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BLACK JOHNSON, BLACKENED INSTITUTIONS


June 3, 2021

BY Andrew Keili

I have been pleasantly surprised at the stance of my dear Uncle, Dr, Sama Banya aka Puawui, on the Black Johnson debate. In an Op-Ed piece, he states: “Do I need to remind all those who are backing such a proposal of the disastrous environmental impact on our country? Especially the tourism and the very fish industry that it’s supposed to support? Why has no comment been made about any feasibility studies especially its impact on our environment?……. I will crave the intervention of His Excellency in order for him to veto the current Fish Breeding proposal.”

There has been no greater and more steadfast cheerleader for the actions of this government than Dr. Banya. Perhaps on the other hand, one should not be surprised that the good Doctor has chosen to wear his conservationist hat on this issue. As a founding member and long serving Honorary President of the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone (CSSL), he and his colleagues have over the years continued to advocate for the protection, wise and sustainable use of our natural resources.

Black Johnson is actually more about the usurpation of the regulatory functions of our Institutions-especially those related to the Environment than merely an assessment of the economic, environmental and social impacts of the project. As someone who has had some involvement of sorts in the emancipation of these institutions, I recall that in late 2005, I was surprised to be summoned by President Kabbah to State House. In the room also sat my Uncle Dr. Banya, who was then a Senior Adviser to the President. They intimated me about the government’s plan for creating a new Ministry of Environment and Forestry and President Kabbah offered me the position of Minister in the new Ministry. I listened politely, thanked him and promised to revert to him expeditiously with an answer. I was a bit surprised at this. On reflection, perhaps I should not have been as I was a member of the Environmental Board (a lame duck one, which though consisting of highly competent people was providing oversight and guidance for a cash strapped Environmental Department that was rendered ineffective) and also on the National Policy Advisory Committee. Long story short, my decision to turn down the offer was based on a simple premise – successfully starting a new Ministry fashioned together by removing functions from other Ministries, without a budget, offices and staff close to an election would have been problematic. I was certain my Uncle, who must have been instrumental in the recommendation was mightily disappointed that I did not accept the offer. The government however later shelved this idea and set up the National Commission for Environment and Forestry (NACEF).

We should perhaps take a look at how Environmental governance has evolved over the years. Before 1985, environmental policies in Sierra Leone were fragmented. Institutional reforms were carried out in 1985 to empower the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Country Planning at that time to undertake environmental responsibilities. The Ministry was thereafter renamed the Ministry of Lands, Housing and the Environment (MLHE). The government passed the National Environmental Protection Act, 2000 (NEPA) in parliament in 2000. This required all medium scale and large scale companies to prepare Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) and obtain an environmental license before starting operations. NACEF, formed later was charged with the responsibility of Environmental and Forestry Management nationally. NACEF was created by removing the Environment Department from the Ministry of Lands, Country Planning and the Environment and removing the Forestry Division from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. The new APC government that took over in 2007 dissolved NACEF and set up the Environment Protection Agency in 2008, later strengthening it in 2010 by having an Executive Chairperson and being part of the Office of the President. Last year a New Ministry of the Environment was set up having control over EPA, the National Protected Area Authority (NPAA), the Forestry Division and Meteorological Agency.

Though an institutional framework is in place for environmental issues that has a rational genesis and evolution, there has been a tendency for other MDAs to undermine the efforts especially of the EPA.

In the case of Black Johnson, one is concerned that we may be undermining the work of regulatory agencies that have been created…..in this case EPA. ESIA studies are required for such a project resulting in EPA issuing an EIA licence. Two sections which amongst others should be included in such a project are “Analysis of alternatives” and a “Public consultation and Disclosure Plan”, the former looking at other project options and the latter detailing the results of community and other consultations. When the EPA reviews and is satisfied with the report; it requires further final disclosure meetings with a range of stakeholders at several locations. Apart from interested and/or affected parties the EPA would be present together with appropriate MDAs…..in this case Fisheries, NPAA, Tourism and Lands, Transport and others. A separate disclosure report is prepared. Satisfactory conclusion of this results in the Board granting an EIA licence.

EPA is a good organisation with good professionals and they are normally fussy about compliance, irrespective of who funds the project. A simple question to ask then is whether an ESIA was done and a licence granted. If not, why is the EPA not vocal on this issue? Is it a case of undermining regulatory institutions that we create?

Two legal campaign groups, the Institute for Legal Research and Advocacy for Justice (ILRAJ) and Namati Sierra Leone, had written to the government demanding to see the environmental and social-impact assessment studies, the report showing Black Johnson as the most suitable site for construction “in terms of bathymetry, social safeguards (minimum resettlement costs) and environmental issues” and a copy of the grant agreement between China and Sierra Leone.

Other Environmental groups like Green Scenery, civil society groups, landowners and other interested and/or affected parties have weighed in on the debate. For now, nearly everything about Black Johnson seems to be contentious-from the appropriateness of the location for the project, to agreements signed, to the lack of consultation. What is however noticeable about MDAs whose functions will be affected by this project is the silence. The normally engaging Tourism and Culture Minister who is never short of words has gone mute. The Lands Minister who has started off well with reform of his Ministry has delegated any explanation to his surveyors. The Transport Minister is missing in action. NPAA is hiding under the bed. Forestry is hiding behind a tree. The Environment Minister has obviously decided it is best to keep his own counsel and EPA has recanted their explanation about whether an application was made for an EIA licence. A friend told me jokingly-“Den nor lie ya. Na explain kill Bob Marley”.  It would seem the Fisheries Minister is out on a limb and I feel sorry for the Minister Emma Kowa Jalloh, who appears so genuine in interviews. This is certainly an embarrassing situation. It is quite obvious that inter sectoral consultations were absent and that proper procedures for obtaining an EIA licence were not followed.

The setting up of a new Environment Ministry by President Bio to help with coordination of the Environmental sector was a good idea. EPA in recent past has had teeth and been known to enforce compliance for work directly under its purview. The previous head Madame Jatou Jallow ran a steady ship, ensured compliance and brought respectability to the institution. Both Professor Jaward, Environment Minister and previous head and the present head Dr Bondi Gevao are highly qualified professionals. They have been supported by good and knowledgeable professional staff.  Despite this, a problem of undermining or blackening regulatory institutions that seems to have arisen needs to be addressed.

EPA needs to be supported. Unlike the era of Madame Jallow, a large part of EPA’s licence fee is now paid to government and used for revenue purposes, leaving EPA bereft of funds to carry out its basic functions. Government should realise that the licence regime should not be used merely for money making. The primary purpose of a license should be to guarantee compliance with certain regulations that aim to protect health, safety and/or the environment to a minimum required standard.  The main focus of a license should be consumer protection, with licensing fees covering at best the cost of issuing and monitoring the license. EPA must be supported in its work and empowered to circumvent any political interference. MDAs should realise that they should not be iconoclastic in investment considerations. Inter sectoral coordination and stakeholder consultation should not be short circuited.

So what should be done? Everyone now seems to agree ESIA studies should be done and a licence obtained. The government should set about remedying the situation by perhaps putting the Environment Ministry in charge of the coordination and setting about doing the studies through a credible group. Following procedures and carrying out consultations will help address most of the thorny issues. On the issue of resettlement and compensation, the government recently ratified a new resettlement policy. Ultimately a solution will be obtained to this impasse. What it will be will be shaped by the outcome of the studies.

My Uncle Puawui is right- the main issue with Black Johnson is that we are blackening the work of the very regulatory institutions we have created either knowingly or by the lack of inter-sectoral coordination.

Government should ponder Dr Banya’s thoughts. On reflection, my Uncle and I don’t often agree, especially on politics. Thank God we have started agreeing. A sign of things to come? Perhaps. Black Johnson, blackened institutions, white Puawui! Ponder my thoughts.