TUBMANBURG, Bomi County – The Western Cluster deal continue to experience series of setbacks due to the failure of the Government of Liberia (GOL) and the legislative caucuses of the operational areas to involve their citizens in the renegotiation processes which led to the signing of a controversial Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for the resumption of the company’s operations.
By Obediah Johnson, [email protected]
It can be recalled that on Wednesday, June 8, 2022, Western Cluster broke grounds to recommence its operations in Bomi. The groundbreaking ceremony came barely a few days after the government signed the MOU with the company.
The MOU was signed following the failure of the company to implement the Mineral Development Agreement (MDA) it signed with the government in 2011 due to the outbreak of the Ebola virus and the drop in the price of iron ore on the world market.
It gives the company the right to operate at three iron ore deposits, including the Bomi Hills Mines, in Bomi, Grand Cape Mount, and Gbarpolu Counties.
But following the signing of the MOU and commencement of operations of the company, the citizens, especially those from Bomi County have been raising series of issues ranging from the unilateral decision taken by their caucus to renegotiate the deal without their input, construction of the roads, and disagreement over the trucking of the iron ore, amongst others.
They summoned their lawmakers to a mass meeting which took place in Tubmanburg on Wednesday, January 11 to respond to their ten-count resolution signed on January 7. Among other things, the resolution calls for the cancellation of the MOU with the company.
At the just ended meeting, the citizens blamed their lawmakers for the manner and form in which Western Cluster and the Liberian government continue to drag towards ensuring the full implementation of the Mineral Development Agreement (MDA) the company signed with the erstwhile Unity Party led-administration of Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
Speaking during the meeting, the Head of the Chiefs Council in Bomi Mr. Jackson Karnley said the re-emergence of Western Cluster came as a surprise to citizens of the county.
He questioned the rationale behind the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with the company by the government in the midst of the existing MDA.
“The purpose for this meeting is for our lawmakers to tell us how Western Cluster entered into Bomi after they left. We have not gotten any information on that. We want to know why this company has MOU one and MOU two. We have only seen MOU two and we have not seen MOU one.”
He stressed that claims being raised by authorities of Western Cluster that it has employed about 249 employees, with about 108 coming from Bomi remains questionable.
Karnley noted that the awarding of three different positions by the management of the company to an individual in the midst of other qualified sons and daughters hailing from the county cannot be accepted by the locals.
“We want to know which areas these employees came from because, we don’t know them. When we asked the chiefs from Tehr. Clay, Dewein, Suehn Mecca and other areas, they will say we don’t know where the employees came from. So, we want to know where their employees came from. Why one person should have three jobs to do why other people are suffering? We want to know.”
The locals are challenging a report from the company that it has already employed about 108 citizens from Bomi.
Karnley raised alarm over the failure of government to make available the amount of US$1.5M which was agreed upon to elevate the Bomi County Community College to a university status since Western Cluster released the first payment of the US$10M to the government.
“We wrote the Chairman of the county’s legislative caucus that the money they get for us in the county, portion of it should be given to the college so our children can learn. Up to present, we have not gotten reply for that letter. Why?”
He stressed that members of the county’s legislative caucus were elected to seek the interest of the citizens, but they have not been responsive to calls and concerns being raised by their employers.
He claimed that lawmakers have failed to address the plights of the citizens in the county.
Mr. Karnley added that citizens of Bomi were also astonished when they witnessed another company named and styled Baichiko Mining Company, which is operating in Gbarpolu County, opening roads through Suehn Mecca, Tehr and Dewein districts in Bomi without their consent.
Responding to the concerns raised by the citizens, the Chairman of the Bomi County Legislative Caucus Senator Morris Saytumah claimed that the MOU signed with Western Cluster by the government was legal, contrary to claims being raised by the citizens that it was illegal, adding that, it cannot be cancelled.
He pointed out that the 2011 MDA the company signed with the government has a provision which calls for “profound changes” to be made.
He justified that it was based upon those “profound changes” that the MOU was signed with the company.
Senator Saytumah maintained that analysis of risks for the benefit of both the government and the concessionaire were also stipulated in the MDA signed.
Quoting section five of the MOU signed with the company, Senator Saytumah disclosed that certain supervening circumstances made it impossible for both the government and Western Cluster to perform their respective obligations under the agreement, which forced the company to suspend its operations at the time.
“One of the risks that they allocated was to find changes. It is based on that that the MOU was born. Western Cluster did not suspend itself; there’s something called periodic review and in the absence of the periodic review what takes form is the profound changes. There was a contract between us and them and the contract says if there is a problem, we should go somewhere else; and to come somewhere else, something got to be the cause. And so, the MOU is not illegal.”
MDA still legal
He denied reports and speculations that the MDA Western Cluster signed with the government has been suspended.
Senator Saytumah pointed out that despite the signing of the MOU, both the company and the government are under obligation to do things that are enshrined in the MDA.
He noted that environmental assessment impact on the resumption of Western Cluster’s operations was done by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
However, the citizens have complained that the outcome of the assessment has not been made known to them.
But Senator Saytumah made a promise that the report will be made public during the next county sitting.
He stressed that the purpose of the assessment was intended to curtail or prevent health hazard in the operational areas of the company, and as such, lawmakers are under obligation to ensure that citizens are abreast with the report.
He said the caucus will do a follow-up with the company on the commencement of its skill training programs for young people in the county.
Senator Saytumah, however, reminded the locals that their call for the establishment of Technical and Vocational Skills Training as enshrined in the MDA is not a “quick fixed” solution.
“A letter came to us to allocate money for the BCC. But let me let you know, US$5M was paid to Gbarpolu (US$750,000), Grand Cape Mount (US$750,000) and Bomi (US$3.5M). The money should be disbursed through the Ministry of Internal Affairs.”
But the citizens have been expressing concerns over the prolong delay by the government to release their respective portions of the money.
But Senator Saytumah claimed that the Bomi Legislative caucus has been informed that their share of the money has been allocated and payment will be made soon.
He said the caucus will verify report from the company that about 108 persons have been employed from Bomi.
Senator Saytumah further called on the company to provide a listing of all of the citizens from Bomi in its employ, along with the job titles and respective districts.
“From the 249 they have employed, Liberia has 167. Out of the 167 from Liberia, they have employed 108 from Bomi. That means 64% of the total employment of 167 for Liberia comes from Bomi.”
The statistics provided by Senator Saytumah on Western Cluster’s employment prompted uproar which lasted for several minutes during the meeting.
The citizens doubted the report on grounds that many of them have not been given employment opportunities since the return of the company as evidenced by the hiring of caterers from elsewhere and the outsourcing of most of its operations.
Senator Saytumah further endorsed a call from the citizens for the company to also employ a Community Relations Officer to serve as a liaison between the company and the affected communities.
Meanwhile, the Bomi Legislative Caucus has requested a halt to the surreptitious operations of Baichiko in the county.
Also speaking, Senator Snowe used the occasion to relinquish his role as Chief Negotiator for the resumption of Western Cluster operations in the region.
He pointed out that his decision was based upon the unrealistic manner and form in which he has been criticized by his kinsmen and others for working along with the executive branch for the return of the company to Liberia.
Senator Snowe disclosed that his role on the negotiation team was based upon his selection by the leadership of the Bomi legislative caucus.
“Our Chairman and colleagues, when we started this Western Cluster thing, you asked me to represent the caucus in ensuring that this company comes back and do the best for our people. From all indication, people are not happy and there are so much noise. I advise you Mr. Chairman, let the caucus meet and let’s take the necessary actions for our people to be protected.”
“Going forward, the assignment that you gave me as member of the caucus to represent us in those discussions, I hereby relinquish that assignment. As of today, I don’t have anything to do with Western Cluster; find somebody in the caucus or the county to move forward with the Western Cluster situation.”
Senator Snowe, however, pledged his willingness and support towards providing the necessary clarities or explanations on issues which triggered the renegotiation of the Western Cluster deal while serving as a representative of the caucus at the time.
“Whatever I did wrong, I apologize to the people of Bomi County. Let God be the judge and I know my heart is clear. Thank you very much and I’m out of Western Cluster business.”
Despite his decision to quit, chiefs, elders and traditional leaders of the county were spotted pleading with Senator Snowe to reconsider his decision and continue to work in their interest.
It remains unclear whether or not he will yield to the pleas from the locals.
Senator Snowe further termed as “fair” the concerns raised by the citizens in their resolution.
He blamed the hullabaloo and misunderstanding of the MOU signed with the company on the high level of misinformation being spewed by others.
“Like you said, sometimes you can call us and you can’t get us. If that is right, we are wrong. But as I stand here today, I didn’t do anything in my name. My colleagues have been raising issues too concerning this Western Cluster thing and we are demanding that Western Cluster employ our people. If you say you have 108 persons from Bomi County, tell us where they came from.”
“We may not be perfect. Some of the things that we are hearing is we have share in the company. But one human being in that company I don’t know. I don’t have interest in it. Our interest as a caucus was dry dog sweet but what we will be eating til the dog gets dry. If your think it is a wrong action, we apologize. ”
Senator Snowe said citizens should call for the shutdown of Western Cluster if they feel that the company is not working in their interest.
He observed that the ongoing road rehabilitation being done by the company is moving on a slow pace and as such, Western Cluster must ensure that the contractor fast track the project.
He, however, appealed to the locals o exercise patience and wait for the expiration of the MOU signed.
Following the expiration of the MOU, he disclosed that the MDA between the government and Western Cluster will be renegotiated.
Senator Snowe used the occasion to call on citizens to continue to raise issues and concerns surrounding the company’s operations for their wellbeing.
The controversial MOU
In the MOU signed, Western Cluster, which was indebted to the government in the tone of US$23million, has been mandated to pay the amount of US$10million to the government.
The company initially paid the amount of US$5million for the issuance of a Class A mining license by the government, through the Ministry of Mines and Energy following the signing of the MOU.
The document further called for payment of the remaining US$5million not later than 45 days from the date of the first shipment of iron ore by the company.
It also called for Western Cluster to provide the amount of US$3million as contribution for the rehabilitation of the corridor between the St. Paul Bridge and the Freeport of Monrovia.
The amount shall be payable by the company in two equal installments; and the leasing of the LMC and NIOC piers at the Freeport of Monrovia by the Western Cluster.
For the reconditioning of the road by filling potholes from the Bomi Hills Mines to the St. Paul River, the MOU mandates the company to pay contractor during repair to the extent of US$1.5 for road.
The Ministers of Mines and Energy, Finance and Development Planning, Justice and the Chairman of the National Investment Commission (NIC) Gesler Murray, Samuel Tweah, and Molewuleh B. Gray signed the MOU on behalf of the Liberian government, while Chetan Savant Head of Projects of Western Cluster signed on behalf of his company.
The MDA signed between the Government of Liberia and Western Cluster in 2011 mandates the company to provide the amount of US$2M as benefits to the affected communities.
The amount of US$200,000 annually is to also be provided for education to Bomi, Grand Cape Mount, and Gbarpolu Counties.
The company has been mandated to provide housing facilities, job training opportunities both locally and international, health care opportunities for employees in its concession areas.
According to the MDA, the company must also provide education opportunities for employees’ children between the ages of 5 to 21 years old by constructing a General School for them.
It was requested to truck iron ore from Bomi to the Freeport of Monrovia by putting in place all necessary security and environmental measures for a three year-period following the completion of its railway construction.
The MDA was signed by former Liberian Vice President Joseph Nyuma Boakai (who was the President of the Senate), Senate Secretary Nanborlor Singbeh, former House Speaker Alex Tyler and the Chief Clerk of the House of Representatives Mildred Sayon.
Western Cluster did not live up to the MDA signed and packed off Liberia following the outbreak of the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD).
Western Cluster has issues
FrontPage Africa has reliably gathered that Western Cluster raised multiple issues during the renegotiation of its deal with the Liberian government at a meeting held with Liberia’s Mines and Energy Minister Gesler Murray and Senator Snowe in India.
After spending millions of United States dollars on exploration, construction of bridges, payment of US$1M to the government for rental service at the Freeport pier for the storing of its iron ore, the company did not ship a single ore from Liberia prior to the outbreak of the Ebola disease.
In fact, the company was not even awarded a Class A license for mining activities during the Sirleaf-led administration.
For the demolition of homes and other business centers along the route to the Freeport of Monrovia for the construction of the railway, the company also paid millions of dollars to the government, but the demolition exercise did not take place up to present.
Division and protest
Division would intensify among citizens of the Western region if steps are not taken by the government, including lawmakers from the three counties to ensure that Western Cluster prioritizes the interest of their citizens.
Former and current elected officials of the county and their supporters are already pointing accusing fingers at one another for the resumption of the operations of the company without the consent of the locals.
The delay by the relevant authorities of the Liberian government to disburse monies belonging to the counties in a timely manner may serve as a threat towards the smooth operations of the company in the region.
Projects earmarked from the initial amount provided by Western Cluster to the affected counties should also be rapidly implemented.
It remains unclear whether or not the 2011 MDA will be renegotiated following the expiration of the MOU after the six-month period in the midst of the drop in the price of iron ore on the world market.
Despite spending millions of United States dollars since the signing of the MDA with the government, Western Cluster is yet to ship a single ore from Liberia.
Ores from the mining sites are presently being stockpiled for shipment at the Freeport of Monrovia.
Citizens of the concession areas of Western Cluster would engage into violent acts if the government and their elected officials continue to operate in secrecy.
Speculations that would lead to unrest or chaos would mount over the situation.