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When Politics Threatens Concessions Vis-à-vis An Economic Hub: The Bassa-EPO Scenario

Grand Bassa County, home to the country’s second largest seaport, is an enviable county with investment opportunities and prospects that paraded the likes of LAMCO, LAC, Palm Bay now Equatorial Palm Oil or EPO), Flour Mill, TIMCO and other timber companies, among others.

Now, the county in its post-war era now has ArcelorMittal (which replaced LAMCO), LAC, and other companies of which the former BRE was a part but had to roll-up its operations mainly due to similar political pressure from county administrators in addition to the company’s own problems it may have had. As a result, hundreds of Bassa citizens and other Liberians who migrated to the county from other parts of the country are currently jobless and still seeking to re-start their lives.

Though politics, many say, is a game that the politicians use to get whatever they deserve even at the expense of the people whose interest they claim to represent but when politicians do it so desperately then it baffles me.

A very specific case in point is the way in which some legislative members of Grand Bassa County have been handling the issue of the protested expansion of the EPO which speaks volumes about how politics is hurting concession in an economic-prone county like Grand Bassa.

Locals in the EPO area which is few miles away from the port city have been protesting the re-surveying of land in the area on grounds that their areas are not supposed to be part of the concession agreement between the Liberian Government and the concessionaire initially signed in 1964 and revisited in 2007. Moreover, they fear that the scars of Palm Bay which EPO is inheriting are still fresh among them as they have nothing to show since Palm Bay shut down operations in 1990 during the onslaught of the civil war.

And so, news on the international wire as well as local media has been that the locals’ protests had been allegedly on the orders of some members of the county’s legislative caucus. And my presence in this weekend’s long meeting held in the port city of Buchanan further confirmed these allegations on the part of some Bassa lawmakers who came out of their shells and openly displayed that they have been supporting the locals’ protest against the EPO expansion.

Just-elected Senator Nyonblee Karnga-Lawrence and Representative Byron Brown were clear in their support of the locals’ protest: Senator Karnga-Lawrence’s point is that 34,500 acres of land cannot be possibly found in the New Cess area alone and at such the agreement needs to be revisited while Representative Brown openly accused Representative Robertson N. Siaway right in front of Hon. Siaway’s own constituent people of collecting US$600 from the company apparently as a compromise. (Obviously, Rep. Siaway came back strong in self-defense as he clarified a number of issues, a situation that further brewed tension in the already tension-packed Administration Hall in Buchanan on Saturday).

But what continues to puzzle many including me is how could a concession agreement in crystal clear terms, ratified by the very legislators now opposing it, be misconstrued and interpreted differently to the locals most of whom are illiterate or have no access to the agreement?

That a Justice Minister who is the Acting President of the entire country had to leave Monrovia to simply read the section of the agreement that authorizes the company to expand its operation clearly points to some of the Bassa lawmakers’ personal and political reasons because according to Section 3 of the concession agreement with the Liberian government, which calls for a resurvey of the 34,500 acres that EPO surveyed the area via the Global Positional System (GPS) technology, New Cess and other additional areas are mentioned in acquiring the required acres of land.

For the locals to be insisting that the concession areas only include the New Cess area and not other adjacent parts, buttressed by Senator Karnga-Lawrence and Rep. Brown when it is clearly spelt out can only speak to how hidden political agendas are written on the wall.

For instance, Rep. Brown was one of those who ratified the renegotiated agreement in 2008 as a new representative who had just won a by-election. Why didn’t he contend the phrase “New Cess and other parts” or why is he not clarifying to the locals that other parts mentioned in the agreement ratified by them could mean other adjacent towns and villages being affected now?

For Senator Karnga-Lawrence, why has she labeled the concession agreement ‘bad’ when she must have read it with clarity before going on to encouraging the locals to protest the resurveying of the land? But again, from the manner in which Elder Abba Karnga, father to the Senator, during the meeting was pushing the lines of his daughter meant some family lines were being maintained and campaigned for as opposed to the interest of the locals.

As in the direct words of Justice Minister Christiana Tah during her intervention that “Some people have some [personal] agendas sometimes”, it is about time that the politicians of that county put aside their personal agendas and focus on the county’s well-being.

Yes, we all do agree that there have been terrible concessions in our country and Liberians now are more alert for such companies and their bad labor practices; but the best to go about this is ensuring that during the time of the signing (by the Executive) and subsequent ratification (by the Legislature), all of these would-be bad stuffs be handled and taken care of such as the concessionaire’s response to its Corporate Social Responsibilities (CSR) instead of signing and ratifying and even re-negotiating them (as in the case of the EPO agreement)  and then later going back and creating problems that could scare both present and future investors.

Let’s be keen on our latest experience with the LAC expansion saga which led to the death in late 2007 of a Belgium national named Bruno Michiel, then plantation manager which had Liberia in the international news for all the bad reasons.

If our dearest county Grand Bassa is to realize its full economic potential of being the country’s economic hub as prospects dictate, then it’s time that the political leaders of the county divorce their politics from the vital survival of the very people who they should be protecting.

Even on the heels of next year’s mid-term senatorial election and other future legislative elections in the county, let it be BASSA NOW, BASSA FOREVER!!!!!!!!!

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