Liberia: Anger Still Fresh In Kokoyah, Bong County As Citizens Recount 2018 Police Raid
Kokoyah District, Bong County- Liberia’s history is replete with disagreements between concessionaires and local communities. This has a background in the manner and form in which concession agreements are signed in Liberia, where the National Legislature ratifies agreement and those agreements are signed by the president granting certain rights to concessionaires to operate in a particular part of the country without the knowledge, consent and inputs of the people of the communities in which these concessionaires are to operate.
By Selma Lomax, [email protected]
In this way, the concessionaires care more about national government and believe they are only answerable to those in Monrovia and not the people of the communities in which these concessionaires operate.
One classical example is the MNG Gold, a Turkish company operating in Kokoyah District, Bong County, which signed an agreement with the Government of Liberia to mine for gold in the gold-rich part of Bong County.
This is the first in a three part Frontpage Africa special investigation series focusing on the sad story of how community members in a number of poor rural villages in Bong County impacted after a massive chemical spills from the MNG Gold Mining operations, the subsequent killing of four of their citizens, including a pregnant woman by the company’s vehicle driven by an expatriate contractual employee, who abandoned the dead bodies lying in the streets for hours without any kind of accountability or respect shown to the dead, ignited a protest which resulted into alleged arbitrary massive arrest, detention, torture, flogging and prosecution and imprisonments for alleged criminal violations, including looting.
MNG Gold took over from American-Liberian Mining Company (AMLib) in 2013 and started active mining operations in 2015 operating on an old Mineral Development Agreement signed back in 2000.
As per the MDA signed between AMLib and the government, the company contributes a meager US$12,000 per month or US$84,000 a year to Bong County Social Development Fund. It is not clear whether MNG Gold is still paying or has been paying this meager amount since 2015.
No MOU with communities
Since MNG Gold signed the concession agreement with the Government of Liberia, the company has been operating in Kokoyah District without any form of Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the local communities.
This puts the company in the position to do anything it wishes, such as Corporate Social Responsibilities at their will as there is no written agreement detailing what is mandatory on the part of the company to be done for the people of the communities in which the company currently operates.
MNG Gold has engaged in many forms of violations of environmental regulations with no concrete decisions from the Environmental Protection Agency of Liberia (EPA). The local communities are left to struggle the aftermath of these consistent environmental pollution and degradation.
Communities within the MNG Gold area lack good health center, education as well as other facilities, and despite, complaints from citizens nothing has been done to address these issues.
Polluting the environment
In 2017, MNG Gold Mining Company discharged a massive amount of Cyanide in the main creek within the Kokoyah District leading to the pollution of drinking water, death of aquatic and terrestrial species and depriving the people sources of water for drinking, cultural, social, economic, spiritual, agricultural and traditional livelihoods and activities.
Following the pollution, the Government of Liberia, through the National Bureau of Concession, commissioned an investigation which found MNG Gold liable for discharge of the harmful chemicals.
The Bureau of Concession in a report submitted to the Liberian Senate indicated that MNG Gold discharged huge quantity of Cyanide, Mercury and other toxic chemical up to three million gallons of diverse toxic chemicals into the community and the report further indicated these chemicals will remain in the environment for decades to come.
Adding to the NBC report, a Ghanaian laboratory service company (SGS) also investigated and concluded that the gravity of chemicals discharged by MNG Gold was so high.
The Ghanaian firm indicated in its report that MNG Gold took no steps to protect people affected by the discharge of the chemicals.
The spill was so cataphoric to the extent that in September 2017, 30 persons were admitted at the Phebe Hospital after the reservoir containing the chemicals belonging to MNG Gold overflowed with rainwater and later spilled into the nearby Sein Creek.
The Sein Creek is a major source of water for residents of the Kokoyah area and the creek flows into other small waterways which made the pollution dangerous to a large number of people.
As it is the case with these concession agreements where only the Central Government in Monrovia is the only one to whom these concessionaires are answerable, nothing concrete was done with the two negative reports about the chemical spills by MNG Gold.
With the details of the chemical spills revealing that the chemicals will remain in the area for decades to come, the people were left to suffer within no plan in place to protect them from the health hazards posed by the chemicals.
As a result and due to the inability of the Liberian Government to protect them from the aftermath of the dangerous pollution and their fears and concerns about the long-term implications of the impact on their health and environment, on October 8, 2018, a number of affected community members, filed a US$285 million Action of Damages for Wrong against MNG Gold at the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court in Bong County and the company filed an answer denying the claims.
There are alleged reports of out of court settlement, but the amount, terms and conditions of the out-of-court settlements, including the beneficiaries remain unknown.
Killing four peaceful citizens
In addition to the grabbing of their customary land and natural resources without their Free Prior Informed Consent and on top of the massive Cyanide spill, pollution and the risk of people living in these communities having no means to be protected from the harmful chemical spill, on November 5, 2018 a vehicle contracted by MNG Gold ran into peaceful citizens, killing four persons, including a pregnant woman instantly.
Family members and community dwellers waited patiently for several hours to see the reaction of the company from the killing of their family members and relatives, but nothing was forthcoming as the company went about its normal operations while the dead bodies were lying on the road side abandoned.
A team of youth from the communities later went to the MNG Gold compound to inquire why the company was shown disrespect to their dead relatives especially, since among the dead abandoned on the road was the lifeless body of a pregnant woman exposed in the open, a strong cultural taboo in their communities.
Additionally, the community requested for body bags to be used in disposal of their dead family members, but neither MNG Gold nor the Government of Liberia, could give them favorable response. As the result to no action, tension flared up and the youth demanded actions to respond to the grabbing of their customary lands, chemical spills and the death of their family members.
As the protests, complaints, contest, grievances proceeded, the Liberian National Police responded with brute force, targeting the young people. During that interaction, the young people were accused by police of engaging in looting, vandalizing of MNG Gold facilities.
Some elders and local leaders of the area disagreed and say it is the police that engaged in the looting only to blame the situation on the youth.
‘Police lied on our children’
In a recent interview with Front page Africa few years after the incident, the elders say they were denied the right to speak out because no one could air their views because MNG Gold is a big company with all the money.
“They lied on our children and no one could tell our story because we do not have money like MNG Gold” said Anna Dean, Town Chief of David Dean’s Town.
She said everyone could only hear what MNG Gold and the Government of Liberia through the Liberian National Police had to say and anything heard was thought to be truthful. According to a senior female Executive of Green Advocates International, “This is what is referred to as Corporate Capture, where a Multinational Corporation exercising unbridled powers captured and control the editorial decision-making authority of Media institutions and the criminal justice apparatus of the state and thus become a state with in a state. As a result, local community activists faced waves of criminalization from the Government and widespread stigmatization from the media.”
The local leader accused the police of carrying out the looting and presenting the youth of the communities as bad people and arresting them randomly.
Town Chief Dean added “Some of the children were coming from the bush, looking dirty but they were arrested by the police, how will someone looking dirty go in the company fence to go loot, they lied on our children”.
Another community member, Roland K. Swaquee, who said he was arrested by the police at different locations, also said: “I was on my motorbike coming from Dolo’s Town to Dean’s Town, when the police saw me on the road, they arrested me and took my motorbike. I was in jail here in Dean’s Town for four days before my wife brought small money and we begged the police for me to be set free”.
Swaquee said if he did not have any money, he would have been in jail like the other Defenders who are currently in prison. “The arrest by the police was not proper, Prince Bawon was arrested at the Step By Step Entertainment Center while sitting and drinking. When the police got there, the boys felt that they had done nothing wrong and were sitting and drinking but Prince and his friends were arrested but some of his friends’ parents had money this is why they were set free and Prince and others were taken to Jopolu Prison.
Another victim, Peter F. Warkulah, said the arrest by the Liberian National Police was carried out through “hatred” as many young boys were arrested for no reason.
“The arrest by the police here was done through hatred, the Police was just arresting people for no reason. People were arrested without investigation, as soon they grab you, they will just put you in the Police pickup, you not even have the opportunity to talk”, he said.
At one instance, Peter said “They saw empty drum with one boy and he told them it was drum he can used to do his digging but the people said the drums is for the company, nothing to show that drum was for the company but they still arrested the boy and took him to jail”.
How the Police turn the Victims into alleged perpetrators
Despite all that happened between the MNG Gold and the local communities ranging from the grabbing of their customary land and natural resources, the massive Cyanide spills and pollution to the death of four persons including a pregnant woman as a result of a vehicle hired by MNG Gold rushing into pedestrians, the Liberian National Police proceeded to carry on massive arrest of citizens accusing them of committing grave offenses and imposing frivolous criminal charges such armed robbery, arson, theft of property, criminal conspiracy, burglary, terroristic threat, criminal mischief and rioting.
“Nobody heard us when the Government stole our land and give it to MNG, nobody heard us when MNG Gold polluted our water and many people were hospitalized. Nobody heard us when the company car killed four persons but the Government only acted when the Police looted and lied on our children”, said James Sayon, father of the late Samuel Sayon, one of the those killed by the MNG Gold hired vehicle that sparked the crisis.
Said Sayon “Although I lost my son but I feel sorry for the innocent boys who are in jail. The Police just came and started arresting people who knew nothing about what happened. The Company could make this whole thing to not happen if they had shown concern for those that were killed.”
He added, “Anybody could get angry, my son was killed and his scattered body was just lying on the street, the Government and the company do not care about human being, they only care about properties.”
Sayon lamented “MNG Gold car already killed four persons from this town than they arrested our children for no reason, many of the children in jail are innocent, some people coming from the farm were arrested, people coming from doing their small mining were arrested and they are just keeping them in jail for nothing.”
Human Rights Advocates seeking redress
Green Advocates International in partnership with the Yale Law School Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic, where Alfred L. Brownell, a Liberian, is a Professor of Law and Visiting Human Rights Fellow and a Goldman Prize Winner – are seeking answers to these massive abuses of human rights carried out against the citizens of Korkoyah, Bong County.
A document obtained by FrontPageAfrica indicates that in November 28, 2022, Green Advocates International and the Yale Law School Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic submitted series of Allegation Letters to Eight (8) United Nations (“UN”) Special Rapporteurs Concerning Urgent Circumstances of 19 Liberian Environmental and Indigenous Defenders from the Bong County requesting these United Nations Special Rapporteurs to intervene and seek the release of the defenders.
In the allegation letter to the UN working Group on Business and Human Rights, Green Advocates International and Yale Law School requested that the UN working Group recognize that both Liberia and MNG Gold have failed to comply with their obligations under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
In the letter, the Green Advocates and the Yale Law School also urged Liberia and MNG Gold to take both prospective and retroactive actions to align their conduct with their obligations under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights; and advocate for the protection of environmental defenders throughout Liberia.
The letter also stated “finally, we ask all the UN Special Rapporteurs and the UN Working Group addressed in this letter to recognize the systemic problem in Liberia of corporate State capture, a situation in which the endemic corruption that plagues the State is abused by powerful corporations, especially in the sector of natural resources and mining; and urge the Liberian State to take steps to end this corruption and the encompassing corporate impunity for human rights violations”.
Currently, there are 17 Environmental Indigenous Defenders still in prison at the Sanniquellie Central prison facing prison sentence and their entire story is that of people who have been victims of four major serious incidents, theft of their customary lands and natural resources referred to as land grabbing, a huge chemical spills with no redress.
The death of four persons without justice and accountability and now they have face brute police force, horror, torture, deaths for some of their members and they are now forgotten to rot in dungeon only because they dare, dare to ask questions concerning their land, safety, livelihoods , the environment and their lives – a sad story of how the Liberian criminal justice systems turned poor rural indigenous victims into perpetrators.