By Alusine Sesay
Ngowahun Chiefdom, about 15 minutes drive from the northern city of Makeni, is heterogeneous, inhabited mainly by three tribes – Fullahs, Madingos and largely by Lokos. A majority of the Ngowahun population is agrarian with little cattle rearing being carried out mainly by the Fullahs and businesses by the Madingos.
Although there have been a few instances of conflict common between the cattle rearers (Fullahs) and grain farmers (the Lokos), the chiefdom has largely been peaceful. Predominantly Lokos and led by their tribal authorities but the Fullahs and Madingos are also part of the decision-making body. The Chiefdom has a recognised Fullah Chief, who represents the interest of his tribesmen in the chiefdom council. The Madingos have largely integrated.
Recently, there have been some discoveries of very valuable minerals in the chiefdom, which many believe would be of immense blessing to the chiefdom and its inhabitants. Almost five mining companies have expressed interest in operating the mines. Two of the companies, Leone Afric Metals Sierra Leone Limited (a large-scale mining company) and Sea Bridge (small-scale mner), have done their public disclosures on the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) conducted by their various consultants.
The public disclosure on the EIA is one of the processes or criteria to be met in the events leading up to the award of environmental and mining licenses by the government. It is a process through which the mining communities are engaged on the impacts of the mining activities and the mitigating measures that companies would be putting place once operations commenced. It also involves informing the different communities about the benefits they stand to get from the mining activities, including the payment of surface rent, royalty and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) from the companies.
In the jam-packed Kalangba Court Barry one could visualise the beaming excitement among community residents who attended the ceremony. Ngowahun has remained deprived for years and expectations among residents are high. Many are of the view that the discovery of minerals in that part of the country would be a blessing to them. And almost everybody including traditional chiefs, youths and women, attended the public disclosure meetings and actively participated.
The first public disclosure was done by Leone Afric Metals Sierra Leone Limited at the Kalangba Court Barry on January 30th and 31st, respectively. Local authorities, government officials from the Environment Protection Agency (EPA), landowners and indigenes of the chiefdom, had converged on the Kalangba Court Barry where the disclosure meeting was taking place.
During the two ceremonies that were held separately, the two companies made lofty promises, luring the locals into accepting their bids for mining in the community. They promised job creation for the youths, implementation of corporate social responsibility (support education, health, and other social amenities), the provision of skills training for youths and to ensure the safety of workers.
Leone Afric Metals, which was represented by its Country Representative, Fassally Tarawally, made a unique promise to establish a factory that would be processing the mineral in the community and in the process create more jobs for youthss. In the area of sharing the revenue with the community, Fassally assured that one percent of the revenue that would be generated yearly by the company would go to the community.
Fine! But the question that comes to mind is how transparent would the company be for the community to know whether they made a profit or not? Would the company open its books to the community, which has no shares in the business? And Fassally openly said that it was his belief that God would not allow any company, that didn’t have genuine intentions for the people, to get the licenses. He also vowed that in the event they got the licenses, they would develop the community.
Since the public disclosures were supposed to provide the platform for every community people to have their say, several issues came up and key among them was the issue of keeping community teachers in schools by improving them with better conditions of service that would match the average salary in the mines. The chiefdom has several government-assisted schools, but most of the teachers in those schools are not on the government payroll. One of the challenges the chiefdom will surely face in the wake of a seeming mineral boom is the retention of teachers in those schools.
Already, some of them have started making decisions to quit the classroom and go in for jobs in the mines, which they think will pay them better than the classroom where they are receiving meagre allowances. While this issue came up during the public disclosure meeting, one of the mining companies, Leone Afric Metals, promised to provide salaries for community teachers for one year. The company’s representative, Fassally Tarawally asked the Paramount Chief to collect data on all community teachers and make it available for his action.
But our appeal to any mining company that would be awarded the licenses to mine in the community is that they should take that issue as a priority because failure to provide a sustainable mechanism to keep teachers in the classroom will lead to a total breakdown in quality education service delivery in that part of the country.
Another key issue the chiefdom has been grappling with and which came out clearly during the public disclosure was that of health service delivery. Undoubtedly, the chiefdom has several community health centres, but the challenges in those centres include the lack of WASH facilities and electricity.
Kalangba, which is the chiefdom headquarter town, has a community health centre that was upgraded to a BEMOC centre to serve as a referral for the chiefdom. However, the hospital has been running without a basic electricity supply for the past three years. Other health centres in the chiefdom, including those in Tambiama, Maheri, and other villages, lack basic electricity, compounded by the lack of WASH facilities. With the advent of mining activities in the chiefdom, there would be more health challenges and the company that would be awarded the licenses should critically look into these issues and treat them as a priority.
Other areas of concern include agriculture, women’s empowerment and youth employment. Already, these are issues the potential mining company should take into consideration.
One of the thorny issues I believe the potential company and the chiefdom authorities would grapple with is security, emanating from expectations. And how to manage those expectations and maintain harmony in the chiefdom should be a paramount concern to the mining company that would be awarded the license.
Already, there is a mindset among several youths in the community that, the government should award licenses to several small-scale mining companies to mine in the community, oblivious to the fact that the benefit of the small-scale company is limited, compared to large scale.
This issue came out during the public disclosure when the two councilors in the community, sounded the voice of the masses that they would prefer small-scale to large-scale mining companies. Suspicions are that some unscrupulous people in the chiefdom have already collected monies from some mining companies and promising them everything within their powers to let them acquire mining licenses. They failed to realise that it is the government that has the sole authority to award licenses to a company based on set criteria, including the investment portfolio, track record and potential of the company to ensure development in the community.
Inasmuch as the Paramount Chief was swift to disabuse that mindset among residents, there is the tendency that those sets of people, who had embarked on a failed mission, would want to undermine the mining activities, should their demands, based on their unscrupulous individual interests, are not met. The successful company should be ready to work with the chiefdom authorities to ensure that stability is maintained during the mining activities.
The Strategic Advisory Committee
Mining in Ngowahun Chiefdom is a novelty, and the community is blessed with an opportunity to have learned from lessons in several mining communities across the country, where the locals and chiefdoms hardly benefit from those activities.
With that in mind, a group of people from, all indigenes and with diverse professional backgrounds from the chiefdom, have volunteered to work closely with the Paramount Chief and the communities to support with informed decisions. The Strategic Advisory Committee, once properly set up with clear mandate, will continue to guide the Paramount Chief and his people on how to mitigate or deal with conflict by ensuring that the right thing is done and in the interest of all and sundry in the chiefdom. The committee has been publicly recognised as to its importance, especially coming in right from the beginning of the whole arrangements. Its members were very actively involved in the public disclosure processes so far.