most expensive cars. And unashamedly driving these expensive cars, the prices of which can tar all the roads in Sierra Leone, with some spare change to build bridges. We cannot keep blaming China, the IMF, or Western countries for our problems, whislt countries like Singapore, that got their independence at the same time like us, are some of the richest countries in the world. Why is Singapore rich whilst Sierra Leone is always knocking at the doors of the IMF or looking to China to invest in our country? Because Singapore has real nationalist leaders that want good things to happen in their country.

      Putting emotions aside, why is Sierra Leone poor? Read our history, starting from independence and compare our records like for like with Singapore, you may learn one or two things. Our political class don’t have any love for Sierra Leone. Give me the keys to sate house for three years, you will see a difference. Because any one found guilty of corruption will be publicly shamed and sent to long prison term. Saika Stevens stadium will be transformed to a court room for corruption cases only. And it will be televised. Thats the sort of medicine we need to address corruption in our country.

      When I was travelling to Sierra Leone, we stopped in Morocco and they said Freetown passengers are now boarding. When we got into the plane, and I saw the amount of Chinese nationals, I couldn’t resist to ask my sister, are we heading for Beijing or Freetown? So we should be careful with China. They have a massive population to export. The solutions: We need to address corruption in our country.

  5. The Austrian writer, playwright and poet Karl Kraus once said;” CORRUPTION is worse than Prostitution. The latter may endanger the lives of the individual, the former invariably endangers the morals of the entire country.” Totally agree. In Sierra Leone the only place I am proud to call my home, morality, ethics, patriotism have now become empty words, lonely words that no one wants to embrace. Folks, the time has come for us to muster to the courage and ask ourselves what kind of society do we intend to build for future generations to come? Are we going to keep on building on shifting sands or on rock solid foundations that will stand the test of time? Who is it among you that seriously believes that the Old Wanna-be Cowboy and his Gold-digger that is on a money gobbling and land grabbing spree truly give a rats ass about any of you and your poverty-stricken malnourished children? Who thinks the Chinese are not seeking out their own interests but our own?

    The truth of the matter is that governance is serious business that should be conducted by sensible, pragmatic and level headed people; Let me emphasize more clearly – Leadership in all its forms is the work of a diligent, sleepless shepherd that cares very deeply for his fragile, vulnerable sheep. Answer – Is there a gentle shepherd in State House or a merciless Wolf? I think there is Wolf there, a Big Bad wolf, lurking in the shadows; A Wolf that keeps on sharpening its fangs, dressed in the garments of harmless sheep; And that’s nothing but the plain and simple truth; Gentlemen – it has been said by the ancient mystics that” Truth does not pay homage to any society, ancient or modern; Society has to pay homage to the Truth or cease to exist.” Good people of Sierra Leone HERE’S THE TRUTH you need to wake up from your slumber and demand transparency on the this critical issue involving the Chinese.

    Its time for the Chinese to tell us to our faces whether we are dealing with the Chinese Mafia also known as the TRIAD or the law abiding, even minded government of the Peoples Republic of China? Who the hell are we dealing with? Our old trusted friends or blood seeking leeches seeking to exploit, pollute and destroy our beautiful country and its enchanting, mesmerizing natural resources endowments. Wake the hell up! Answer – who are we dealing with(lol)

  6. In terms of rapid urbanisation, and the movement of people from rural migration to cities right across the continent, Africa have surpassed India, and China as the only continent to be the final frontier of the forth industrial revolution that is upon us. This huge movements of people, or internal migration offers a huge challenge for governments in terms of housing, employment, heath care and creating job opportunities, or training for this urban peasants that suddenly found themselves in the city. And Freetown is just part of the puzzle that is affecting cities across the continent. This reprocessing fishing facilities, might be seen by the government to help create jobs, but safe guarding our environment, as we try to meet the needs of our people is a most.

    Whilst this sudden influx of people presents challenges, it also presents big rewards for any countries that are willing to take the risk in investing billions, in the hope of building infrastructure, businesses, transport networks, health, housing, education, hydro electric Dams,Internet connectivity. No country in the world seemed to have answered Africa’s call quiet like China . When the west imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe, the Chinese step in to prop up his government. China built and donated the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. There are advantages and disadvantages of China involvement in Africa.

    Experts predict, by 2050, Africa’s population that stands at 1.1 billion population is slated to grow double, with 80% of that growth happening in our rapidly expanding cities. China needs Africa for its raw materials, and Africa needs China to help in the infrastructure development needs that is required to meet this rapid population explosion . We need a smooth transition. That is why I caution our government to go in to negotiation with our Chinese partners, with their eyes wide open.

  7. I am totally disappointed by this government. They pretended to be saints but are rather real devil incarnate. May God deliver this country.

  8. Private investment leading job creation is welcome but a fine balance should take in to consideration the environmental and social impact as well as the sustainability aspect. Overfishing in our waters definitely has an impact on the livelihood of people is not sustainable and environmentally damaging. The government needs to be careful in how it commits to these kind of agreements and come out clean about this Black Johnson deal.

  9. An incompetent government totally bereft of progressive ideas is what this President and his rag tag bunch of Imposters have always been;Since day one when they assumed the reins of power, I have always maintained that these men were unfit to rule our Sierra Leone. Their loyalty is to the President and the wicked SLPP party but not to our beloved country. Mr Fallah Williams there are two distinct types of politicians in Sierra Leone – the Opportunist and the Imbecile.(lol)The Opportunist will do whatever it takes to achieve their goals as long as it fits their Get-Rich Quick agenda; By using the most unscrupulous tactics and methods you never imagined possible,they were able to create rungs on the ladder of malfeasance and rampant thefts to climb to the top. They have totally diminished the offices they are holding for little favors, petty bribes and loans from the hands of the self seeking Chinese.

    A friend of mine from faraway Ethiopia called Zalalemma once asked me;” What are the Chinese doing in your country?” And I replied, “They are not just investors, but our Development partners helping us stand on our own feet.” He laughed, said; “Development partners that act without sincerity of purpose always demand the shirts off your backs; They don’t destroy and pollute pristine estuaries,streams,rivers and transform them into garbage dumpings sites because of some self-centered agendas.” He was right on the money, But this is exactly what happens when Old soldiers with loaded guns are at the helm of Power – Its all about the “PAPER” all about reducing this nation to rubble through their corrupt and thieving ways. Folks,its time for government to come clean on this matter.

    It is not my style to call women holding public offices Incompetent; but Geez…You tell me, for what reasons exactly are the dazed and totally confused Madam Kowa Jalloh and Memunatu Pratt still hanging on to such highly esteemed positions? What have these people achieved in the interest of our nation since the SLPP came to power? Absolutely nothing at all. 55 million dollars for a piece of our Paradise is a disgraceful thing for our leaders to even utter. A shoe shine boy that used to shine boots for extra rations of food now wants to destroy the habitats of rare marine species and wild life for a measly 55 million dollars? My Goodness, has this inept President lost his marbles? The Chinese should tread cautiously and not allow Old friends to become enemies because of their shady, insouciant ways.(lol)

  10. As an investigative journalistic piece, this article is truly remarkable. And this is no surprise at all, coming as it does from the pen of an analyst who recently regaled us with an equally great report on our failing, moribund education system. I have read this piece again and again and each time I have been left dumbfounded. This is because the article has shattered my illusion of China being a friendly, benevolent nation with no colonial crime in Africa to expiate. The article destroys definitively that illusory image of purity and good will, leaving in its wake an image of a country motivated and propelled by hard-nosed economic self-interest. In short, an economic predator, eerily reminiscent of the more familiar white slavers, colonialists and neo-colonialist, whose destructive footprints are as evident as ever in our continent.

    In fact, in commenting recently on an article relating to China’s generosity in providing much needed decent housing for our soldiers, I had some misgivings about that generosity, thinking that it was somehow a front, enabling China to pass for a compassionate and caring friend of Sierra Leone while milking our resources for its own purposes. Mr Faya-William’s article confirms and reinforces my misgivings.

    China is in Sierra Leone first and foremost for itself; anything else – including benefits resulting from that presence for the host nation – is merely incidental. And it seems that it has successfully wormed its way into the hearts and minds of our political leaders – a greedy bunch of self-seekers all too ready to sell our country down the river. The sooner we see the back of the ‘inept’ (to borrow Mr Faya-William’s apt word) and greedy Bio and his administration, the safer our minerals, forests, coastal lands and waterways will be.

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